The 19th Century Wire Cage Crinoline

The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855.

The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855.

It is no great mystery why MGM made the controversial decision to garb Elizabeth Bennet in Victorian gowns for their 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice.  Or why Samuel Goldwyn chose to dress Catherine Earnshaw in classic Victorian style for his 1939 production of Wuthering Heights.  There is just something visually captivating about the tiny, corseted waist and wide, impractical profusion of skirts that was so popular in the 1850s and 1860s.  The silhouette was both impossibly feminine and, considering the enormous size of the gowns, surprisingly dainty.  To achieve it, one naturally needed a substantial corset.  However, the primary component of the mid-Victorian shape was the crinoline. 

Women's Cage Crinoline, 1865. Made of cotton-braid-covered steel, cotton twill and plain-weave double-cloth tape, cane, and metal. (Image Courtesy LACMA.)

Women’s Cage Crinoline, 1865.
Cotton-braid-covered steel, cotton twill and plain-weave double-cloth tape, cane, and metal. (Image Courtesy LACMA.)

A crinoline is essentially a petticoat, made of horsehair or some other stiffening material which holds the skirts of a gown out from the body.  The horsehair petticoat was in use in England as early as the 1820s.  By the 1840s, however, the skirts of gowns had grown to enormous proportions and the horsehair petticoat was often not strong enough to support them in the fashionable shape.  As a result, ladies were forced to wear several layers of very heavy petticoats or crinolines in order to achieve the desired effect.  This was far from ideal.

Fortunately, the difficulty was remedied by the 1856 invention of the wire cage crinoline.  As author Karen Baclawski states in her book, The Guide to Historic Costume, this lightweight crinoline was made of “a series of hooped wires secured by sturdy fabric tapes.”  The wire cage crinoline could accommodate skirts that were fuller and heavier and, as a result, during the years from 1856 through 1866, skirts grew to their widest proportions of the 19th century.

An unforeseen benefit of this was that ladies of the era no longer had to resort to tight lacing of their corsets.  In proportion to skirts of this magnitude their waists inevitably appeared smaller by comparison.  In her book, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, Anna Krugovy Silver writes:

“Although the waist remained the focal point during the next decade, increasingly wide skirts after the invention of the wire (cage) crinoline in 1856 made the waist look proportionately smaller, so that the practice of tight lacing probably decreased until the 1860s, when it again revived in popularity as a result of shrinking crinolines.”

Cutaway View of A Crinoline, Punch, 1856.

Cutaway View of A Crinoline, Punch, 1856.

This benefit was likely offset by the limitations imposed by the size of a lady’s skirts.  Not only did the crinoline make a lady wider and less mobile than she had been in previous decades, it also impacted the lives of everyone in her wake – as evidenced by countless articles, pamphlets, cartoons, and even a one act crinoline play of the era.  According to the anonymous author of the 1858 one penny pamphlet “The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, &c”:

“No one can deny that an evil of the greatest magnitude has for some time been making serious inroads into the health, morals, and happiness of this country, in the shape of an absurd and preposterous fashion, dignified with the incomprehensible designation of CRINOLINE.  This monstrous innovation, like a restless spectre, invades the domestic hearth, and stalks abroad in the streets, a gaunt and grisly phantom, whose ‘bones are marrowless.’”

The author goes on to address (in the same quite unintentionally hilarious, melodramatic language) the pervasiveness of the crinoline in Victorian society:

“Old women tottering on the verge of the grave, enshrine their decrepit bones within it; young children, not long released from the trammels of swaddling clothes, jerk their little forms about in it; ugly women, pretty women, dark women, fair women, are all under the diabolical influence of CRINOLINE.”

The Dangers of Crinoline, 1858.

The Dangers of Crinoline, 1858.

True to the title of the pamphlet, after ridiculing the appearance of short, fat women in crinolines, and tall, thin shapeless women in crinolines, the author begins to present the multitude of dangers associated with the wearing of this “scaffolding” of wire and horse-hair “with puffs inserted, and, at intervals, hoops of steel or cane.”  The dangers range from rheumatism, cold, and colic caused by the “cold currents” and “clouds of dust” that blow up the wide skirts, to horrific accidents caused by the crinoline catching in doors, bursting into flames, or (my personal favorite!) causing its wearer to be blown off a cliff.

Amongst these heartrending tales, is the story of a “beautiful maiden” in 1857 Yorkshire who went for a walk with her sweetheart whilst wearing a crinoline made of steel hoops.  A thunderstorm was brewing and, predictably, the young lady’s metal crinoline attracted a bolt of lightning, which struck her and nearly killed her.  She awoke many days later vowing to never wear crinolines again.

Another gruesome tale, aptly titled “Shocking Case of a Lady of Title being nearly Burnt to Death,” relates the story of Lady B__, “the acknowledged queen of fashion.”  Whilst warming herself near the fire at a high society party, Lady B__’s skirts briefly brushed into the flames and she went up like the proverbial torch.  The burns on her face, hands, and body were so disfiguring and severe that Lady B__ refused to ever see any of her friends again.  She withdrew completely from the world, living out the rest of her miserable days in a convent in Italy.

Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yussupova by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1858.

Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yussupova by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1858.

Sentiment against crinolines was strong – especially male sentiment.  An 1883 publication, titled The Great Anti-Crinoline League, begins with the following quote from the Pall Mall Gazette:

“We can suggest nothing better than an Anti-Crinoline League of eligible men who should bind themselves by fearful oaths never to dance, drive, dine, or enter into any tenderer relation with any wearer of ‘stiffeners,’ ‘wires,’ or ‘whalebone,’ in whatsoever form.”

And the 1866 tract, The Glories of Crinoline, is somewhat condescendingly dedicated:

“To Those Numberless Ladies throughout the civilized world who are wise enough to avoid extremes, and who prefer to be the possessor of a modest modicum of moderate charms rather than the bearers of an immodest mountain of immoderate monstrosities.”

Even in newspapers, such as The Illustrated News of the World, men bemoaned the encroaching effect of the crinoline.  It crowded them out of omnibuses, cabs, and carriages.  It crowded them out of pews in church.  And it even prevented them from enjoying their “fair share” of the public sidewalk.

Caricature of Men being Squeezed by expansive Crinolines.

Caricature of Men being Squeezed by expansive Crinolines.

Meanwhile, despite the limitations of their skirts, women of the mid-19th century were beginning to feel empowered.  In 1857, The Married Women’s Property Bill was first discussed in parliament.  In 1858, The English Women’s Journal was founded, followed in 1859 by the formation of The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.  Women’s colleges were springing up all across Great Britain and Victorian ladies were concerning themselves not only with women’s education and employment, but also with suffrage and the rights of wives.  In the 1864 publication, Crinoline in its Bissextile Phases, a lady responds to the male demand that females give up their crinolines with a verse which speaks volumes for feminine feeling in the Victorian era:

“They tell us, again, in a bustling street

Our Crinolines hurt their poor legs or feet.

Not badly, I trust, — ’twere the doctor to pay,

My recipe is, keep out of our way.”

According to author Julie Wosk, fashion historians of the day called the invention of the wire cage crinoline “the first great triumph of the machine age.”  In her book, Women and the Machine, Wosk goes on to state that the various satirical images that sprang up of ladies of the era in their wire crinolines revealed as much about the century’s ambivalence toward new technologies as about their feelings toward frivolous female fashions.  The public was equally ambivalent about the changing role of women in society.  Their giant crinolines were, at face value, a silly conceit, however those very garments made women formidable and difficult to ignore.

Lady at a Window Feeding Birds by Alfred Stevens, 1859.

Lady at a Window Feeding Birds by Alfred Stevens, 1859.

The crinoline passed all class boundaries.  It was as common to see a housemaid in an enormous skirt as it was to see a wealthy lady of leisure.  As author Mary Eyre writes in her 1863 book A Lady’s Walk in the South of France:

“Our wiser grandmother’s only wore their hoops in full dress.  We, and our servants, wear them at the washing tub and the kitchen fire; our mill girls wear them in the manufactories, and sad and horrible have been the many accidents of all kinds this hideous, inartistic, ungraceful fashion has caused!”

Horrific accidents were not the only problems.  Victorian houses were cluttered with trinkets and knickknacks that could easily be knocked over or broken by a wide skirt.  In addition, the very nature of the wire cage crinoline made it virtually impossible for maids to bend or kneel in a manner required to scrub the steps or clean out the fireplace grate without exposing their legs – or worse!

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Diamond Stars on her Hair by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Diamond Stars in her Hair by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864.

By 1866, the popularity of the crinoline had decreased and, by the middle of the 1870s, fashions in ladies’ dress had moved toward a slimmer silhouette, accented by draped fabric and a bustle.  Skirts would never again reach the epic proportions of the 1850s and 1860s.  Nevertheless, the crinoline has not been forgotten.  One need look no further than wedding gowns or the recent productions of fairytales, like Cinderella and Snow White, to see that the ultra-feminine contrast of small, corseted waist with magnificent flowing skirts is still as much the reigning vision of ideal beauty and proportion as it was for our mid-19th century fashion forebears.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Anonymous.  The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, &c.  Pamphlet.  London: G. Vickers, 1858.

Baclawski, Karen.  The Guide to Historic Costume.  New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1995.

“British Women’s Emancipation Since the Renaissance.” www.historyofwomen.org.  Web.

“Crinoline.”  The Illustrated News of the World.  London: Emily Faithful, 1863.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

A Doctor of Philosophy.  The Glories of Crinoline.  London: Dalton and Lucy, 1866.

Eyre, Mary.  A Lady’s Walk in the South of France.  London: R. Bently, 1865.

Hock, Leichter.  Ed.  Crinoline in its Bissextile Phases.  London: Robert Hardwicke, 1864.

Lescribleur, V.  The Great Anti-Crinoline League.  London: Wyman & Sons, 1883.

Silver, Anna Krugovoy.  Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Wosk, Julie.  Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age.  Baltimore: JHU Press, 2003.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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44 thoughts on “The 19th Century Wire Cage Crinoline

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I recall Laura Ingalls [Wilder] commenting on her first grown up hoops, which had a tendency to rise so that she had to whirl round to get them to go down again, “Drat these hoops!”
    There are a number of cartoons about them that I’ve seen, including one of an omnibus [horse drawn] where the conductor is insisting they are removed and hung outside before he will permit a lady on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Writergurlny says:

    I don’t mind the 1939 Wuthering Heights using Victorian fashion, because that was the period when Emily Bronte wrote the book. But I do mind Elizabeth Bennet wearing Victorian fashions because she is not Victoria era. She was written in the Regency era.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      That’s an interesting way of looking at it. Since Wuthering Heights is set in the late 18th/early 19th century, I always expect the costumes to fit the 1770s-1800. But then, in movies, costume accuracy can sometimes only go so far and still be appealing to the general public!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. nmayer2015 says:

    I do not see how a cage that limited where a woman could walk and limited her movements could be empowering. Yes, it did make a woman look imposing– like a ship in full sail and could be a pleasing picture for a lady of leisure. The cages made the women seem ornamental and not empowered. they were made ineffectual because they could barely seat themselves or go through a door quickly. I am surprised that any employers allowed maids to wear one. A child would have trouble holding a mother’s hand. I know women are intelligent and as capable of men but one has to doubt this when one looks at the fashions that women have allowed to dictate their lives. Many of the fashions were and are detrimental to their health or physical being. The worse thing that all this fashionable garb is said to be in aid of a female capturing a male. I think it has been well documented that men will find some women attractive in burlap sacks. nature is stronger than a temporary fashion. The women dressed in the wire cage crinoline ( and thanks for describing it so well) make great Valentines, pictures on boxes of Chocolates, and prints to hang in the wall but were not meant at all for every day living.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very good points, Nancy. I think there was something about all of the layers, including the metal crinoline, which could be construed as empowering. I have read scholarly articles which compare the crinoline to “armor.” Also there were satirical cartoons, which showed women in crinolines being sent to fight in the war. The crinoline handicapped women on one hand, but on the other hand made women not only more imposing, but also a great deal more equal to each other in form and figure. A crinoline disguised all the of the imperfections fashions of the past revealed (too thin, too heavy, less/overly endowed, etc) – a particularly virulent male complaint from gentlemen who considered crinolines to contribute to female ‘false advertising’! Anyway, it’s one of those complex garments which came at a time of great change in the world, both in technology and in the roles of women. As such, it came to symbolize much more than mere fashion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. booktopus says:

    Great article. The duality of this garment is really rather fascinating. It’s confining and liberating at the same time. While moving around in such a contraption must be difficult, to say the least, it’s also such a bold demand for more space in public life. And such an effective one too, because it’s almost impossible to (politely) ignore or deny. I’ve always just thought of the impracticality and restricting nature of these dresses, so thanks for illuminating that there’s a different side to them.

    I have to say being blown off a cliff is my favourite horror scenario too. What a way to go! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      “A bold demand for space in public life.”
      Exactly right! That was definitely the illuminating part of my research as well. I had mainly viewed crinolines as a Victorian era means of hobbling and restricting women even further than they were, so it was pleasantly surprising to see the other side of the picture. Of course, I can still appreciate the humor in them – from being struck by lightning to blown off a cliff 😉 Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. nmayer2015 says:

    In a way I can see it as power dressing. It certainly made everyone else get out of the way on the sidewalk. Two women couldn’t walk side by side and even husbands had a hard time escorting them. A ship in full sail is imposing and beautiful but not practical on land.
    However, though the dress says “get out of my way.” and See me, I am here” it also made it difficult for the woman to do anything except clear a path before her. Yes, they were pictured as being armored and fighting in battle but the very dress made it laughable because it limited their movements. Lovely to look at but very impractical for life. They were also difficult to clean and expensive to make. Most fashions originate among the rich leisured class who don’t have to do anything and take up fashions that proclaim their leisure to others . When the lower orders take up that fashion ( usually to their detriment) the leisured classes go for another. We show ourselves like sheep following the newest fashions. I have a book covering 2000 years if fashions and see them repeated over and over again . I do not understand fashion or how it gets to be the mode of the day. I wish I could understand the psychology that has always powered it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You are absolutely right about the leisured classes losing interest in a fashion once it is taken up by the lower orders. It is a unique element of the cage crinoline that it was taken up so readily by the servant classes. I read one article which stated that when the cage crinoline came along some of the upper classes began to view it with disdain purely for that reason. They then reverted to traditional petticoats/crinolines, rationalizing that only the wealthy could afford to regularly wash out & starch a wide variety of petticoats & crinolines, whereas the poor would reuse the same metal cage crinoline over and over.

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      She certainly mentions big skirts a lot (lines like: “causing quite a gale with her skirts,” etc). Though she doesn’t specifically mention crinolines. But then, Rose in Bloom was written in the late 1870s, I believe. So the worst of the giants skirt epidemic was over.

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      • Martha Kennedy says:

        Having seen a few (substantially endowed) women laced into them at the recent historical novel society conference, I’m amazed people were not plain disgusted. I did my thesis on Godey’s Lady’s Book and Sarah Hale frequently editorialized against tight lacing and wide skirts. She wrote how the weight of the skirt and the distortion of the spine could lead to serious problems for girls later in life — but there were the fashion plates that sold the magazine so…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        The perils of tight lacing! I am glad there were outspoken opponents of severe corsetry. Especially since, as you probably saw during your research, the Victorian era had some crack-brained advice in their magazines and papers. More than once I’ve read women advocating a regime of sleeping in your corset in addition to wearing it during the day and they swore that it resulted in their waist dropping down a great many inches. I cannot even imagine the damage done to Victorian ladies by sleeping in a contraption that squeezed their waist sometimes as small as 15 inches!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Martha Kennedy says:

        Sarah Hale was amazing — she used the magazine to promote American writers, education for women, self-sufficiency for women but NOT the vote. She exerted her substantial persuasive ability on Matthew Vasser to a good end and was instrumental in getting Eizabeth Blackwell admitted to medical school. I think it’s because she was in her forties when she began editing “The Lady’s Book,” was very well educated her self and had a clear sense of what she could reasonably accomplish for women socially. There are stories in every issue of the magazine in which a girl becomes ill and/or dies as a result of dressing stupidly for a ball. I’m amazed at the sheer number of dumb things young women throughout time have done in the name of “beauty” — and me too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        She sounds like a fascinating figure from history! Does Godey’s have an online database or a subscription service for academics, etc. to search the archives? I’m always on the lookout to expand my research. And I agree about what crazy things young women will do in the name of fashion. Thankfully, I came of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, so my fashion idiocies were mainly limited to crimes against good taste 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Martha Kennedy says:

        Back when I was in university “womens” literature was a new thing. Sarah Hale was virtually forgotten and I happened on her through a series of almost mystical coincidences. I did my senior paper on her and then, a few years later, my thesis on the changes in the magazine from the beginning (1828) to 1845 when Poe resigned from being the literary editor. It was incredibly fun and I truly loved and admired Sarah Hale. I was lucky in writing my thesis that the Denver Public Library had bound copies of actual magazines — that made my research so much more fun than reading microfilm! But we’re in an era I could not have imagined back then (the 70s) and here is everything for you. 🙂 http://www.accessible-archives.com/collections/godeys-ladys-book/

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Thank you so, so much Martha! I have bookmarked it – and I’m sure you can expect to see Godey’s cited in future articles 🙂 Your research for your senior paper & thesis sounds fascinating and like a lot of fun. I am so thankful that old periodicals, pamphlets, books, and the like are accessible now online. It makes research so much easier!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        there was a CSI story – bear with me, it is relevant – where an ardent re-enactor and weirdo [the two being independent I hasten to add, I have nothing against re-enactors] was wearing a corset, and he [yes he] had the most ghastly sores. Now I can get lesions in summer just from a bra, being a large lady, so what some women suffered I’d hate to guess, but the fungal infections you can get are pretty horrible and they smell bad too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Good point, Sarah. And unless I’ve got my facts wrong, I don’t think the average lady had a clean corset for every day of the week. Not to mention, there wasn’t any special lingerie wash or fabric softener to make the fabric softer on your skin. Nor was there air conditioning during the sticky summer months. A recipe for misery!

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        My great aunt wore her corset outside her shift, and it wasn’t terribly washable. She reckoned she felt weak without it, and that it helped her back, but it was much later, as hers was more a 1920s vintage and she didn’t need it for a slender waist as she was slender anyway… it had horrible steel bones in it, and I can’t imagine wearing anything. However, a number of goths of my acquaintance say that a well-engineered corset feels fantastic, so I suppose a lot of it is in the engineering, and whether it’s for support and a bit of flesh redistribution, or purely to cruelly nip in the waist.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I’ve heard that they can be good for posture and support as well. However, I think you are 100% right when you say that it all depends on engineering and the purpose of the corset. Not to mention our technology for creating lingerie is soooo much more sophisticated today.

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    • nmayer2015 says:

      A Jane Austen periodical had a short article several years ago on the Lawrence Olivier Pride and Prejudice and the Victorian clothing. According to the article, the studio had the costumes on hand and the ladies made a pretty picture in the scene where they follow their mother to the shops like ducklings following the mother duck. Quite a few stories and operas have been filmed or put on stage in a different era from that in which they were written. I almost prefer that to having them in the supposedly correct period but with many errors as was a recent Mansfield Park. Those Victorian dresses are lovely to look at. I do not think they could have been so lovely to live in.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Interesting anecdote, Nancy! The mid-Victorian silhouette does make a pretty picture. I don’t mind costume discrepancies in movies (within reason!). I totally agree that it is preferable to those films with accurate costumes and a plethora of other errors and inaccuracies.

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  6. ladyinnana says:

    I remember in _Caddie Woodlawn_ the trials she had trying to wear a hoop skirt when she really wanted to be a tomboy. I think when she sat down the hoops would bounce up and hit her in the nose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Some of the anti-crinoline propaganda did say that mothers put daughters into crinolines at a very young age. I can imagine they must have hated it – especially the little girls who would rather be outdoors climbing trees.

      Like

  7. Lucy says:

    I remember in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’ Miss Pole sends to France for a parrot cage, and of course for comedy purposes the other kind arrives, and it is pointed out to her that ‘but it is a cage for an angel, instead of a bird’, and she is mortified at male visitors seeing her bird displayed in her underwear. 🙂
    As much as I love the look of them, I’m glad we don’t have them today, train doors and escalators would have health and safety nightmares!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I love Cranford! I agree, crinolines would be incredibly inconvenient today. I wonder what people 200 years from now will think of some of our present day fashions? Of course, I like to think we’re much more sensible now, but then I read an article about women having surgery to fit into their designer 5 inch heels and I begin to have my doubts…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. juliaergane says:

    Actually, the first female undergarment was the shift which could have sleeves or be sleeveless. Knitted hosiery was held up by tied garters. Eventually (probably toward the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance the Corset/Stays were invented. Bodices were being sewn far closer to the body. In addition, the breasts also needed support, which the stays provided. These were not usually laced extremely tight, unless the woman wished it. Farthingales in the 15th century did lead to the various 18th Century understructures we all remember from the courts of Europe before the French Revolution. During the Regency women’s underdrawers were invented. Now we have crinolines, bustles, and all the rest. As can be seen from this basic timeline, women’s underpinnings have been few to non-existent for most of historical time. (Women may have bound their breasts and/or used a loin cloth. However, there is no permanent evidence that this was consistent.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for your comment! The wire cage crinoline was definitely not the first female undergarment. But one historian did call it “the first great triumph of the machine age.” That might have been what made you think I meant it was the first undergarment.

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  9. Stephen Barker says:

    Monicadescalzi. It is reported that a young woman threw herself of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. She was wearing a crinoline which did slow her descent like a parachute and she landed in the mud of the river as the tide was out and survived her fall.

    Just an idle observation in the last cartoon in your essay showing the hapless man being crushed between crinolines, the young lady on the right appears to be showing a lot of cleavage to the point she appears to be going topless!

    Liked by 1 person

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