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The crinoline

Posted in Absurd, Fashion, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 April 2016

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This edited article about fashion originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 451 published on 5 September 1970.

Crinolined equestrian, picture, image, illustration

The Crinoline Equestrian

Have you ever wondered why some old houses, even small ones, built during the Victorian era have wide doors? It was not to save bricks, nor was it because the house was built in a more spacious age. It was so that the women of the house could go in and out with their crinolines.

Everything changes in fashion, particularly in women’s fashions, but nothing has changed more through the ages than the shapes and sizes of women’s skirts. At various times they have been long and loose, at others so tight fitting that the wearers could hardly hobble. They have been so huge and flounced and stuffed and padded with petticoats that they must have been a burden to wear, or they have shrunk and shortened until there is hardly anything of them at all. Some people think that the “mini” has had its day. What next, the “maxi” and the “midi”? Then will these more ample garments swell into ultra modern reincarnations of the cumbersome crinoline?

The crinoline first appeared in Paris about the year 1840. It was a wide skirt padded out with horse hair and linen. (“Crinis” is Latin for hair, “linum” for thread.) Previously dresses had been very high-waisted and very straight.

At the start of this fashion skirts were padded out with petticoats. A cool two or three to begin with, but as the competition hotted up for the widest skirt, so did the petticoats, until young ladies at dances were suffering in the swirling midst of 14 petticoats! Once immersed in this sweltering array of linen they just had to stand. They stood in their coaches on the way to the ball, and they stood for refreshments and in between dances. For if they once sat down their crinoline and 14 petticoats would be crumpled and pushed out of shape.

And what a shape they were! Writers of their own time said that women in crinolines looked like tea cosies or bells!

To save weight and heat, attempts were made to stiffen the outerskirt with pneumatic tubes that were blown or pumped up like bicycle tyres. Some dresses had tubes filled with water, but these were disliked for fear of an embarrassing leak. Hoops of rolled horsehair, cane and wire were more popular, although they had the amusing effect of causing the skirt to swing from the waist like a bell, rising at the back if the lady stood too close to a table, rising high in the front if she sat down, and exposing her “ankles” almost to her knees when walking too close to a friend. At last, in 1856, all these problems were solved by the invention of the cage crinoline. The inventor was an ingenious Frenchman. He patented a device of wire spring and tape. There would be as many as 35 hoops in one cage.

The cartoonists of the age had great fun with the crinoline cage. There were fat ladies sitting on the pavement with their boots caught in their cage. There were pictures of crinolines being used as tents during rain showers on picnics. One artist depicted the conductor of a horse-drawn bus refusing to allow a lady to enter until she removed her cage, and we note that the outside of the bus is already festooned with several of these contraptions.

The wide-skirted crinoline did cause many problems of space. At parties there was often quite a crush, for where in the pre-crinoline age three ladies could sit on a settee there was now barely room for one. Cake trays and plant stands were constant victims of the crashing crinolines to say nothing of colliding ladies being overturned in their wire cages.

A crinolined lady taking an elegant stroll in the garden caused the gardener to gnash his teeth in fury as the hemline demolished the border plants on either side of the path. Undaunted, the Victorian ladies took their crinolines for walks in the country, and complained about the narrowness of wicket gates. It is reported that the fashionable Duchess of Manchester caught her crinoline when climbing over a style and toppled helplessly upside down on the far side, displaying her scarlet knickers (a new style of garment just in from Paris!).

There are photographs of one brave English lady who went mountaineering in the Alpine snows . . . wearing a crinoline!

More seriously, these huge skirts were frequently the cause of dangerous accidents. It was not uncommon for pedestrians to have their dresses caught up in the wheels of passing carriages. Being a hollow shell of inflammable silk, muslin or cotton they were a terrible fire hazard in the home. Most tragic of all was the death of two thousand ladies in Santiago, Chile. They were dressed up for church in their best crinolines when an altar lamp accidentally set fire to some hanging drapery. Crowded together in the cathedral their dresses flared and they died in the flames of their finery.

Although the word “crinoline” was not used before 1840, the fashion for immensely wide skirts had appeared twice before. The first time, it was called a farthingale, as worn by Queen Elizabeth I.

This Gloriana, a great queen of rather doubtful beauty but of tremendous vanity, lived and moved within a scaffolding of wire, wood and padding around her hips and skirt, a corset of iron (made by an armourer), with more wire and whalebone rigging to support her soaring lace collar. On her head she wore one of her large selection of ginger wigs, wired, of course. In imitation, the farthingales of court became so wide that ladies often had to enter doors sideways. The farthingale fashion lasted for several hundred years in various parts of Europe. Then hooped skirts made their fashionable appearance at the court of France in the first quarter of the 18th century. The skirts were then stiffened with whalebone, a material so much in demand that the Dutch Government formed a very profitable company of whalers, and as the skirts expanded and the Dutch whalemen and boat builders grew richer, the poor whale practically vanished from the northern seas.

Like the whale, the crinoline is not entirely dead and gone. It still appears in its less extravagant forms at ballroom dancing championships – as seen on TV. These are but puny survivors of a fashion which once produced skirts five or six yards around the hem. Some extreme estimates put this figure as high as ten yards. In the 1860s a crinoline for a society ball would use up as much as one thousand yards of material.

If the crinoline does make a comeback in the modern age, the wearers will be faced with more problems than ever before. Imagine a brigade of crinolines in the local supermarket! Think of the problem young ladies will have of packing themselves into a mini car . . . but perhaps the boutiques will sell collapsible crinolines.

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