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The History of Crinoline

Updated on October 14, 2012

The crinoline is a type of hooped frame meant to be worn under a skirt or dress to produce a fullness in clothing shape. Women began wearing crinoline made from horsehair or thread and flexible steel in the 19th century, and the style has since faded out and in numerous times. Today crinoline is still sometimes worn, usually during extravagant events or as part of a costume, but it's modern form is less bulky and made of lighter materials.

Crinoline and the excess use of fabric reflected the time period, which had just experienced a rise in economy accompanying the reign of Queen Victoria in England. Making cloth during this industrial boom became much cheaper and easier, and women could afford to dress more elaborately. The styles continued to shift and develop, and crinoline became wider, and then less wide and shaped, so that rather than creating a width on all sides the emphasis was moved to the back of the skirts, in a "bustle" (CNR).

In the 1830's, cloth petticoats begun to be made with linen and horsehair, and the French words, "crin" (horsehair) and "lin" (linen), came together in the new invention of crinoline. Along with the decade, petticoats progressed, becoming increasingly flouncy and wide. The goal in these developments were to accentuate an hourglass figure, broadening the hips to make the waist appear smaller, similar to the effect of wearing a corset in order to create a more feminine sillhouette. Petticoats were layered one upon another to promote width of the skirt until a minimum of six petticoats was considered necessary. Because these layers of cloth became difficult to bear in summer heat, the invention of the lightweight steel cage crinoline in 1856 was met with great success. Women could wear the cage and move their legs freely, without the burden of excessive petticoats (Thomas).

Although it was met with acclaim by fashionable women of the time, cage crinoline was not entirely worn with ease. The new steel crinoline was (arguably) as deadly as it was fashionable. Its design, like that of a ship's sail, was highly susceptible to being caught up in gusts of wind. Fashionable women standing out on piers could be blown forwards into the sea, where they might promptly drown on account of having a steel cage attached to their waists. The dangers of the crinoline, however, did not stop there. The overly wide skirts could easily become entangled in the wheel spokes of carriages, causing their wearers to be dragged along the road until their presence was identified.

Florence Nightingale, a prominent pioneering nurse during the Crimean War, detested crinoline and pointed out another danger it posed to women. Because of the wide girth it created at the hemline, women were often unaware of the amount of space they were taking up and could easily back into candles or stoves, catching themselves on fire. In her book, Notes on Nursing, Nightingale states:

Fortunate it is if her skirts do not catch fire- and if the nurse does not give herself up a sacrifice together with her patient, to be burnt in her own petticoats. I wish the Registrar-General would tell us the exact number of deaths by burning occasioned by this absurd and hideous custom. But if people will be stupid, let them take measures to protect themselves from their own stupidity- measures which every chemist knows, such as putting alum into starch, which prevents starched articles of dress from blazing up (36).

Nightingale also brought to the surface another issue of the crinoline, which was its tendency to "fly up" when women would bend over or sit down. Although built with a flexible jointed steel that could collapse into a seated shape temporarily when one was careful to arrange herself just so, if a woman were to trip or sit quickly, the crinoline might swing right up into her face. In another sidenote from her book, labeled "Sidenote: Indecency of the crinolines," Nightingale goes on to explain her feelings that not only are crinolines dangerous, but ridiculous and improper:

I wish, too, that people who wear crinoline could see the indecency of their own dress as other people see it. A respectable elderly woman stooping forward, invested in crinoline, exposes quite as much of her own person to the patient lying in the room as any opera dancer does on the stage. But no one will ever tell her this unpleasant truth (36).

Crinoline is still worn today, and a quick internet shopping search reveals the main reasons may still be the same as they were in the 19th century: to fill out the figure. It can be assumed that a fuller skirt is still seen as aesthetically appealing in the modern world, but outweighed by factors of inconvenience or impracticality has been limited to use during special occasions such as weddings or the prom, or as a costume for Halloween. A description of a crinoline skirt on Wholesale Halloween Costumes, an online store, states: "The White Petticoat Adult Plus is a sexy underskirt to pair any outfit with a skirt. This petticoat is white lacy with ruffled edges and flaired [sic] trimming. The White Petticoat Adult Plus is the perfect accessory to give your skirt that extra needed oomph!"

Modern crinoline can be much shorter, similar to a tutu, and is made of soft bendable plastics or stiff fabric rather than steel, making it a safer option than the vintage cage-crinoline. The look of a fuller skirt became popular in the 1950's, and again in the 1980's, with what became known as the "pouf" (Steele, 113). Instead of crinoline, however, this look- which was craved for its fun frills and playful, flirty ruffles- could be achieved through bunching and overlapping of fabric, much like the Victorian "bustles."

Although the crinoline look may still come and go, it appears as though women have learned from their mistakes through history. It can be presumed that wearing a steel cage that attracts wind and fire will not soon be a fashion repeat. However, crinoline is a good example of how fashion often recycles itself, and fuller, wider skirts are still desired for their thinning effects on the waist and playful look in today's modern fashion.

Works Cited

CNR. "Victorian Fashion." 2011.

Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing. New York D. Appleton and Company. New York. 1860.

Steele, Valerie. "Fifty Years of Fashion." Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1997

Thomas, Pauline Weston. "Crinolines Fashion History." 2001.

Wholesale Halloween Costumes. "White Petticoat Adult Plus: Item #62058F." Web. 2012.


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