Victorian Fashion Garment That Killed Many Women

The crinoline is a woman’s large petticoat that has been in and out of fashion since the early 19th century. The original garment was made from very stiff horsehair fabric that kept the fashionable hoop skirts of the 1800s in its proper position.

Soon the horsehair was replaced by stiffened cotton, and later the cage crinolines became the most popular. The cage crinoline was made from spring steel running horizontally, with vertical tape lines to keep the hoops secure. The circumference could be anywhere from a few feet up to about fifteen feet. A petticoat was placed over the steel frame, and the skirt or dress was worn over the petticoat. The upper classes originally wore the crinoline, but the garments became so popular that soon women of all classes were wearing them.

Cage crinoline underskirt, the 1860s, MoMu.

The new fashion quickly became a popular target of writers and cartoonists. George Routledge, the author of an 1875 etiquette book, advised that the crinoline should not be worn by housemaids while working, as there were too many situations in which the lady’s modesty could be compromised.

Drawing of improvements in Hoop Skirts Photo Credit

Indeed, one had to be very careful when sitting, as the hoops could pop up unexpectedly, showing everything underneath. The width of some of the ladies dresses made it difficult to walk through doorways and the typical Victorian parlor. A manufactured hoop, however, kept the wearer much cooler than the layers of petticoats did, and Civil War era ladies found they could smuggle medicines, guns, ammunition, and other needed items into the Confederacy underneath their large skirts.

Ministers took to their pulpits to warn women that wearing hoop skirts was akin to smoking, swearing, and spitting; they made it clear that those who chose to wear them were no less than whores. However, the criticisms of the fashion only served to make the garment more popular.

From left to right. Top: Minoan statuette, 1600 BC. Verdugada, c. 1470s.
Bottom: Farthingale, c. 1600. Hoop or pannier, 1750–80.

As fashionable as the crinoline was, it became one of the most dangerous articles of clothing ever known. It was highly flammable, and about 3,000 women were killed when their crinolines caught fire. In 1858, a woman in Boston was standing too close to her fireplace when her skirt caught fire, and it took only minutes for her entire body to be consumed. In February 1863, Margaret Davey, a 14-year-old kitchen maid, had her crinoline catch fire as she reached up to the mantle for a set of spoons, later dying from the severity of her burns. In England, over a two-month period, nineteen deaths attributed to burning crinolines were reported. Any women who witnessed the flames were unable to help for fear of their own skirts catching fire. In Philadelphia, nine ballerinas were killed when one brushed by a candle at the Continental Theater.

Crinoline Photo Credit

In 1898, a textile company, Courtaulds, restricted their factory workers from wearing crinolines due to a newspaper report of the death of Ann Rollinson, who died from injuries after machinery caught her crinoline at the Firwood bleach works.

Inflatable crinolines. Caricature, Punch, January 1857.

Later that year, 16-year-old Emma Musson was burned to death when a burning coal rolled from the kitchen fireplace and came to rest on her crinoline. In 1864, The New York Timesreported that almost 40,000 women throughout the world had died because of crinoline fires.

There were also non-lethal problems associated with the crinoline. The bottoms of the skirts could become entangled in wagon wheels, or caught by the wind, causing the updraft to knock the wearer to the ground with their hoops up in the air and exposing much more than what was proper.

Comic photograph, c.1860.

Women struggled to board trains and were barely able to proceed to their seats without great difficulty. Florence Nightingale, the respected promoter of the nursing profession, once stated,  “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”.

“Crinolinemania” died out in the late 1800s, until a hooped support was needed for the new fashion trend of the bustle, a gathering of material just below the waist at the back of the skirt.

Small crinolines came back into fashion, that was until the Flapper craze of the 1920s freed women from the crinoline fad. Today, crinolines are limited to wedding dresses and costumes for re-enactors. They are presumably made out of non-flammable materials and are much more comfortable than horsehair.

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