Understanding the 1800s Crinoline Craze: An In-Depth Guide

Inflatable crinoline illustrated in an 1857 caricature by John Leech for Punch’s Pocket Book – Image source: en.wikipedia.org

When most people think of old-fashioned women’s clothing, they immediately conjure up images of women in massive hoop skirts. The hoops beneath these skirts are known as crinolines and were all the rage in mid-1800s Europe. Have you ever wondered who was responsible for these skirts or how they became so popular? Let’s find out.

Below, we will delve into the ins and outs of the crinoline trend in detail.

A Brief History of Crinoline

The word “crinoline” is derived from the French language. It combines two French words: “crin,” meaning horsehair, and “lin,” meaning linen.

Crinoline is a structured petticoat made of stiff fabric, initially composed of cotton, linen, and horsehair, that women wore beneath their clothing in the mid-1800s.

Princess Dagmar of Denmark donning a crinoline during the 1860s – Image source: en.wikipedia.org

The first steel hoop crinoline was patented by a Frenchman named R.C. Milliet in 1856. This invention allowed for a more lightweight and flexible alternative, while still holding skirts out and creating the illusion of a smaller waist. The design was later acquired and popularized by a British businessman named Thomson Roddick who, along with his partner Samuel Higby Camp, established the company Thomson & Co., which mass-produced and marketed the new crinoline design.

Crinolines rapidly gained popularity among women of all ages and social classes throughout the Western world after their introduction, including Europe and the United States. The Massachusetts Historical Society notes that women favored them for replacing stiff undergarments and providing greater freedom of movement.

Woman’s attire from around 1865 – Picture sourced from the Massachusetts Historical Society collection

Despite their widespread popularity, crinolines were not immune to criticism. Cartoonists mercilessly mocked them, describing them as “expansive, expensive, extensive, and exuberant.” They also published images of crinolines crushing men and keeping them away from party guests due to their size.

Beauty Is Pain

While women initially enjoyed wearing crinolines under their dresses, these garments quickly became impractical and even hazardous as they grew in popularity and size.

At their widest points, crinolines could easily reach a circumference of six yards (18 feet), making it difficult for the wearer to move without bumping into someone or something.

Unfortunately, crinolines were responsible for numerous tragedies during the late 1850s and early 1860s, resulting in the deaths of thousands of women.

The skirts were so large that women could inadvertently bump against candles or stoves, unaware of the risk. Additionally, they were often made of flammable materials and featured large pockets of air that could quickly fuel the flames.

Tragically, fire-related injuries and deaths were all too common among crinoline wearers in Europe and the United States.

For instance, in July 1861, Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts while making seals for her children. A match or piece of lit paper caught her dress, and she was quickly engulfed in flames.

Tragically, even the half-sisters of playwright Oscar Wilde met similar fates while wearing crinolines. In 1871, while attending a Halloween party in Ireland, one sister brushed up against a candle and caught fire, and her sister suffered a similar fate while trying to help.

What Came Next?

In response to the dangers posed by crinolines, women began looking for alternative options that could provide a similar silhouette without the risk of fire.

The first replacement was the crinolette, which was a smaller version of the expansive hoop skirt.

Crinolette: A support framework made of whalebone, cane, or steel, positioned between the petticoat and dress, secured at the waist and protruding backward without reaching as far to the sides as a complete hoop skirt – Image source: en.wikipedia.org

The bustle became a more popular alternative to crinolines. It is a padded undergarment that adds fullness only to the back of the dress or skirt and prevents the skirt from dragging on the ground.

Creator unknown (English). Woman’s bustle, circa 1885. Cotton twill, steel covered with cotton braid, and cotton-braid cord; 78.74 cm (31 inches, center back). Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2007.211.399. Image source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

In the late 1940s, designer Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection caused a brief resurgence of crinolines. However, the skirts were smaller and shorter than the 19th-century designs, making them much less hazardous.

Crinolines still make appearances on special occasions today, particularly at weddings and other formal events. Fortunately, reports of fires caused by formalwear are virtually non-existent in modern times.