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What Was The Deal With Those Giant Victorian Skirts?

Updated August 1, 2019 637.9k views14 items

Crinolines put the hoop in the Victorian-era skirt. For two decades, women wore crinolines - lightweight cages attached to their waists - under their clothing to create a wide, bell-shaped silhouette. Thanks to crinolines, hoop skirts may be the most iconic and defining piece of fashion from the 1800s.

Crinolines were products of Victorian industrialism. Manufacturers and designers took factory-produced materials like steel and coil and applied them to women's fashion. Though they were particular to the Victorian era, crinolines had a relatively brief moment in the sun and were only worn for a portion of the period. They were popular only from the 1850s until the 1870s, at which point new styles and materials began to dominate fashionable tastes.

Why did crinolines become so popular in the middle of the 19th century? How comfortable were they to wear? And what did women really think of them?

  • Before Crinolines, Women Wore Long, Whalebone Corsets With Layers Of Petticoats

    Photo: Achille Devéria / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At the turn of the 19th century, slender, empire-waist dresses made out of muslin were fashionable. That changed, however, as the hourglass shape - full skirts and small waists - became increasingly popular.

    Technology didn't quite match the fashion ideal, however. Consequently, women relied on whalebone corsets - which had already been in use for centuries - to cinch in their waists and used layers of petticoats to round out their bottom half. The comparatively lighter crinoline provided an easier means for women to shape their bodies to the feminine ideal.

  • Crinolines Were Designed To Accentuate Women's Supposedly Natural Body Shape

    Photo: C. E. Jensen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Crinolines created a broad silhouette - skirts billowed out from the waist and expanded a woman's lower half, thus "exaggerating" her waist and hips. This shape tracked with 19th-century ideals of the female body.

    Unlike previous eras, Victorians considered slender women to be especially beautiful and fashionable. This beauty ideal actually developed in conjunction with the growing romanticization of wasting diseases like tuberculosis - sufferers lost weight as the disease progressed.

  • Skirts Grew Increasingly Larger After The Invention Of The Sewing Machine In 1851

    Photo: Unknown (possibly Sirot) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Various iterations of the sewing machine existed in the first half of the 19th century. In 1851, however, Isaac Singer patented his sewing machine, which was "the most practical" of existing models. More efficient technology for producing clothing meant that more fabric could be used, resulting in bigger and grander skirts.

    The crinoline enabled this growth, since its primary function was to support the weight of fabric and provide a rounded shape.

  • Moralists Criticized Crinolines Because They Showed Women's Ankles

    Crinolines scandalized Victorian moralists. Because crinolines produced an awkward sweep of skirts, women often had to lift the front of their dress in order to walk or climb. This inevitably meant that women would expose their ankles - a fact that deeply concerned critics.

    Crinoline-wearers were also accused of vanity for their large, ornamented skirts.