Weird History

What Was The Deal With Those Giant Victorian Skirts?  

Setareh Janda
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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?

Crinolines Were A Fire Hazard And May Have Claimed Thousands Of Lives
Crinolines Were A Fire Hazard ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Was The Deal With Those Giant Victorian Skirts?
Photo: James Tissot/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Despite being fashionable, crinolines were a legitimate safety concern: Their broad, highly flammable skirts - made from bobbinet, cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan - could easily go up in flames if they came too close to a fire or even a small spark. Since they were fastened as cages around women's waists, crinolines would trap the wearer so they couldn't escape the flaming garment.

Scholars estimate that upwards of 3,000 women were victims of these fires. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's wife Fanny perished from a crinoline fire in 1861. Ten years later, Irish writer Oscar Wilde's half-sisters Emily and Mary similarly perished after their broad skirts caught fire at a ball. 

The terrifying prospect of crinoline combustion inspired The Lady's Magazine to encourage households to install fire blankets "in every parlour and drawing room" to manage flaming dresses.

By The 1850s, Crinolines Were Supposed To Be Comfortable Alternatives To Heavy, Stiff Undergarments
By The 1850s, Crinolines Were ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Was The Deal With Those Giant Victorian Skirts?
Photo: Unknown 1856 artist/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the mid-1800s, women wore many layers of undergarments to achieve a broad, round silhouette. These heavy, stiff fabrics made women hot and uncomfortable. But by the 1850s, lighter crinolines made from steel spring had arrived on the fashion scene.

The cages essentially lifted the layers of fabric away from the wearer, thus offering women a cooler, more comfortable way of achieving a rounded shape. As one crinoline defender gushed, "The crinoline relieves us from the weight of many under-skirts, and prevents them from clinging to us while walking."

Crinolines Materialized Victorian Ideals Of Womanhood
Crinolines Materialized Victor... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Was The Deal With Those Giant Victorian Skirts?
Photo: A. Hunæus/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Crinolines and voluminous skirts represented ideals of womanhood, but they also confined women. Even though lived experiences were vastly different from ideals of femininity, Victorian women were expected to be pure, demure, and domesticated beings, and crinolines reflected this - the wire cages prohibited physical intimacy, the broad skirts cocooned the wearer, and the dresses' general bulk and size limited women's activities.

Since crinolines were more suited for indoor activity, these garments reinforced the Victorian belief that a woman's place was in the home. According to historian Gayle Fischer, crinolines and the ridiculously large fabrics they supported "seemed to emphasize femininity and female powerlessness."

Crinolines Provided Women With More Personal Space
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Photo: George Cruikshank/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Crinolines also had uses beyond fashion - the wide, circular skirts made it difficult for someone to get too close to the wearer. This created space around women, suggesting they were simultaneously in the world and separated from it. Crinolines thus represented ideals about a Victorian woman's domesticated place.

According to Celia Stall-Meadows, crinolines "acted as a power extender by allowing a generally powerless woman to increase her personal space." Contemporary accounts credit the crinoline and wide dresses with preventing robberies on the street. 

Scholar Rebecca N. Mitchell agrees that crinolines could be a device for liberation: Wearing one could be a "defiant act that privileged women's agency and control over their bodies." Billowing skirts also gave women private spaces to hide things they didn't want others to see.