When one thinks of the fashions of the mid-nineteenth century, one of the first things that comes to mind is extremely full skirts, as worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind or Jo March in Little Women. These skirts were described as “swelling beyond measure all below the waist,” and gave the wearers “the majestic air of itinerant church-bells.”
The proper underpinnings were needed to create this silhouette. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, a fashionably dressed woman would wear a cotton chemise, pantalettes, an hourglass-shaped corset, and an average of four to six petticoats made of “starched and gummed” cotton in addition to a horsehair petticoat. These stiff, heavy, and scratchy horsehair petticoats were called “crinolines” from the French word for horsehair, crin. As even these stiffer petticoats still could not achieve the desired volume, additional fullness was achieved by embellishing skirts with multiple ruffles and flounces.
As one can imagine, wearing a half-dozen petticoats under a flounced dress could be hot and cumbersome, to say the least. To create greater fullness without weight, petticoat manufacturers began experimenting with new designs. Designs were introduced using sisal, baleen, cording, and even inflatable pneumatic tubes. But, none of these designs were to be the winning solution.
In 1856, Empress Eugenie of France adopted a new style of steel crinoline, invented by R.C. Millet. This crinoline was described in its British patent as a “skeleton petticoat made of steel springs fastened to a tape”. News of this innovation spread quickly. In October of 1856, the new steel cage crinolines were praised by the New York Times as “healthy, and as a hygienic invention are worthy of all praise”.
The wearing of hooped under-structures to support the fashionable shape of skirts was no way a new phenomenon in fashion. Women in the sixteenth century wore hooped petticoats made of linen and wood called farthingales, and again in the eighteenth century, large skirts were supported by means of hooped linen and wood panniers, which widened the skirt, sometimes quite extravagantly.
However, the steel cage crinoline of the nineteenth century was unique in its ability to be a mass-produced fashion item and was adopted by a wide variety of women, including the women who manufactured it.
By February of 1857, Douglas & Sherman’s patent-pending “superior steel spring skirts” were advertised as the “best article of the kind ever produced” in the New York Times. Within the next few years, patents were taken out on steel skirts of myriad designs, from mesh cages that resembled fishing nets to baskets, and beyond.
The earliest cage crinoline designs gave the skirt a symmetrical dome-like silhouette. By the mid 1860s, the silhouette of the cage crinoline had evolved to an ellipse, with a flattened front and the majority of fullness at the rear of the skirt. This back fullness eventually evolved further into the bustle foundations of the 1870s.
Douglas & Sherwood’s patented hoop skirts proved quite successful. According to an 1859 profile in Harper’s Weekly, they employed 800 women and turned out 3,000 skirts daily. A competitor, Thomson’s Skirt Factory employed 1,000 women and “provided an indispensable article of dress to three thousand to four thousand ladies daily.” And by no means were these two companies the only hoop skirt manufacturers in New York City. Unlike the aristocratic farthingales and panniers of previous centuries, the cage crinoline was an industrial, mass-produced, ready-to-wear garment worn by women of all classes.
However, the cage crinoline was not universally beloved. Satirical cartoons and editorials mocked the larger and larger skirts made possible by the springy hoops. Countless cartoons and editorials in Punch magazine lampooned the garment for not fitting through doorways or in carriages, concealing deformed feet and legs, and perhaps worst of all, keeping a lady’s male admirers at a distance. In 1858, a satirical report of the Crinoline de Leviathan asserted that there was a creation so large that it required the use of a crane to lower its wearer into and out of the “crinolinear vessel.”
Other, somewhat less fanciful criticisms were also levied at the cage crinoline. In September of 1858, the “Quarterly Conference of the Miami Annual Conference” resolved that, “the wearing of hoops by females is inconsistent with a truly Christian character…by some even considered indecent,” and forbade its members to wear them.
The large, buoyant and springy nature of the cage crinoline’s construction made it susceptible to flipping up and exposing the wearer’s legs to her garters. This unfortunate side effect (which was also much satirized in the press) made the “widespread adoption” of pantalettes a necessity.
However, more was at stake than the wearer’s modesty. Because of the cage crinoline’s swingy and hollow construction, it was also relatively easy for a careless wearer to brush too close to a fireplace grate or other open flame and ignite her clothing. The structure of the crinoline also made it more difficult to smother the flames by wrapping the victim in a rug. Reliable records as to how many flaming cage crinoline-related fatalities actually occurred are hard to come by. The New York Times records nineteen deaths in England, during a six-week period in the winter of 1858, in addition to a case in Boston.
There were also cases of death by crinoline due to perils other than fire. In 1865, young woman in New Jersey was dragged for 2 miles when the horses of her carriage took fright and her crinoline became entangled on the carriage steps.
There was also a very real danger of the cage crinoline getting caught in industrial machinery. In 1864, a young woman’s skirt brushed too close to a rotating shaft next to a dark stairwell at a lower Manhattan baking soda factory. As her clothing was swallowed up by the machinery, the steel hoops of her crinoline became wound “so tightly around her lower limbs that one of them was cut off and the other nearly so.”
These criticisms and reports compel one to wonder why women continued to wear the cage crinoline. Surely looking fashionable was not worth the challenges of not fitting through doorways, flashing your underclothes, going up in flames, being dragged to death by horses, or being swallowed alive in a factory?
Were women in the nineteenth century so oppressed and feeble-minded that they felt being fashionable was more important than their convenience and was even worth risking their bodily safety?
First of all, women liked how they looked in the cage crinolines. Arbiters of elegance wore them. They were incorporated into the designs of the great dressmakers of the day, most famously, the Paris couturier, Charles Frederick Worth. They provided the wearer with the fashionable silhouette.
In addition, the elastic, springy nature of the steel hoops made the skirt capable of compressing and recovering relatively easily, so many of the criticisms about fitting through doorways and in carriages were exaggerations. A variant of cage crinoline called the “waved jupon” was extolled in its advertisements, which declared, “a lady may ascend a steep stair, lean against a table, throw herself into an arm-chair, pass to her stall at the opera, or occupy a fourth seat in a carriage, without inconvenience to herself or others.”
Also, extant examples of cage crinolines and contemporary photographs suggest that the average fashionable woman was not wearing the exaggeratedly enormous hoops depicted in satirical cartoons or fashion plates of the time. The largest fashionable crinolines were most likely only worn to extremely formal events such as presentations at a royal court, balls or weddings.
And quite importantly, women wore these crinolines because they were more comfortable than the alternative methods of obtaining the “correct” shape. The steel cages gave their clothes fullness without the inconvenience and discomfort of wearing a half-dozen cotton and horsehair petticoats. They were cooler in the summer, kept long skirts from dragging in the dirt, and could be “kept perfectly clean by simply using a wet sponge,” thus saving the trouble and expense of laundering, pressing and starching multiple petticoats (a major boon for the classes of women without lady’s maids). The hollow, wide skirts also gave the wearer a great deal of freedom of movement, and were easier to walk in than multiple petticoats sticking to and getting twisted between the wearer’s legs.
Because the crinoline was so full, it made the wearer’s waist look tiny in comparison, so her corset did not need to be laced very tightly. The corsets of the late 1850s and early 1860s were relatively short in length and did not need to be heavily boned over the hips.
Furthermore, while no doubt some widely publicized injuries did occur, the great majority of women appear to have worn their cage crinolines without incident.
So while this fashion had its many detractors, it was worn by a wide variety of women for well over a decade. Clearly something in the style appealed to the wearers enough to ignore its inconveniences.
There is also a compelling case that while this fashion has been considered by some as a particularly oppressive style, women in the middle of the nineteenth century experienced more comfort and freedom of movement than they were to for the remainder of the nineteenth century. The longer, tightly laced corsets and straight skirts of the decades to come would arguably “cage” women more literally than the cage crinoline.