|Steel Cage Crinoline|
Not surprisingly it was seen as an attempt to "ape" their betters for, as Thorsten Veblen noted, dress "in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour." Surely there is little in the way of a woman's dress that would so clearly indicate that she is not engaged in productive labour as the crinoline. A woman's dress, Veblen goes on, "hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion." It personifies both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Clearly the cost of cloth alone for a crinoline would have been greater than for a smaller outfit. It thus became an outward sign of one's wealth, or at least of the wealth of one's husband or father. Needless to say, with its great volume, the clothing was conspicuous, and should one fail to notice it at first glance (a highly unlikely scenario) one could hardly fail to notice it when trying to get through a doorway at the same time as a "crinolined" woman or find a seat on an omnibus.
From the mid-1850s, good crinolines were made out of spring steel hoops which were both light and flexible. They were suspended, one above another, with the smallest at the top gradually widening towards the bottom. These devices could be made up of from as few as nine hoops to the larger and much more formal outfit consisting of up to eighteen circles of steel. Spring steel was particularly useful since it could be pressed out of shape temporarily, making it easier for the wearer of the garment (which at its widest could be up to six feet across) to get through doors, sit down, and enter and exit vehicles.
By the 1850s, even the Illustrated London News was complaining that it was impossible to sit on an omnibus with women in crinolines which, it commented, transformed a woman into a "walking bale of goods." Certainly, the crinoline was the cause of much humorous vexation amongst gentlemen. A writer to The Times in January of 1857,signing himself "A respectable elderly gentleman" complained,
Often, Sir, at ball or crowded assembly have I been gripped by the confluence of massive tissues. Often have I been suddenly and painfully compressed in a doorway by the framework of a creature whom nature had intended for a fairy. Nay, Sir, more than once have I, without a murmur, submitted during a pelting rain to banishment from my own carriage, constructed originally for the conveyance of four persons, but now, forsooth, not capable of one elderly and two youthful ladies, hedged in their shells like the clapper of a bell.
Even walking up stairs might have considerable potential for embarrassment. Drawers commonly came to below the knees and were considered the most intimate garment that women wore. They were often gathered at the bottom and helped in the retention of modesty for those wearing a crinoline. Petticoats were also worn. Generally the minimum would be one underneath the crinoline and one outside it to soften the look of the metal hoops.
Naturally, much fun was made of the latest fashion in women's clothing. In a story in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for November 1856, the author points out that the modern woman requires "three clear feet of ground on either side for the unruffled expansion on the "crinoline," round whose hem the worshipper must stand at reverential distance, and shout his soft inanities into the far-off ear of his divinity." Again, in 1863 the same journal published a poem, "Crinoliniana," which ended,
I long to clasp thee to my heart
But all my longings are in vain;
I sit and sigh two yards apart,
And curse the barriers of thy train.
My fondest hopes I must resign,
I can't get past that Crinoline!
Ragamuffins in the street would shout after women in crinolines, "who's your cooper," and even Charles Babbage, the noted English mathematician and inventor of the difference machine, a fore-runner of the modern computer, was dragged into the discussion. In a humorous note, in October of 1862, "Tickler" a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine, refers to "those arid acres of crinoline, which Mr Babbage has calculated wuld cover, on to the thirty-second of last month, no less a surface than thirty miles six furlongs and a perch and a-half!"
Young Mr Punch, by now in his adolescence, could hardly refrain from commenting. Numerous cartoons appeared during the 1850s and '60s, and even those that were not directly aimed at the crinoline would often feature women wearing outsized hoop skirts or, as only Punch could do, would take the idea of the hoop skirt and apply it to other uses as in the anti-garotting cartoon to the left.
On a more serious note, the wide expanse of the crinoline, and the use of open flames in heating and lighting, meant that the risk of serious, if not fatal, injury was increased. In December 1858, the Liverpool Mercury reported the death of Lady Lucy Bridgman who had fatally burned herself while trying to extinguish the burning dress of her sister. As well as the death of the two sisters, men of the family were burnt when they attempted to save the sisters. Commenting on this, T.M.S., writing to The Times describes how his wife's dress caught fire which, fortunately, he was able to extinguish. But, he asks, "When will this dangerous style of dress be done away with?"
What was it, then, that made the crinoline so popular? The crinoline, prior to the use of spring steel had been relatively common, although significantly smaller in area and heavier in weight. With the ability to lighten the load on the wearer, it expanded (both literally and metaphorically) to meet, in England, the dictates of Paris fashion. It was, too, a way in which a woman was distanced, both physically and psychologically, from her surroundings, from the real world, and kept safe for her husband or father. In a sense it was the real-life equivalent of placing herself on the pedestal.
Finally, it conformed well to the principles of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure mentioned above. Not only was it a wasteful use of material, the cost of cleaning the clothing worn over the hoop and the effort involved in doing so would have been great. The fact that the wearer of such an outfit could do little more than stand or sit and would have been largely incapacitated from doing anything useful made it an ideal image for conspicuous leisure.
For a history of the corset and the crinoline, click here.