Sunday, 10 May 2015

Quintessentially Victorian: the Crinoline

It is arguable that nothing is as quintessentially Victorian as the crinoline. You only need to see the silhouette of a woman wearing a crinoline to place her fashion in the Victorian period. Whilst the Georgian period went through a fad for ridiculously wide skirts, it is the 1850s and 60s that were the era of the hoop shaped skirt we call the crinoline.
The height of fashion in 1854

A balloon like skirt is so evidently impractical, how did such a garb come into being? The roots of the answer are found in that traditional essential garment for women down the centuries – the petticoat.

Much of the time people in earlier centuries were cold. There was no central heating, and a fire in the hearth doesn’t throw heat very far. The answer was to rug up with layers of clothing so as to insulate the wearer from the worst of the icy drafts and inclement weather.

Petticoats for Warmth
For women this meant wearing petticoats under their gown. Indeed, a white cotton petticoat was usually worn over the corset but next to the skin. The layer was a simple shape and unadorned, since it needed washing on a regular basis.
The satirical magazine "Punch"
loved to poke fun at the wildly impractical crinoline

On top of the cotton petticoat came a flannel one- again simple in shape but perhaps with some decoration. Interestingly, this layer wasn’t full length but stopped just above the knee. These two layers were considered basic for women not matter what their class.

Fashionable Lengths
Just as in the modern day hemlines rise and fall, in the Victorian period fashion was all to do with the width and silhouette of the skirt. However, wide skirts needed support to hold them out and show them off to best advantage. In the 1840s the solution was to stiffen the fabric of a petticoat. The cheapest way to do this was “cording” which was a process of threading string between concentric rings of stitching on a white petticoat.

Itchy and Scratchy
But as the decade progressed, the stiffness provided by cording was not sufficient to support the weight of ever-bigger skirts. This lead to a new innovation and fabric with horsehair woven in or a “Crin au Lin”. Stiff, spring, and light, an underskirt made in this fabric or a “Crinoline” could support a weighty skirt.
The diameter of some crinolines was a disabling 6 feet

Steel Cages (…a comment on women’s lives in general?)
Horsehair, however, is scratchy and to overcome this in 1856 the steel crinoline was invented. This consisted of steel hoops suspended by tapes. This formed a cage like structure that was considerably lighter (and less itchy) than the original horsehair item.

And finally….perhaps crinoline makers were in league with fabric manufacturers, because the cages themselves were relatively inexpensive (retailing at about a third of the purchase price of a gown) and yet required many yards of fabric to make a skirt to cover it.  

PS. Can you think of anything more quintessentially Victorian than a crinoline? Do leave a comment. 
PSS - "Hope's Betrayal" has been signed by a well-known publishing house. The book will shortly become unavailable, whilst it undergoes a "wash and brush up" - so grab your copy now or face a wait...
Click for link


  1. I'm madly not-in-love with the 1840s ringlets by the ears. That is my era, so I am stuck with it. Resolved that in my WIP by making the MC completely lost as to fashion.

    1. Ha! If you can't beat 'em- be devious, eh Debra?
      Apparently the fashion was to part the hair over the crown of the head from ear to ear, and then a centre parting forwards. The back was put in a tidy bun (so a bonnet fitted over the top) and the front made ornate since it was the only part that was seen.
      I fear for the health of their hair, since I suspect the ringlets were made by winding hair round a hot poker.
      Thanks for visiting,
      G x

  2. And congrats on your new contract!

  3. Thanks for an interesting post, and congratulations. Look forward to the rerelease. I agree with Debra about the ringlets and the weird back to front parting young ladies used, but they did work with bonnets! Even worse were loops over the ears. Whoever thought that looked good?

    1. Between you and Debra, you've given me the urge to try the style out. Perhaps post a photo afterwards if I'm feeling brave.
      Thanks for visiting.
      Grace x

    2. Between you and Debra, you've given me the urge to try the style out. Perhaps post a photo afterwards if I'm feeling brave.
      Thanks for visiting.
      Grace x

  4. I just keep on seeing Scarlett holding on to the bedpost as her corset is tightened prior to adding the crinoline...Not a fashion I have any desire to experience first hand.


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