Fashion in photos: the crinoline

Last month, volunteer Paula took a deep dive into our photo archive to discover what fashions were in vogue for women in the twentieth century. There was so much to find that she’s dug a little further back to explore one of the most iconic Victorian fashion crazes: the crinoline. 

Frances Nettlefold wearing a crinoline
Frances Nettlefold (née Wyman), 1850s

This photograph of John Sutton Nettlefold’s mother, Frances, was taken in the mid-1850s when she was in her 20s. Her full sleeves and V-shaped bodice were very fashionable, and the heavy embroidery on the hem of her skirt lent opulence to the ensemble, as well as providing a useful weight to give the skirt shape. The width of the skirt is typical of the period. From the 1820s, skirts had gradually become fuller and, by the 1840s, skirts were dome-shaped with layers of petticoats, generally referred to as a ‘crinoline undergarment’. These pushed out the width and fullness of the skirt. The petticoats were originally made with horsehair and were very heavy, hot, and uncomfortable. In later years, cotton and linen were the fabric of choice but petticoats remained pretty uncomfortable and weighty.

Louisa Kenrick (later Chamberlain), 1861
Louisa Kenrick (later Chamberlain), 1861

This is a photograph of Louisa Kenrick, Margaret Nettlefold’s mother, aged 14, taken in 1861 (Louisa later had nine children in 10 years!). Louisa’s dress in the photo also has a very full skirt, probably a fitted bodice with large puff sleeves and cuffs at the wrists, and she may have a cape over her shoulders. The fabric looks to be very plain which would be in keeping with her age, along with her hair which is done up in a neat bun.  

Louisa is most likely to be wearing a ‘cage crinoline’ under her skirt. By 1856, the heavy petticoats were replaced by a lighter supportive structure patented in Paris by R. C. Milliet, which was later adopted in Britain. It had a flexible steel framework joined by tapes to make a wide bell/dome shape without any covering. The cage crinoline, which was easy to produce inexpensively on a large scale, saw women wave goodbye to heavy, uncomfortable petticoats. Suddenly, more people could afford the trappings of affluence. 

Cage Crinoline

The crinoline was widely criticised at home and abroad for its impracticality. Queen Victoria was said to have requested that female guests to her daughter’s wedding in 1858 should leave off their hoops due to limited space in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace! Crinoline hoops could rise embarrassingly when a woman sat or knelt; many saw the wearing of the crinoline by housemaids as inciting street harassment from male passers-by when they knelt to scrub the doorsteps, and some employers tried to ban the wearing of them to work. The crinoline was also frequently parodied in satirical illustrations and publications such as Punch, revealing male authors’ insecurity and fears that women, whose crinolines took up “enough space for five”, would eventually conquer mankind!

On a more serious note, these vast crinoline skirts were extremely hazardous and were thought to have caused the deaths of thousands of women in the mid-19th Century. Due to their size, skirts would often catch fire and be caught up in machinery or the wheels of a carriage.

The crinoline was out of fashion by the 1880s, when it was replaced by the bustle, and eventually skirts slimmed down. However, the crinoline silhouette was revived several times in the 20th Century. During WW1, the ‘war crinoline’ became fashionable: a wide mid-calf length skirt described as enabling freedom of movement. It was even seen as patriotic, as the sight of attractively dressed women was thought to cheer up soldiers on leave!

In the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of WW2, there was a revival of the hooped crinoline, and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) adopted the traditional bell-shaped crinoline as her signature look for evening wear and state occasions. Following WW2, crinolines were once again revived by designers such as Christian Dior, whose 1947 ‘new look’ featured full skirts supported by stiffened underskirts. 

Elizabeth II wearing the New Look, 1957

The crinoline popped up in the form of Vivian Westwood’s ‘mini-crini’ in the 1980s, and Alexander McQueen has been known to use the uncovered shape of the ‘cage crinoline’ in his catwalk designs. It’s safe to say that the crinoline has come a long way from its demure and restrictive 19th-century origins!