Crinoline in the 1800s: A Popular Fashion

Crinoline replaced the hoop, although when it first appeared in the 1830s, it was nothing more than “stiff, unpliable stuff, adapted for making a dress stand out well from the figure.”[1] By the 1850s, however, crinoline meant a stiffened petticoat or rigid shape designed to support and form a woman’s dress into a bell shape that was described in this sense:

“We use the word ‘crinoline’ in its conventional meaning — that is, an extravagantly large hoop, or congeries of hoops, whether made of steel, whalebone, or other material.”[2]

Crinolines in the 1800s: Cutaway View of Crinoline

Cutaway View of Crinoline. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Beginning in the 1850s, crinoline had critics. One of the most vociferous of these critics was Punch, a British weekly magazine of humor and satire. The magazine asserted that women wearing crinoline, petticoats, and long dresses caused all sorts of issues and problems on the streets, a charge that had similarly been made of umbrellas causing mishaps and fatalities.

“The pavements will be blocked, and men will be tripped up, and will tumble on their noses, yet the ladies will not hate one inch of their circumferences … In order to reduce the length and breadth of their offending, we wish Sir Richard Maine would plant policemen armed with scissors at the corners of  the streets, and give them strict instructions that they ‘sensibly’ diminish all excrescences of costume, whereby any one may anywhere be anyhow annoyed.”[3]


Crinoline “Study of Perspective After Nature.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Other critics also found reasons not to like crinoline. In fact, one critic claimed, “it makes a woman look more or less like a ballet-girl in full stage costume.”[4] Years after the crinoline’s appearance it was noted:

“The end of the forties and the whole of the fifties are more open to the charge of downright ugliness than any period in the nineteenth century. When the crinoline came, to the ugly was superadded the ridiculous. It [was] not only that [women had] … to dread being made grotesque by the crinoline — that would be bad enough; but the crinoline is, after all, only a part, though a very large part, of the disfigurements of that period. The crinoline would carry with it flounces, double skirts, basques, bows, and balloon-like mantles … and [make it impossible to] preserve the semblance of good taste.”[5]

When crinoline appeared in the 1850s there were two types: one was a skeleton that consisted of steel hoops and the other was a crinoline petticoat. Some women accepted either style. However, others did not like any form of crinoline.

“Those who did not take readily to the new invention puffed out their dresses with all sorts of stiff petticoats, mode of coarse calico and other materials. The weight dragging from the waist must have been very injurious and uncomfortable. It was found that the crinoline did not adapt itself to ball dresses; it was too hard and unyielding to wear under diaphanous tarlatan robes. So a number of petticoats made with flounces were substituted.”[6]

Parody of crinoline in the 1850s by George Cruikshank. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Women of Marie Antoinette’s time had preserved their tall and fashionable headdresses by riding with their heads out the window or kneeling on the carriage floor. Preservation of dresses was now being repeated by women with crinoline and it was maintained that the women “go to the ball standing up in their carriages, and stand between the dances for fear of crushing their dresses and fourteen petticoats.”[7] Thus, the question became, with all the trouble associated with crinoline, why would women wear it? The Illustrated News of the World thought they knew the answer.

“As a general rule, men have no right, either morally or aesthetically, to interfere with the manner in which women chose to dress … [Yet,] on this subject we really think men have some right to speak, both as men, and as fathers, sons, brothers, lovers, and husbands … Verily it is a wonderful age, in which our ships and women are iron-clad … [but women are not] satisfied with crowding men out of pews, omnibuses, cabs, and carriages, they now sweep us off the trottoir … What is our unfortunate pedestrian to do? … He may succeed in saving his shins from actual contact with crinoline by making a practice of diving in to the street, to avoid a charge of crinoline, that is, whenever he perceives the approach of a fashionably-dressed woman, who of course requires a clear space of two yards in diameter for the development of her hoop … But a man cannot put his eyes in his pocket. The blind alone can escape the last crowning aggravation of fashion. Crinoline is seen as well as felt … [Yet,] why do women wear the hoops? Because it is the fashion.”[8]

It was noted in 1857 that no woman could survive without the crinoline as there was so much fullness in skirts there was no other way to get them to “sit well” without one. Moreover, skirts also had enormous flounces, fifteen to seventeen inches deep, and were so long in front, they were “difficult to walk in, unless propped out by a crinoline.”[9]

Yet for all the declarations of the benefits of crinoline, fashion seemed to drive its popularity, which meant it could be up one day and down the next. It was also the reason why women claimed one day they could not do without their crinoline and the next day declare that its popularity had “positively ended.” When one writer dared suggest in 1860 that crinoline had fallen out of favor, controversy soon ensued:

“[It] was suggested that rich women, who could afford to have freshly starched petticoats every day, should discard hoops, while women who could not pay a heavy washing-bill might … keep to their steels and whalebones.”[10]

In Crinoline, Public Domain

In crinoline. Public domain.

Moreover, in 1862, skirts continued to be enormous and fan-shaped. Crinoline thus continued to be popular, although it could appear and disappear depending on the season. For instance, when it went out of favor during the winter, it came back in the summer when flimsy muslins were restored, as “no one … thought of wearing a muslin which hung softly round the figure.”[11]

With all the controversy over crinoline and with it constantly falling in and out of fashion, in 1866, a new crinoline appeared. This new version could be easily folded, and stiff crinoline gave way to something described in the following fashion:

“Stiff petticoats for evening wear, and as some objection was felt to wearing a great many petticoats, the ball dresses were made with several skirts that they might attain the proper proportions. The first skirt would be white satin, the next net, the third tarlatan — all plain — and lastly came the dress skirt itself, ruched and frilled. A tulle ball dress often had six skirts of tulle over a foundation of satin.”[12]

Maintaining their role as a critic of crinoline, Punch was the first to announce in 1866, even though a new easily folding crinoline appeared in Paris, “farewell to crinoline.” Punch claimed that when the French Empress appeared at the opening of the legislature minus her crinoline, it meant that “if the Empress gives it up, clearly [it] must die.”[13] But it didn’t die just because Punch said so because despite “Punch‘s pen and pencil … leveled against crinoline for eight or nine years without abating one jot,”[14] crinoline remained fashionable and popular with women throughout most of the 1850s and 60s.

By 1868 because dresses were now adding numerous petticoats to achieve the bell shape crinoline was practically gone. But when fashion leaders met in Paris that same year to discuss crinoline some people noted the positive benefits of it. For instance:

“One of the arguments put forward for its retention was that the high heels of the shoes made women walk so badly they could not support the weight of their gowns without the crinoline.”[15]

Punch's Suggestion of Police with Scissors, Public Domain

Punch‘s suggestion of police with scissors to make short work of crinoline. Public domain.

Even if it helped support the weight gowns and even if the new easily folding crinoline had benefits, crinoline of the 1850s would not last. It soon contracted to the crinolette with volume only at the rear, which then reverted to the bustle (a framework that supported drapery at the back of a woman’s dress).

1867 Patent for a Crinoline/Bustle, Courtesy of Wikipedia

1867patent for a crinoline/bustle.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When crinoline did finally disappear, some people attributed its demise to Punch, but it was unlikely the magazine had much of an effect in getting rid of it as there were at least three other good reasons for women to find crinoline unfashionable and troublesome. First, wearing it caused pressure that could only be alleviated by wearing a corset, and the corset issue, as well as the fact that dress reformers believed those who wore the corset and crinoline were “caged” and “imprisoned” certainly did not bode well for its future.

The second and third reasons involved movement and size. It was difficult for a woman in crinoline to maneuver through doors and almost impossible for them to enter and exit carriages in a feminine manner, just like the court mantua of Marie Antoinette and the princesse de Lamballe’s time. Moreover, when a woman sat down with crinoline, it could prove embarrassing as she might be hit in the face by her skirt or splayed out in such a position as to make her ability to sit laughable.

There was also the wind to consider. The slightest gust rocked a woman’s skirts and exposed her legs. If she was unfortunate enough to trip, crinoline held up her skirts and displayed everything beneath (which was one reason for women to wear drawers). Yet, perhaps the real reason it disappeared had nothing to do with any of this. Rather it “was swept away by a grand tidal wave of common sense.”[16]

Falling in Crinoline, Public Domain

Falling in crinoline. Public domain.


  • [1] G. Hill, A History of English Dress from the Saxon Period to the Present Day, A History of English Dress from the Saxon Period to the Present Day (New York: Putnam, 1893), p. 262.
  • [2] Crinoline. Reprinted from “The Illustrated News of the World.” (London: Emily Faithfull, 1863), p. 2.
  • [3] Punch (London: Punch Publications Limited, 1866), p. 161.
  • [4] Crinoline. Reprinted from “The Illustrated News of the World.” (London: Emily Faithfull, 1863), p. 6.
  • [5] G. Hill. 1893, p. 255–56.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 263.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Crinoline. Reprinted from “The Illustrated News of the World.” p. 2–6.
  • [9] G. Hill. 1893, p. 265.
  • [10] Ibid. p. 265–66.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 270.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Punch (London: Punch Publications Limited, 1866), p. 67.
  • [14] E. S. Dallas, Once a Week (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1869), p. 369.
  • [15] G. Hill. 1893, p. 271.
  • [16] E. S. Dallas. 1869, p. 371.

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