Dangerous Fashion: Devilish Crinolines


“At all events if a crinoline must be the fashion then every lady should wear a fire screen.”

I find historical fashions fascinating. Fashion, textiles and popular crazes can be analysed to be more than aesthetics. I particularly enjoy the medical impact of fashion.  Fashion has power over the physical body, it manipulates and shapes the anatomy. The productions of fabrics often contained cocktails of dangerous chemicals, poisoning and scarring the body overtime. Fashion also contributed to sudden and accidental deaths – deaths you only associate with horror movies, nightmares and exaggerations.

One fashion item that has always intrigued me is the Crinoline. It is considered as one of the more important shapewear items of 19th century fashion and dress. The phrase ‘Crinolinemania’ was initally coined by 19th century media in relation to ridiculous fashions. Satirical publications such as Punch and caricaturists often depicted crinolines in a humorous light, mocking the limits creators and women went to in order to display crinolines and the shape of their bodies. In a contemporary perspective the phrase Crinolinemania is now associated with the overall popularity of the garment  which spanned the entirety of the 19th century. The crinoline only began to lose its following towards the end of the 1890s due to the rise of the more practical crinolette and its formation into the bussle.

Getty Images

The hooped underskirt was innovative. It became a more efficient way of dressing through replacing the weighty layers of fabric with one stiffened underskirt which rested a singular linen petticoat and the main dress.  The crinoline improved the aesthetic of shape: it created a fuller silhouette and frame which caused the primary fabric to spread evenly and smoothly over the hooped frame.

The crinoline was inspired by fashion of the past, namely the exotic hooped farthingale which was introduced to England by Catherine of Aragon and worn as a symbol of the aristocracy. (see previous post here: History of Fashion: The evolution of the Petticoat)

Inflatable crinoline. 1857 caricature by John Leech Punch’s Pocket Book

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century caused the crinoline to be mass produced, allowing women of all classes to find ways to access, and replicate, the latest fashion trend. However, while the crinoline was celebrated and worn throughout the 19th century, it also had significant design flaws. The crinoline was impractical, it was hazardous, it was deadly.

Suitable Workwear…..

At the height of its popularity the crinoline and its handmade versions were worn in nearly all social events, including daily work. A newspaper article from June 1864 provides a chilling example of crinoline injury within a 19th century factory.

“MACHINERY ACCIDENT THROUGH CRINOLINE.—An inquest was held on Monday, near Bolton, on the body of Ann Rollinson, a married woman, recently employed at Firwood bleach works. On Friday afternoon last she was engaged in the mangling room, and had occasion to go to a wall where, in a recess, soap is kept for the use of the workpeople, and about a foot from the wall a shaft between three and four inches in diameter, and two feet six inches from the floor, driven by steam power, revolves about fifty times per minute. Her dress was caught upon the shaft, and she was pulled to it, and revolved with the shaft two or three minutes before the machinery could be stopped. She was mortally injured in the spine. No limbs were broken. She died at home in two hours after the occurrence. A witness stated that her dress would not have been caught but for the crinoline pressing it out. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death,” adding a request that the shaft should be covered with a casing.”

A Crinoline Blaze

Crinolines were made from various materials throughout the years, including steel hoops, whale-bone and wood. The idea of a crinoline on fire may lead the mind to blame these materials yet the main fire hazard was a combination of the main dress fabrics and the shape of the crinoline structure. The full and airy skirt next to a hot stove or candle was the perfect recipe for the ignition of a fire, rising and spreading to the upper body.

It is estimated that 3,000 women were killed in crinoline fires between 1850 and 1860 with deaths continuing throughout the following decades. The victims tended to be young women in domestic jobs. 14 year old Margaret Davey, a kitchen maid from Popular, London, was engulfed by flames as she reached for cutlery near a fireplace. Her death was reported in an 1863 paper which explains the view of the Coroner who stated “accidental death by fire, caused through crinoline.” (The Times, February 1863)

Florence Nightingale voiced her disgust and fury at crinolines on numerous occasions, suggesting that the hazardous garment created extra pressure within medicine as well as putting others at risk.

“Fortunate it is if her skirts do not catch fire-and if the nurse does not give herself up a sacrifice together with her patient, to be burnt in her own petticoats. I wish the Registrar-General would tell us the exact number of deaths by burning occasioned by this absurd and hideous custom. But if people will be stupid, let them take measures to protect themselves from their own stupidity-measures which every chemist knows, such as putting alum into starch, which prevents starched articles of dress from blazing up.” (Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing)

Crinoline Indecency

The crinoline was somewhat contradictory in its “marking of a respectable and fashionable woman.” The replacement of the petticoat layers may have kept the shape and length of a respectable shape yet the inflexible nature of the cage and airy nature caused a variety of issues. Satirical publications depicted the indecency of the crinoline with women falling or being pushed by the wind and showing their undergarments in public.

The Cliffhanger of the Crinoline….

There are myths about women talking long scenic walks on moors and coast edges, dressed in elaborate clothes: bonnets, capes, crinolines. The stories end with a sudden gush of wind with women “flying” off the edge. Whether these reports were true or not continues to be unknown – perhaps a deterrent to stop the other injuries from crinolines occurring!


Ostende & Blankenberghe. Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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