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Crinolines: underwear at the time of Queen Victoria

The steel-hooped cage crinolines, first patented in April 1856 by R.C. Milliet in Paris, and by their agent in Britain a few months later, became extremely popular across the Western world, where they were worn by women of every social standing and class.

Crinoline in cotton and metal, 1860/1870. Collection MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Crinoline in cotton and metal, 1860-1870. Collection MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Originally the crinoline, consisting of a stiff fabric made of horsehair and cotton or linen, was used to make underskirts and as a dress lining. The stiffened or structured petticoat was designed to hold out the woman’s skirt and by the 1850s, the ladies wore it up in order the widen skirts to achieve the illusion of a tiny waist.

Crinoline, 'A Favorite Of The Empress', spring steel frame covered with red wool and linen, probably made in Great Britain, 1860-1865.  Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, CC-BY-SA.

Crinoline, 'A Favorite Of The Empress', spring steel frame covered with red wool and linen, probably made in Great Britain, 1860-1865. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, CC-BY-SA.

By then, the term crinoline was more usually applied to the fashionable silhouette provided by horsehair petticoats, and to the hoop skirts that replaced them. In form and function these hoop skirts enabled skirts to spread even wider and more fully.

"Le Salon", uncoloured fashion plate from "Moniteur les Modes Parisienne" showing three women in a furnished interior wearing large crinoline skirts, two in mantles. Unsigned, Paris, dated 1859. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, CC-BY-SA.

"Le Salon", fashion plate from "Moniteur les Modes Parisienne" showing three women in a furnished interior wearing large crinoline skirts, two in mantles. Unsigned, Paris, dated 1859. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, CC-BY-SA.

At its widest point, the crinolines could reach a circumference of up to six yards. Their features, and their width, made the crinolines dangerous if not worn without due care and this widespread media scrutiny and criticism. Many caricatures and illustrations refigured fashionable ladies wearing impossible and exaggerated version of the cage in ridiculous scenes, but this however reflected a true and less funny reality. Thousands of women died in the middle 19th century as a result of their hooped skirts catching. In addition to fire, their hazards included the hoops being caught in machinery, carriage wheels, gusts of wind, or other obstacles.

“La Crinoline. Air à la façon de Barbari” serie of caricatures of women wearing crinolines, 1857-1860. Collection MoMu – ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

“La Crinoline. Air à la façon de Barbari” serie of caricatures of women wearing crinolines, 1857-1860. Collection MoMu – ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

By the late 1860s, crinolines were beginning to reduce in size and, in the early 1870s, they were largely replaced by the smaller crinolettes and the bustle.

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