(An historical perspective)

By Danielle  of "Silhouette" Magazine

Reprinted with permission

 Tell me not in honeyed accents Crinoline will come once more,
That my soul must feel the trammels that I left in days of yore,
Modesty, I own, forbids me, to the public to reveal
All the tortures that I suffered in that period of steel.
Philistine I was then, doubtless, and those days would fain forget.
Why revive the old wire fencing - though you call it Cinolette?
We'll not yield without a struggle; so, fair ladies, do not fret,
Stick to fourteenth century fringes and abjure the Crinolette.

(Punch, 1881).

The earliest referenced to hooped skirts and underskirts are Spanish 14th century, although various earlier Egyptian and Mediterranean cultures have left us fragmented art which suggests they also played with the idea.   

The Spanish dressmakers initially used light de-barked sapling laths of graduated lengths to create a cone-shaped skirt.  This design came to France and England through the 16th century, although portraits suggest that additional padding (the bum-roll) was used for comfort and the create a more perfect circular shape.  Cane and whalebone (baleen) later provided the stiffening.

Some Velasquez portraits show dresses of this type, as well as the 16th century development that flattened the front and back and widened the panner designs to the sides (the garde-infante).

In France, Louis XIV's minister, Colbert, encouraged the development of the silk trade, centred on Lyon.  This new availability of silks, brocades and velvets encouraged the rich (men and women) to want more and more elaborate costumes, especially for extravagant court and high society wear.

By the end of the 17th century, huge supporting petticoats became necessary to flare out more elaborate female dress designs.  Initially stiffened with paste and/or glues, such garments were called 'crickets' (criardes) because of the rustling noise the overlapping petticoats created rubbing against each-other when the wearer moved!

English fashion soon followed suit, but the vastly lighter and more wearable whalebone hooped petticoat seems to have been a great British invention; for it is in early 17th century journals that we first read of them.  The early ones were round and dome shaped, but during the century tended to widen sideways and flatten at the front in the Spanish cone style.  Such hooped petticoats, sometimes called improvers, were made of rich materials and had three of four rows of whalebone stiffeners.  Sometimes extra hoops were positioned at the sides of the dress to help keep the garment fully extended.

For the first quarter of the 18th century, the vertical and extremely diaphanous Greek-style Regency dresses did away with such massive under-skirting in England, but by the middle of the 18th century, very large hoops were back again, being worn especially for full-dress occasions; smaller side-hooped garments (later renamed bustles) being more convenient, were used for day wear by the female upper classes.  As late as 1820, enormous hooped dresses were still de regieure in the court of George IV.  The poor, as always, subsisted in whatever they could lay their hands on, ad there was much demand for hand-downs of such dresses and underwear, especially in London from ladies of 'easy virtue', who could better afford them than many!

About 1840, the horse-stiffened petticoat became popular.  It became called the crinoline, form the French word for horsehair (crin).  Although mid-18th century materials such as muslin 's and silks were very popular, they have little inherent stiffness.  There was a great vogue for the flounced skirt, which required a lot of material and was often built in several layers.  Even with the lightness of these cloths, the stiff horsehair crinoline soon became insufficient to support the beautiful but elaborate garments.  More and more petticoats were added over the base petticoats reinforced with whalebone or (on cheaper garments) bamboo or stiff cording, to the point where the whole confection became exquisitely desirable, but  almost unwearable!   Remember that Victorian women were much smaller and slighter than you ladies of today!  (Which is why In have never been able to try out the delights of a real Victorian dress - they are invariably far too short in the body and too small round the waist for me, even when I am fully corseted!  Ands tool valuable and delicate for the owner to risk it!) 

The answer came around 1860 with the invention of the cage crinoline, which was a framework of steel wires, later improved even more with spring steel stiffenings.  Some petticoats were quite literally welded or bolted into a cone shape and covered with suitable materials to disguise the engineering! 

After the flounced skirt, female fashion simplified.  The circular dome shape was awkward to deal with when walking forward, and several such dresses soon  filled up the average dining room when elegant ladies gathered together (the men had to go off to their smoking rooms as there was no space let for them!).  So crinoline designs were flattened out at the side and front,  but became more and more spread out at the back.  The 1870s, this became the now familiar form of bustle (the tournoure), withy additional steels at the waist level behind the wearer supporting massive trains of material.  Sometimes a bustle as long as couple of feet (more than half a metre) of train followed on behind an elegant lady of high fashion!

But fashions changed again and by the end of the 19th century clothes had become much less bulky and the hooped petticoat disappeared for a while.  By the Roaring 20s, clothes had become so straight and simple that there was no place for the crinoline in any form.  Unsurprisingly in this modern age, it has not been a common fashion item since.

Does the crinoline still exist today?

Well, yes, in its simplest form.  For example,  many modern wedding dresses and som formal evening gowns still require hooped petticoats to give them their upside down 'tea cosy' or wide-bottomed  cone shaping.  These modern crinolines simply tie at the waist and are belled out with light spring steel wire or plastic bones.  They are light and flexible - although some brides wearing such garments need to be reminded that, when they knell at the altar, they should be careful that the whole dress does not lift at the back, giving the congregation a most unexpected view of the proceedings.

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