Death By Crinoline

I found the following stories in Karen Bowman’s Corsets and Codpieces: A Social History of Outrageous Fashion (2015) from Pen and Sword Books.

It has been well documented that large crinolines and hoop skirts were extremely dangerous. They were constantly sweeping over open coals or flames and setting the wearer alight. They often got caught in passing carriages or machinery and dragged or crushed women to death. And yet, for more than a decade and despite the numerous warnings against them, women could not be deterred from wearing the hoop.

Our modern conceptions of Victorian style and femininity lead us to believe that the hoop skirt was widely celebrated by all concerned. We think of it as a shape that was probably very attractive to men of that generation, as it emphasized a tiny waist and large hips, preserved a great deal of modesty, and demonstrated a woman’s delicacy and wealth by being difficult to move in (showing that she wasn’t athletic or a laborer). So it’s funny to note that actually it was Victorian women who adored the shape, while many Victorian men actually hated the hoop skirt and wrote articles against it.

Punch and other satirical publications had loads to say about crinolines and hoops:

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“In 1864 a Dr Lancaster reported there had been 2,500 deaths in London alone from fire on account of the monstrous skirt. Reactions from the public were becoming noticeably weary, at time bordering on the impatient, ‘At all events if crinoline must be the fashion then every lady should wear a fire screen or at least be attended by a maid with an extinguisher‘ was one terse suggestion” (92-93).

Various politicians and social critics suggested legislation against crinolines. One thought that only mature women should be legally allowed to wear them, since older women led more sedate lives and were less likely to run into trouble with their crinolines by moving around. Another thought that all wide skirts should be forced to have the label “DANGEROUS” worn on them.

“Punch also joked that were there ever a crinoline insurance company established it could not possibly withstand the constant claims, fire escapes should be provided in all drawing rooms and air tubes within the petticoat might all be filled with water (and a means to eject it) thus making every lady her own fire engine. Needless to say, none of these schemes came to fruition” (93).

“In June 1863 even something as mundane as climbing stairs posed a serious threat. Despite the introduction of strings, hinges and pulley systems attached to the underside of the skirt to help with raising the front of the hoop, the wife of a merchant still caught her foot in her crinoline and fell with such violence she fractured her skull. Even the genteel and sedate pursuit of archery became a hazard when in Hertfordshire the wife of a clergyman suddenly sat down on the grass snapping one of the steel hoops which supported her dress. The sharp end penetrated a tender part of her body and inflicted a severe internal wound. Another lady from Bath, while standing talkng with friends, was unaware her dress was extending across a footpath and was accidentally dragged along the ground when a delivery cart drove past and its step hook into her crinoline. Both of the woman’s legs were broken” (93).

The hatred of hoops and crinolines rose even further when it was discovered that their voluminous silhouettes enabled wearers to shoplift enormous items with ease. “Ingeniously fitted out with pockets and hooks, it seemed there was no end to the size and weight of objects that could be successfully hidden under a crinoline . . . . Margaret Toole, a well-dressed woman of about 25, was charged, according to a newspaper report in 1862, with robbery at a draper’s shop. After walking about the shop looking at several articles, ‘her peculiar manner’ aroused the assistant’s suspicions and moments later she noticed some fringing hanging down from under the woman’s skirt. On calling for help, a policeman apprehended the woman not far from the shop and escorted her to the police station where it was found the woman had nine black silk mantles and two coloured silk dresses beneath her crinoline, all amounting to over £7. Needless to say, she was remanded” (95-96).

“Eliza Dreser, arrested at Hull police station, had become even bolder. Often remanded for stealing copious amounts of bed linen beneath her skirts, she lately was discovered to be hiding a set of steel fire-irons suspended from her waist. She protested they were her own but the police could find no reason why she should wish to transport such items in such a way and so she was charged.

“From shoplifting it is only a short step to smuggling and a lady travelling on board a ship form Holland was suspected of such due to her strange gait while walking. Elizabeth Barbara Lorinz (a native of Holland) denied all charges, declaring she walked strangely due to pregnancy. On being searched, she was found to have no less than 5 pounds of cigars, 9 pounds of tobacco, a quantity of tea and a bottle of gin, all concealed beneath her crinoline. It was a similar case with Ellen Carey, whose arrest was featured in the Chester Chronicle of 1858. Described as ‘a neatly dressed female’, she was accused of smuggling 22 pounds of cigars within three large petticoats” (96).

This doesn’t even begin to discuss other health problems brought about by simply wearing a hoop, all external dangers and thievery issues aside. I was in a play once that required me to wear a full hoop skirt, a corset, one petticoat, and a brocade gown. This was relatively light, by Victorian standards. My hoop was made of a light, flexible plastic, instead of steel. I only had the one lightweight petticoat, and my dress, although heavy, would have been much heavier if it had been made of something like velvet, or had any embellishments at all (especially braid or ruffles). Despite getting off fairly lightly, by the end of every show, my waist and hips were extremely sore from the weight the dress put on them, and by the end of the play’s run, I had giant bruises.

The damage done to women’s bodies by hoops and corsets (the latter of which we’ll discuss another day) was well noted by the Rational Dress Society. “Possibly the greatest recdommendation of the Rational Dress Society was that a woman’s dress should weigh no more than 1 1/2 to 3 pounds and that her underwear should weigh no more than 7. To the modern woman who wears silk or synthetic lingerie as opposed to bulky cotton, wool or flannel this is still a great deal of clothing, but that figure was actually half of what was worn by most women in 1850 when ladies were restricted by up to 14 pounds of layered undergarments” (106).

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3 Responses to Death By Crinoline

  1. A wonderful piece! You have to wonder why anyone would willingly wear clothes that put you in extreme danger near machinery or fire. A former girlfriend told me some years ago about one of her ancestors, who was burned to death in a chair in a hairdresser’s salon. Having said that, I read a few years ago that on average 4 British women die every year falling out of their shoes.
    I’m looking forward to your piece on corsets when it appears. They were every bit as unpopular as hoop skirts amongst Victorian men, and newspapers frequently printed articles warning of the perils of tight-lacing.

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    • My husband’s great-great-great aunt was killed at 16 when her skirts got too close to an open fire. I don’t know if she was wearing a hoop or not (she was working as a housemaid at the time, but even housemaids started wearing the hoop, to the confusion and distress of their owner). Regardless, the longs skirts in general were a hazard. Bring on bloomers!

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  2. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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