Friday, 6 December 2013

Victorian fashion featuring 'crinolines'

 I’m really interested in fashion and so I decided to research ‘Victorian fashion,’ looking at the developments and changes of clothing throughout the time period. I visited the V&A to get a better idea about the types of clothing Victorian women wore and I conducted further research to explore the differences in clothing between the rich and poor. I also wanted to look at crinolines as no one seems to know what they are, including myself. So I’ll start with those.

At the beginning of the Victorian period women wore dresses with corsets underneath. The main purpose of a corset was to raise and shape the breast, clench in the waist and support the back. These were worn under dresses and unlike the earlier metal corsets, corsets in the 19th century were more comfortable to wear. Anyway onto crinolines. Crinolines were very popular amongst women in the early mid 1800’s. A crinoline was originally a taut fabric with a weft of horse-hair and a warp of cotton or linen thread. Below is an illustration of an early crinoline which is round in shape making the skirt of the dress appear very wide. There were many problems with these structures, such as if I woman did not place her petticoats in a certain way when she sat down the crinoline would spring up in her face. This would both have been embarrassing but also humorous. This sketch reveals the hidden impracticalities of a crinoline on one side of the picture. It looks like a rigid net, almost as though it’s a device used to trap a woman. To me this represents how women were trapped in society. In the Victorian period there were many rules and regulations women were expected to abide by, their rights were very limited. They were expected to bring up their children and provide their husbands with clean, presentable homes. So that side of the picture shows the limiting, often uncomfortable lives women in this time period led. The other half of the sketch shows the luxurious garment that hides the impracticalities of a crinoline, perhaps symbolizing how on the outside a woman’s life appears glamorous and enjoyable, but concealed underneath is something quite limiting and uncomfortable. This illustration is from ‘Punch’ a British magazine of humour and satire. (Satire is a genre of literature, a common feature of it is sarcasm or irony.) Punch magazine was known for ridiculing crinolines.
THE Daily News-in an article suggested by therecent deaths resulting from the prevailing fashionamong ladies of wearing extended crinolines-strongly
denounces this "real social evil "kiss me-  quick' bonnets are declared by our physicians to bethe cause of the great increase of maladies of the headsand eyes-the rheumatism, the neuralgic pains, thedecaying teeth, the inflamed eyes, yet the bonnets arenothing to crinoline, which has become "responsible  for more deaths than any other fashion ever caused" During these five years, says the News, " we have done our best to be patient under an evil which we hoped would be short lived. We have had no com-fort in social meetings, because no dinner table and no ballroom, no box or stall at the theatre, no carriage, and no boat, could accommodate both our families and ourselves. We have found it difficult and disagreeable  to walk with our wives and daughters on pavements,and in lanes and country footpaths, made for people more naturally dressed. We have seen the choicest flowers in our gardens, and the most cherished plants in our greenhouses cut off by the hoop We have paid a fare and a half each for wife    and daughters in travelling by coach in rural districts,and have lost all our pleasure on board steam boats,from the anxiety of watching lest any of our party should sweep a child over into the lake or river. Our wardrobes afford no room for our clothes, because the  women of the family want more space than they can get. For five years we have not had room to turn ourselves round in our own homes. 

This article from The Guardian expresses the difficulties a woman faced when wearing a crinoline. ‘...yet bonnets are nothing to crinoline, which has become responsible for more deaths than any other fashion...’ this shows how crinolines were not just uncomfortable to wear they actually caused fatalities. The title of this article ‘A REAL SOCIAL EVIL’ shows the hatred towards crinolines. Not only were women affected by them, but others around them were too. ‘We have found it difficult and disagreeable to walk with our wives and daughters...’ this again emphasises the terrible affects crinolines had on everyone as this piece of writing is not even written by a woman.

Later into the mid 1800’s crinolines began to change in shape. Rather than having a wide, round, dome-shape, the sides and front became smaller and narrower and it was the back of the crinoline that stayed voluminous. This crinoline was referred to as a crinolette. The image below shows how the crinoline changed over the time period, the back of the crinoline extended which was called a ‘bustle.’ A ‘bustle’ was a type of frame work which was used to enhance the back of a lady’s dress.

So now I’m pretty certain everyone has a good idea about what a crinoline is and the difficulties men and women in the 1800’s experienced when they were at the height of fashion. Moving on, I’m going to look at the dissimilarities and similarities in clothing between the different social classes. During my research I found out that wealthier women wore corsets and crinolines, they often had to be dressed by a maid as these items were difficult to put on by oneself. The poorer women often had to wear second hand clothes and their clothes would be more practical and less extravagant. However saying this Mary Barton actually provided a different insight into the type of clothes poorer women wore during the 19th century. Mary Barton was a dressmaker and for a short while spent her time making dresses for women who I assume could afford them. Mary herself was quite poor but took care with her appearance ‘So she put on her pretty new blue merino, made tight to her throat, her little linen collar and linen cuffs...’  (33) I researched what a merino dress would look like and I found this, it’s a high collared dress. As there is no picture of what Mary was wearing it is hard to decipher from Gaskell’s writing if the dress was plain and simple. However the pre-modifier ‘pretty’ and ‘new’ suggests it was a nice, new dress. This could then perhaps propose although she was poor, as a dress maker she could have made it herself.

I found a couple of references in Wuthering Heights that supported my research on what wealthier women wore. When Catherine Earnshaw stays with The Linton’s a wealthy family, she arrives home wearing beautiful clothes. ‘...and there shone beneath, a grand plaid silk frock, white trousers, and burnished shoes...’ (53) The description Emily Brontë displays emphasizes the rich, extravagance of the clothing. The metaphor ‘shone beneath’ shows the housekeeper’s shock at the difference in her appearance. This supports my research about how richer women wore very beautiful garments in comparison to the poor who had to just settle for whatever they could afford or anything that was passed down to them.


This is what a typical wealthy woman would have worn in the 19th century. A well fitted dress with petticoats draped over a very wide crinoline. Not only does the dress suggest that the woman in this picture is wealthy the setting and her pose does as well.


This is what a poorer woman would have been subjected to wearing. You can see the difference. This woman is wearing no fine materials such as silk or lace and she is not wearing a crinoline which suggests her poor status. The fact she is cleaning a shoe in this picture again displays her low status in society as it was common for poor women to have to earn a living to support her family, whereas a wealthy woman would not have been situated to that.

Works cited
·        Gaskell Elizabeth, Mary Barton. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2012. Print

·        Brontë, Emily, and Pauline Nestor. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

·        "Damsels in Regress." Damsels in Regress. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.



  1. I like the comparison you gave on the picture of both the wealthy/poor woman.

  2. This is really interesting the way you talked about crinolines, especially as I had read it after the lecture where they were mentioned. I did not realise that they would have been so dangerous before reading this.