Crinolines: Disturbing History of Victorian Era Petticoats & Skirts

Punch's satirical picture of a Victorian-era crinoline
Punch’s satirical picture of a Victorian-era crinoline.

Victorian era England is a popular topic for modern films and TV. Whether it’s Sense and Sensibility or whatever else, production crews get behind the whole fashion thing and make it out as super glamorous.

The massive skirts from the era involved a crinoline. And whilst randomly researching these things online, we found out they were alarmingly dangerous. Hurray? No. Not at all.

What’s a Crinoline?

It’s a stiff structured petticoat that holds out a woman’s hoop skirt. During the Victorian era, the skirts could be absolutely bloody enormous.

Although a lot of women found this desirable, even in the 1850s they were the butt of many jokes in satirical publications of the day. But between 1850 and 1870, they remained something of a big hit in the world of fashion.

And it wasn’t a class issue, either, as upper and working class women would indulge in the whole hoop skirt wearing drama.

They were so popular Thomson & Co. in London was producing over 4,000 crinolines every day.

But with great popularity comes hellish death and destruction. Right?

Why was crinoline so dangerous?

Because it was an appalling fire hazard. Humans love their socialising and culture, but for a very long term the likes of attending the opera or going to watch a film was insanely dangerous.

In Mark Kermode’s movie book, he documents how going to see a film in early cinemas was fraught with danger. The equipment to show the reel could catch fire and burn entire buildings down.

And it happened quite a lot back in the olden days.

Similarly, you could head to the opera in the 18th or 19th century and you were putting your life on the line.

With hundreds of candles burning at evening events so people could see stuff, one slight issue and the whole building could be on fire rapidly.

Clearly not living dangerously enough, some people took it a step further and went for dangerous fashion decisions. It was the era of chimney sweep children, so what the hey?

Women in crinoline hoop skirts were a walking fire hazard. Whether at home or out and about, all it took was a naked flame and you’ve got a serious problem.

What’s truly alarming here are the figures we came across. As well as the general knowledge crinoline was highly flammable. And it didn’t stop women wearing them.

Estimates suggest that between the late 1850s and early 1860s, three thousand women went up in a ball of flames. As the thing was so difficult to manouvre out of, there was little chance to escape the inferno once the hoop skirt caught fire.

Florence Nightingale reported that around 630 women died like this between 1863-1864.

Many of these incidents were reported in national newspapers. The Times in February 1863 reported of a 14-year-old girl suffering this fate. What was she doing? Apparently standing on the edge of a fireplace to reach some spoons off of a mantelpiece.

Many women, nobility and otherwise, also suffered embarrassing incidents. The skirt getting stuck in machinery or passing horse and carriage, leading to the exposure of their legs (highly risqué back in Victorian times).

As some women went to work in the things as well, there were a lot of work-related crinoline deaths. Simply as the skirt would get jammed in machinery and drag a poor women to her demise.

But, obviously, the main issue here was the fire aspect.

The frightening thing about it was women were pretty much stuck in the hoop skirt. The moment disaster struck, there was little they could do to avoid injury or death.

So the moment the thing ignited, the woman was pretty much doomed. As you might expect, this did eventually lead to a change in fashion stances.

Are Crinolines Still Worn?

Yes, to this day they remain somewhat popular—in one form or another.

But in the Victorian era, their mass popularity took a steady decline. From around 1870 much smaller crinolines became the norm, although they had flashes of comebacks during WWI—”war crinolines”, as they were known.

And these days you’re more likely to see them worn as part of vintage retro events. Or, primarily, as enormous great big white wedding dresses.

However, we have seen a few reports of skirts and dresses catching fire. So, we guess what we’re aiming for with this post is to bloody careful, you hear?

Those things are glamorous to wear. But you need to keep an eye out for potential danger.

8 comments

  1. A very silly piece of clothing indeed. And, as you say, dangerous. Curiously, I recently caught up with a documentary about the many dangers of the Victorian home. I knew about some of the issues but woah, those places were LETHAL. Everything from being boiled in your own gas-heated bath to falling down the stairs to being poisoned by the arsenides leaching out of the wallpaper. Not to mention women being crushed by their own corsets and, as you say, burned to death by crinolines. I keep wondering how anybody survived at all. (There was also structural failure – my family has a historic story about the ceiling falling in on a dinner gathering in the family home in London around 1895).

    Apropos crinolines, I believe social convention required women to appear to ‘glide’ while wearing them, as if on roller skates. As a result I have a hypothesis that, because roller skates had been patented in 1819, many mid-Victorian age women secretly wore roller skates under their crinolines, but for some reason I have found totally no documentary evidence to support the idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luckily, back in the good old days you could send a chimney sweep in to sort all those issues out. Or a slave. Although I think survival was just a luck-based thing for thousands of years given the outbreaks of illnesses etc.

      And for apropos crinolines, if they make a comeback I’d like it to be men wearing them next time out. Gliding away alongside their ruddy social media accounts and vaping. There’s progress.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I adore the shape. I blame candles!
    If there was electric light, there would have been no problem.
    Still, it was an awkward shaper to get around in.
    What about the corset? That was a comfy bit!

    Liked by 1 person

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