Steel frame crinoline
Nothing encapsulates more the idea of industry meeting fashion than the steel frame or 'cage' crinoline: the 'first great triumph of the machine age'.1 Previous to its inception women had thrust their skirts outwards with the aid of multitudinous layers of petticoats of varying weight and composition.2 As observed with mauve, this was yet another attire related invention that derived its nomenclature from the French. The prefix 'crin' referring to the coarse animal hair used in the manufacture of stiffened petticoats which had been consistently employed since 1839 to create fullness without the need of quite so many petticoats.3 The impracticalities of following fashion as skirts continued to burgeon into the 1850s, became continually evident. Huge quantities of fabric would render mobility extremely difficult in the wearer, all manor of considerations would come into play for the simplest of journeys – where any amount of poor weather could result in a much heavier ensemble to transport.4 In May 1854 the Petit Courier des Dames recorded that 'every method is used to attain the desired volume […] even whale boned petticoats […] petticoats of crinoline are not enough.' Given the lengths that women would go to in 1854 it is not surprising that a mere two years had elapsed before the industrial age offered a solution.
The invention of the steel frame crinoline has been a matter of some dispute – both England and France simultaneously blaming the other for its appearance whilst also grappling over the acclaim of its invention. The Frenchman Auguste Person is known to have sold a patent in 1856 for a mere 4,000 francs and the cage is commonly attributed to him, but it is likely in fact, that the steel frame developed concurrently on both sides of the channel. The technology was quickly seized upon by the fashionable markets, the innovation was absorbed and the terminology 'crinoline' and 'cage' were used interchangeably from this point onwards. There were two forms: one was formed from a skeleton frame of steel and the other of a cotton or linen petticoat with steel hoops inserted.5 At one time a London factory was reported to be producing between 3-4,000 crinolines a day.6
The steel frame emerged at a time when fashions called for large projected skirts and had this not been the vogue, it is unlikely that the cage would have been quite the success it was. Its emergence timed with the penchant for voluminous skirts allowed dressmakers to make minor amendments to existing patterns to accommodate the new structure. The advantages to its wearer were manifold: movement was unrestricted by cumbersome layering, air was allowed to circulate around the legs and was thus considered more hygienic and less money was expended in the provision of petticoats and their continual laundering. Of course, the 'cage' was also accompanied by new restrictions – the very definition of a cage suggesting its restrictive tendencies. Women in cage crinolines could expect exceptional difficulties in almost every aspect of their lives: from travelling in small coaches and railway carriages, to passing through doorways, moving around crowded spaces and even sitting down. It was such inconveniences that led to sustained ridicule from the opposite sex – justifiably so. Once again, as had been the case with the chemical dye mauve, a fashion innovation was likened to an illness – Punch coined the term 'Crinolineomania'.7 The same extract from Punch also traces the craze's origins back to the Imperial Court and its principle female member: Eugénie. Eugénie is often credited with having proliferated the epidemic – although she always quite resolutely maintained that she would not set fashions, merely follow them at a respectable pace.8 Such was Eugénie's influence that 'even the outrageous crinoline was sanctified in the eyes of the British matron and her daughters from the moment of its adoption by a beautiful arbitress of fashion'.9
The vast circumference of the skirts supported by the cage led to many accidents, particularly involving fire.10 It was such accidents combined with the distaste of the male portion of society (who could not now reach for a kiss without bending double) that precipitated the crinoline's downfall.
Zoe Viney 2009
Image: Steel Frame Crinoline By Thomson. Linen, braid and wire hoops. England, c.1865-68. [T.51-1980] Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.