The Victorian Crinoline and its Caricaturists

Christina Walkley reflects on the crinoline, a controversial style of skirt that became a short-lived fashion phenomenon.

Cutaway view of a crinoline, Punch magazine, August 1856
Cutaway view of a crinoline, Punch magazine, August 1856

Few single garments are so well-documented as the crinoline; yet few have been so misrepresented by posterity. To some the crinoline is the symbol of a kind of passive femininity now vanished; and to Hollywood, in its youthful excesses, it was an essential ingredient of any period drama: thus we have the absurd spectacle of Wuthering Heights in crinolines.

But to the Victorians themselves the crinoline had little of submissiveness, seeming rather a monstrous plot to increase woman’s stature and make man seem insignificant; in the words of one writer, ‘we awake to look upon the excited iron age of England, and to be reminded of its existence even in the dresses of England’s fairest daughters’.

Historians of costume have exercised all their ingenuity in analyzing the phenomenon of the crinoline. Those who subscribe to the psychological interpretations of Dr Flügel will see in it an expression of Victorian woman’s prudery, causing her completely to conceal her legs, and to keep the opposite sex at a suitable distance.

Those who believe, with James Laver, that costume is but another manifestation of the Spirit of the Age, will detect a significant similarity of shape between the crinoline and the dome of the 1862 Exhibition.

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