Saturday, 31 October 2015

Women In Cages


Whenever I mention that I write Victorian crime fiction, people always comment upon the infamous crinoline. Why on EARTH would women put up such a monstrosity? Well, they did, and surprisingly, with great relish. The crinoline, or hooped skirt was actually based on a design from the 1840s. In 1856, the American W.S.Thomson patented the metal cage crinoline and it became a huge hit in the USA, France and Britain. It was the first fashion to encompass all classes - rich or poor, you could still afford to wear it.

Although we find it hard to believe, women really loved the cage crinoline. At the height of its popularity, enough steel was produced in Sheffield to make half a million hoops in one week. It freed women from the constricting two petticoats: one flannel, one cotton, that they wore previously and gave them more ability to move their legs. And it was easy to hoick it up at the back when you needed to go to the privy or relieve yourself in the street (no public toilets).

Crinolines came in a variety of shapes, but they were not especially expensive, retailing at a third of the price of a dress. And if you were a skillful needlewoman - as most young women were in those days, it was easy to transform the style of an existing dress by the addition of a cage.

Spring steel shapes crinolines were light and flexible, and could be pressed out of shape temporarily, a useful attribute when trying to sit down, or get in and out of carriages and buses. Together with the tightly-laced corset, which emphasized a woman's tiny waist (the record was 13 inches), the crinoline gave the wearer a very ''sexy'' shape. This was enhanced by the way women had to walk: placing the foot outwards and describing a semi-circle, which gave a swaying motion to the hips. It was almost impossible to go at speed, so the slow, swaying gait was considered very alluring.

A 'waspie'

And cages and stays came in very nice colours. In Diamonds & Dust, Josephine King and her fashion mentor Isabella Thorpe visit a big department store, where they are informed by one of the female assistants that: ''We have some delightful articles in scarlet, Mademoiselle ... Zey came in last week, fresh from Par-ee.''  

However brightly colored and popular, cage crinolines were not all good news however. Sitting down had to be re-learned, and getting through narrow doors or down narrow passageways was a nightmare. And the there was the ever present danger of high winds, which could leave you scrambling to hold your skirt down lest (oh horror!) your drawers were exposed to male passersby. Add to this the danger from open fires and gas lamps and wearing the crinoline could have fatal consequences:


However attractive you felt, wearing a crinoline didn't make courtship any easier than it already wasn't. In November 1856, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine published a poem called 'Crinoliniana' which ended:

I long to clasp thee to my heart
  But all my longings are in vain;
I sit and sigh two yards apart,
  And curse the barriers of thy train.
My fondest hopes I must resign,
   I can't get past that Crinoline!

The crinoline seems a perfectly ridiculous item of fashion to us today, but for the Victorians with their sense of propriety, it was the perfect device to distance a woman both physically and psychologically from her surroundings, from the real world and to preserve her femininity and chastity for her husband. In a sense, it was the real-life equivalent of placing herself upon a pedestal.

16 comments:

  1. I saw a stage production of Jane Eyre, in which the leading lady wore a crinoline. Unfortunately, the actress must have been on sick leave during the dress rehearsal. She sat on a chair facing the audience and the skirt rose to reveal a rather inauthentic pair of modern knickers. More practice needed, I think.

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  2. Really interesting Carol. I wonder house many crinolines you could get on a bus at the same time.

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  3. And a 'wardrobe malfunction' might require the aid of a mechanic and bolt-cutters...?

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    1. It did terrible things to their insides!

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  4. How fascinating Carol, I love reading about this stuff but am so glad I was not born at this time. I often wonder what someone from then would think if they arrived in our time and tried on jeans :-)

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    1. probably think we were as bizarre as we think they are

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  5. One could argue that women have, throughout the centuries, been expected to wear clothes that made life more difficult for them and therefore easier for men. Like high-heeled shoes ... I'm sure someone has written about the politics of women's fashion!

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    1. That would be an interesting study, Jo.

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  6. That poem had me chuckling! Poor guy!

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  7. How interesting. I was obsessed with crinolines as a child - I really wanted dresses with crinolines (could live without the corsets!). My mum really wanted me to wear jeans. We compromised and I wore jeans with Jessica Rabbit on them. In fairness, I'm not sure where my mum would have got a dress with a crinoline for an 8 year old in the eighties! (Although we did live in Sheffield! But Thatcher shut down the steel works so that wouldn't have helped.)

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    1. If they ever brought it back, we'd all have to wear cheap Chinese steel crinolines, that would collapse in earthquakes...doesn't beat contemplating, does it

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  8. Ok, Carol, now I know that you are the same age as me so don't pretend you don't remember what I'm about to say! When I was a kid I absolutely loved my net petticoats. They had the effect of billowing out my skirts without the need for steel and there was one that was multicoloured, comfortable to wear and made me feel like a really grown up girl when I wore it. Was I brainwashed do you think?

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    1. I do remember wearing one..it was very scratchy!

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  9. I suppose it must have been a bit like the freedom women had in the fifties when full skirts came in after all those pencil skirts of the forties. My mother said that was as a result of fabric shortages, but I've never heard that anywhere else. All the same, I find pencil skirts very awkward, so the crinoline must have been quite liberating. I'm amazed at the amount of steel they needed to make to support the fashion though! Fascinating, Carol!

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  10. The more I learn about historical costumes of all kinds, the more horrid they seem. I suppose early 19th century Empire line and muslins were all right - in the summer, at least - but I read a ghastly story once about some female Canadian emigrants who couldn't look fashionable AND stay warm in the winter....

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