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Friday, 27 January 2017

Crinolinemania: The dangerous Victorian fashion garment that killed around 3,000 women

The crinoline was perceived as a signifier of social identity, with a popular subject for cartoons being that of maids wearing crinolines like their mistresses, much to the higher-class ladies’ disapproval.

Unlike the farthingales and panniers, the crinoline was worn by women of every social class; and the fashion swiftly became the subject of intense scrutiny in Western media.

The questions of servants in crinoline and the related social concerns were raised by George Routledge in an etiquette manual published in 1875, where he criticised London housemaids for wearing hoops at work.

As the girls knelt to scrub the doorsteps, Routledge described how their hoops rose to expose their lower bodies, inspiring street harassment from errand boys and other male passers-by.

Routledge firmly opined that servants ought to save their fashionable garments for their leisure periods, and dress appropriately for their work.

However, this was challenged by some servants who saw attempts to control their dress as equivalent to controlling their liberty, and refused to work for employers who tried to forbid crinolines.

The difficulties associated with the garment, such as its size, the problems and hazards associated with wearing and moving about in it.

And the fact that it was worn so widely by women of all social classes, were frequently exaggerated and parodied in satirical articles and illustrations such as those in Punch.

Alexander Maxwell has summarised crinoline mockery as expressing the male authors’ insecurity and fears that women, whose crinolines took up “enough space for five,” would eventually “conquer” mankind.

Julia Thomas, observing the extent of Punch’s anti-crinoline sentiment and mockery, noted that the magazine’s attacks, rather than crushing the fashion, exacerbated and even invented the phenomenon of “crinolinemania.”

Arthur Munby observed that in the “barbarous locality” of Wigan, the sight of a female colliery worker wearing trousers was “not half as odd as a woman wearing a crinoline,” exposing his own upper-class attitudes.

In Australia, poorer rural women were photographed posing outside their slab huts, wearing their best dresses with crinolines.

The French sociologist and economist Frédéric le Play carried out surveys of French working-class families’ wardrobes from 1850–75, in which he found that two women had crinolines in their wardrobe, both wives of skilled workers.

One, the fashion-conscious wife of a glove-maker, owned two crinolines and eleven dresses, although for everyday she wore wooden shoes and printed aprons.

In America, the mid-19th century crinoline has become popularly associated with the image of the Southern Belle, a young woman from the American Deep South’s upper socioeconomic, slave-owning classes.

However, as in Europe and elsewhere, the crinoline was far from exclusively worn by wealthy white women.

Both black and white women in America of all classes and social standings wore hooped skirts, including First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her African-American dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, who created many of Todd Lincoln’s own extravagant crinolines.

The flammability of the crinoline was widely reported. It is estimated that, during the late 1850s and late 1860s in England, about 3,000 women were killed in crinoline-related fires.

One such incident, the death of a 14-year-old kitchen maid called Margaret Davey was reported in The Times on 13 February 1863.

Her dress, “distended by a crinoline,” ignited as she stood on the fender of the fireplace to reach some spoons on the mantelpiece, and she died as a result of extensive burns.

The Deputy-Coroner, commenting that he was “astonished to think that the mortality from such a fashion was not brought more conspicuously under the notice of the Registrar-General,” passed a verdict of “Accidental death by fire, caused through crinoline.”

A similar case was reported later that year, when 16-year-old Emma Musson died after a piece of burning coke rolled from the kitchen fire to ignite her crinoline.

A month later, on 8 December 1863, a serious fire at the Church of the Company of Jesus in Santiago, Chile, killed between two and three thousand people

The severity of the death toll is credited in part to the large amounts of inflammable fabric that made up the women’s crinoline dresses.

Two notable victims of crinoline fires were William Wilde’s illegitimate daughters, Emily and Mary, who died in November 1871 of burns sustained after their evening gowns caught fire.

Slaveykov reported in 1864 that over the last 14 years, at least 39,927 women worldwide had died in crinoline-related fires, opining that it was more deadly than the practice of sati or the auto-da-fé.Although flame-retardant fabrics were available, these were thought unattractive and were unpopular.

Other risks associated with the crinoline were that it could get caught in other people’s feet, carriage wheels or furniture, or be caught by sudden gusts of wind, blowing the wearer off their feet.

In 1859, while participating in a paper chase, Louisa, Duchess of Manchester, caught her hoop while climbing over a stile, and was left with the entirety of her crinoline and skirts thrown over her head, revealing her scarlet drawers to the assembled company.

The crinoline was worn by some factory workers, leading to the textiles firm Courtaulds instructing female employees in 1860 to leave their hoops and crinolines at home.

Cunnington described seeing a photograph of female employees in the Bryant and May match factories wearing crinolines while at work.

A report in The Cork Examiner of 2 June 1864 recorded the death of Ann Rollinson from injuries sustained after her crinoline was caught by a revolving machinery shaft in a mangling room at Firwood bleach works.

(Source: The Vintage News)

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