Crinolinomania: The War on Mid-19th Century Women’s Fashion

The Crinoline (mid-1850s to mid-1860s)

The cage crinoline, or the hoop skirt, was made of thin steel wires bound in fabric and draped from the waist with cotton tape ties. Though the idea of a hoop skirt has been around for centuries (see the farthingale of the 15th-17th centuries, or the pannier of the 18th century), R.C. Milliet took out a patent in 1856 for steel wires suspended on cotton tape. This seemingly turned fashion upside down overnight.

Prior to the crinoline, women’s skirts were growing in circumference. To support the skirts and provide a popular bell-shape, women wore multiple layers of petticoats. This was unhygienic and heavy. The crinoline eliminated the need for multiple petticoats, making it a lightweight and more hygienic option.

It also was used to vilify the women who wore them. Themes of promiscuity, infanticide, deceit, and domination started cropping up around the crinoline.

Photograph of Harriet Lane wearing a crinoline
Harriet Lane wearing a crinoline, ca.1857-1861. From the collection at LancasterHistory.


With the rise of the crinoline, periodicals published articles and satirical illustrations to mock the garment. Letters to the editors poured in and blamed the crinoline for indecency. Instead of posing credible concerns about the crinoline, periodicals focused on women taking up too much space in both a physical and metaphorical sense. It became such an obsession that the term, “Crinolinomania,” was born.

Illustrative Responses to the Crinoline

On October 4, 1856, Punch, or the London Charivari published “Crinoline Convenient Sometimes. A Warning to Mothers.” It explained that the crinoline encouraged promiscuity by enabling women to hide men.

An Illustration of a girl hiding a man behind her crinoline while her mother checks in on her.
“Crinoline Convenient Sometimes. A Warning to Mothers,” Punch, or the London Charivari, 4 October 1856, Retrieved from The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

“Cool Request” debuted in Punch on January 31, 1857. It depicted a woman and a man going out for a carriage ride. The text below the illustration says:

“Lady Crinoline: You won’t mind riding on the box, Edward dear, will you?—I’m afraid, if we both go inside the Brougham, my new dress will get rumpled!”

This illustration highlights a woman’s vanity and suggests that a man suffers when a woman takes up space.

Illustration of a man escorting a woman outside in the snow in period clothing. The woman asks if the man can sit with the carriage driver because she needs the entire carriage for her crionline.
“Cool Request”, Punch, or the London Charivari, 31 January 1857, Retrieved from Pinterest

The idea that men were pushed in the background by women in crinolines is also reinforced in a Letter to the Editor of The Times. On January 19, 1857, an anonymous man who goes by “A Respectable Elderly Gentleman” writes:

“Often Sir, at ball or crowded assembly have I been tripped by the confluence of massive tissues. Often have I been suddenly and painfully compressed in a doorway by the framework of a creature whom nature had intended for a fairy, Nay, Sir, more than once have I, without a murmur, submitted during a pelting rain to banishment from my own carriage, constructed originally for the conveyance of four persons but now, forsooth, not capable of one elderly and two youthful ladies, hedged in their shells like the clapper of a bell.”

In Harper’s Weekly, “The Monster Lady of Crinoline at Turin” appears in an April 1858 publication. It features a giant woman in crinoline who stands over crowd of ant-sized men. The woman is so large that she pushes men off the balcony.

Illustration of a woman in a crinoline standing over a group of men. The woman is drawn to the scale of a giant while the men are drawn to the scale of ants.
Unknown, “The Monster Lady of Crinoline at Turin,” 1858, Wood engraving on paper. The Clark Art Institute, 1955.4510.

On March 17, 1859, Read & Co. published “Caught at Last. Serves him Right. The Punishment Awarded by the Ladies, to the artist who made those impertinent drawings about Crinoline!” It depicted five women trapping a man underneath a crinoline. The man cries, “Let me out,” while the women mock him. The illustration serves as a reaction to a reaction. When women started speaking out against satirical prints on the crinoline, the artist mocked them and their voices.

An illustration of a man being imprisoned in a crinoline by five women.
“Caught at Last. Serve Him Right. The punishment awarded by the ladies, to the artist who made those impertinent drawings about Crinoline!”, Read & Co., 17 March 1859, Retrieved from Grosvenor Prints

“The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner” came out in Punch on October 1, 1864. In it, the woman descends the stairs in her crinoline, which takes up the width of the staircase. The man escorting her down the stairs has to walk on the tiniest portion on the other side of the rail. Once again, it shows how the crinoline inconvenienced men and pushed them out of the picture.

Illustration of a man escorting a woman down the stairs in period clothing. The woman's crinoline takes up the space of the stairs, and the man has to walk on the small space on the other side of the railing,
“The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner,” Punch, or the London Charivari, 1 October 1864, Retrieved from Pinterest

Written Responses to the Crinoline

In the same 1857 Letter to the Editor of The Times, “A Respectable Elderly Gentleman” writes that the crinoline exists solely to conceal pregnancies. He warns all mothers and daughters that they should be “wiser”  about this deceit and stop wearing the crinoline:

“Allow me to call the attention of our countrywomen to one fact which I think will give them food for salutary reflection. The hoop, I have always heard, was devised and introduced to conceal the symptoms of a state in which ‘ladies wish to be who love their lords,’ by some ladies not endowed with the same concentration of tenderness. If the mothers and daughters of England will bear in mind this fact they will perhaps be more anxious to increase their wisdom and curtail their circumference.”

This rumor stems from Empress Eugénie allegedly using the crinoline to conceal her pregnancies. Her pregnancies occurred in 1853, when she suffered a miscarriage, and 1856, when she gave birth to a son. However, claims that women concealed pregnancies with hoop skirts are not exclusive to the Victorian era. Joseph Addison made similar claims about the hooped petticoat in his 1710 essay, “The Trial of the Petticoat.” He claimed that it was a “great temptation” for women to act “in security like married women.”

The idea of concealing pregnancies goes a step further in the mid-Victorian era. Dr. Andrew Wynter’s 1866 publication in The Fortnightly Review  blames the crinoline for infanticide:

“As in a vast majority of cases there would be no infanticide were there no previous concealment of the woman’s pregnant condition— for it is the concealment which affords the temptation to make away with the child when born, and whom nobody expects— it would be curious to speculate upon the part the crinoline has performed as an agent of brining about infanticide. We have no doubt that this article of apparel, which covers a multitude of sins, is indeed answerable for the commission of those of a deeper dye.”

The key to Dr. Wynter’s claim is that concealment is the cause of infanticide. It paints the picture of a woman as a deceiver because the public cannot determine her physical state. The crinoline’s main offence is that it revokes control from the public and places it back in the hands of the woman. In other words, it challenges the social dynamic and gender roles of the Victorian Era.

On the topic of control, “A Respectable Elderly Gentleman” writes that while sumptuary laws (laws that could regulate what people wore) disappeared from society, he still believed women should stop wearing crinoline. He argues:

“The present exaggeration of feminine redundancy is not an abuse of contemporary origin. In 1745 it was already publicly denounced in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop-Petticoat, as the Fashion now is.’ […] That curious preparation of horsehair, known under the classical denomination of crinoline, is now deemed inadequate to the duties of expansion, unless fortified with quaint instruments of steel and tubes of caoutchouc inflated by bellows. The result has been the enormous accumulation of breadths, as evidenced by ‘bill delivered.’ The evil is regrettably on the increase. Women of all shades and sizes are yielding to the fascination. Beauty seems to be valued like a Crown land only by the amount of square feet inclosed [sic].”

The writer believes that the crinoline symbolizes an excessive “abuse” found throughout history. It grew so much that it required steel wiring to hold up vast amounts of fabric. It also meant that fabric for skirts increased in volume and cost. And while the writer complains about the costly yardage of fabric for skirts, there is an underlying message in his plea to the people. Women grew too big for their hoopskirts. Women took up too much space.

While Women Grew, Men Shrank

The social reaction to the crinoline speaks to another fashion trend occurring at the same time. While women grew in size with the crinoline, men shrank from the foreground. In the mid-Victorian era, men’s wardrobes eliminated bright colors and embellishments that previously dominated men’s fashion for centuries. With the rise of the middle class and industrialization, there was a growing need for professionalism. No longer did men wear embroidered waistcoats and jackets of bright colors. In the mid-Victorian era, men’s fashion consisted of little embellishments and neutral colors to blend into the crowd.

The Cyclical Nature of Social Views on Clothing

Vilifying women for the clothes they wear is not a subject exclusive to the mid-Victorian era. Evidence of mockery appears all throughout history, including today. From the pant suit to the mini skirt, clothing triggers social, political, and economic reactions of all kinds.

However, reactions to the same garment in different time periods prove to be just as interesting.

The modern world often views the crinoline as an oppressive object that kept women in their place. The contemporary view, however, centers on the fear of women breaking past the social and gendered confines. With such a shift in social perception over the crinoline, what will the future say about our clothes today?

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House