What lies beneath part 1: from crinolines to bustles

We have a fantastic costume collection at Chelsea Reference Library and Gillian Nunns, one of our Triborough Reference Librarians has been taking a look….

I was very interested to read our Local Studies Librarian’s post about the seemingly bizarre story of crinolines, which had me looking through our costume collection in search of stories of undergarments and their place in history and fashion.

As the crinoline fashion gradually subsided in the early half of the 1860s, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine reported as early as 1860 that

‘The iron reign of the “Crinoline” is undoubtedly, but gradually, coming to and end.’

And as it did so skirts morphed into into a narrower skirt but with a bustle at the back.  Here is an illustration from Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, October 1869.

Illustration from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' October 1869
Illustration from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ October 1869

 Which of course required different support. This became known as the ‘tournure”, involving different kinds of heavy support for each layer – steel, horsehair and whalebone were used, for example.  Here are some images that we found on a page of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine also from 1869.

Panier tournure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Panier tournure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Horsehair tournure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Horsehair tournure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Petticoat worn over a tonure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Petticoat worn over a tonure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Crinoline from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Crinoline from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869

The last is a sort of cinoline, but altered to emphasise the new bustle fashion, allowing for a straight front of the skirt with a big bustle at the back. 

We can always count on Punch to satirise such trends in fashion.  The first appearance of a crinoline in Punch is in 1856, and the fashion is described as “Crinolineomania”.

Crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856
Crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856

And another from the same year.

Another crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856
Another crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856

In 1857 Dr. Punch considers of the crinoline that

‘If he were called upon to fix the spot precisely where the malady broke out, without hesitation he would point to Paris’.

Although I doubt that Dr Punch would have done, considering the amount of fun that the crinoline afforded him.  And in fact, I found out that many undergarment fashions might have been lost to history completely if it were not for publications that satirized them. 

The crinoline is described in Punch as a “depopulating influence[…]”

 “The mode now prevailing is one of such extravagance that it is continually demanding fresh sacrifices, and ladies have to choose between a fine dress and a family, for no income but a Rothchild’s can provide for both.”

 As I read more and found about later and earlier eras in fashion, I was interested in how the history of Western fashion is ruled by an obsession with the silhouette; so that when a desired shape comes into fashion, its boundaries end up being pushed to the extremes.  Norah Waugh makes an interesting point about this in her book Corsets and Crinolines.

 “This over-emphasis of line has given a curious underlying rhythm to women’s clothes and become an almost unwritten law of design.  A longer slender silhouette gradually begins to widen at the base, emphasis shifts from length to breadth, and when the greatest circumference has been reached, there is a collapse, a folding up, and a return to the long straight line”

This point was not lost in the pages of Punch in an article called “Philosophy of Fashion”

 “When hoops went out of vogue nigh on a Century ago, the ladies vowed that scanty petticoats were infinitely prettier; and they vied with one another in reducing their dimensions, until their skirts became so shrunken that they could hardly move their feet with the limited circumference.  So doubtless, will it be again, now Crinoline is doomed […] Already we see signs of the change approaching.  Ladies fresh from Paris startle our eyes now-a-days by appearing in what at first sight we may fancy are their night dresses.  Of course, when one tide sets in, all the female world will swim with it”
And in my next post we will see what happened next…..
Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns

Triborough Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

The sources used for this post are all available at Chelsea Reference Library except Punch which is available at Kensington Central Reference Library.

  • Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh, 1954
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, October 1869
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, September 1867
  • Punch,  August 1856
  • Punch, October 1856

A Brief History of the Crinoline

Dave Walker, our Local Studies Librarian  is the author of our extremely popular blog, The Library Time Machine. This showcases some of the amazing photos we have in our archive. As a companion piece to his blog post this week he writes here on the history of the crinoline. Over to Dave….

In my post on the Library Time Machine this week I have written about the first production of Arthur Pinero’s play Trelawny of the Wells. First performed in 1898 the play is set in the 1860s and for the author, producers and presumably the audience some of the comedy derived from the costumes and décor of a bygone age, specifically the actresses wearing crinoline dresses which to modern theatre goers of the late 1890s would have been inherently ridiculous rather in the way than modern taste regards previous fashion disasters such as the puffball skirt of the 1980s or even the flared trousers of the 1970s which we all wore quite happily for years and which vanished almost overnight in the punk era.

1898 version of the crinoline from Trelawny of the Wells
1898 version of the crinoline from Trelawny of the Wells

But the crinoline actually lasted for about ten years from roughly 1855 to 1865 so it must have had some advantages.

Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria in 1861
Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria in 1861

In the 1840s and early 1850s dresses and skirts became wider and needed to be supported by a large number of petticoats. The first crinolines were starched petticoats to which hoops of whalebone and cane were added for better support. The idea was to free women from having to wear so many layers of underwear. Developments in steel technology produced lightweight flexible wires which could be put together into a dome shape – the cage crinoline which at a stroke eliminated the need for heavy petticoats and freed the legs from those entangling undergarments. So the crinoline was actually a step forward in women’s fashion both in terms of mobility and affordability. It was one of the first fashion trends which travelled outwards from the middle classes and encompassed both upper class and working class women.

Mrs Fitzgerald wearing a fairly extravagant example of the new technology (1861)
Mrs Fitzgerald wearing a fairly extravagant example of the new technology (1861)
Miss Geralupo (1860) compare this with the dress worn by Irene Vanburgh in Trelawny
Miss Geralupo (1860) compare this with the dress worn by Irene Vanburgh in Trelawny

Of course crinolines were a little silly. The wearer had to navigate city streets in wide skirts, sometimes very wide if you look at Mrs Fitzgerald (above) and had to be skilled in sitting down without causing the whole apparatus to billow up and reveal what was underneath. Women took to wearing ankle length pantalettes or drawers in case of accidents which gave rise to later more decorative forms of underwear. The crinoline was a gift to humorists. Punch magazine satirised it unmercifully for many years, even creating urban legends in the process such as the notion that women boarding buses would remove their crinolines and that the bus conductor would hang them on the side of the bus as in this photograph.

Crinolines hanging from a bus!
Crinolines hanging from a bus!

Can we really believe this? Can you imagine having to remove a crinoline in the street without showing your underwear and then put it back at the end of the journey? The picture was probably staged. Along with the satire there were also scares over crinoline dresses which were accidentally set alight, or women in factories dragged into machinery. So despite the advantages of the crinoline perhaps everyone eventually got tired of the whole business. By about 1865 women were ready for a change. Crinolines changed their shape, became flatter at the front and sides and got pushed to the back in the form of the bustle. Here is Princess Victoria in 1876.

Princess Victoria in 1876
Princess Victoria in 1876

Ironically this elegant looking dress would have been tighter and more restrictive as far as walking was concerned. So perhaps the enlightened audiences of 1898 shouldn’t have laughed too hard at what their grandmothers used to wear.

Dave Walker
Dave Walker

Dave Walker Local Studies Librarian 

Pictures of Princess Victoria, Mrs Fitzgerald and Miss Geralupo from ‘Fashion in Photographs 1860-1880’ by Miles Lambert 1991. Just one of the many books on the history of fashion in the Costume Collection at Chelsea Library.