Woman Killed by Underwear

Standard early-mid 1860s crinoline. 2-3 petticoats would be worn over top to keep the ridges from showing through the skirt.

I’ve talked in the past about how dangerous 19th century fashion was. From the dyes used in clothing to the creams women used on their faces, fashion was a deadly business during the Victorian period.

Crinolines are the Civil War-era descendants of the big, poofy underskirts of the 16-1700s. With a form made of wire or cane and covered in cotton or linen, they were necessary for holding out the extra-wide silhouettes of the mid 1800s. Starting with layered petticoats in the 1830s-1840s, these undergarments look comical today, but were a part of everyday  life for middle and upper class women from the 1850s-1860s, before they morphed into the bustle of the 1870s-1880s.

In the 1850s and 60s, a woman’s undergarments would include (from the inner layers out) stockings, drawers, chemise, corset, corset cover (optional), crinoline, and 1-3 petticoats. That’s about two to four times more clothing than most of us wear today, and that’s before we even get to things like dresses, overskirts, blouses, and outerwear!

Having spent a lot of time in 1860s clothing, I can attest that it is an adjustment. Many of the humorous scenes involving fashion in both ALL FOR ONE and OFF THE RAILS come from my own experience of wearing hoops and corsets.

20141220_172713But one question always comes up with guests at the museum when I’m wearing a hoop skirt, especially during our Christmas and Halloween programs, which take place on cool evenings with lamps, candles, and fireplaces lit, in crowded rooms.

“Aren’t those dangerous?”

Why yes, yes they are.

You see, in addition to poisonous and sometimes flammable dust wafting off clothing of the period, a woman also had to worry about the more mundane matter of the placement of her hemline.

It was fashionable for hems to touch the floor (except in certain circles during the Civil War, when women cut 4-6″ from their hemlines to donate as bandages to the war effort), and of course the only sources of light and heat at the time involved a flame.

Be it from gas, oil, wood, coal, or a candle, fire was an ever present threat in the Victorian era, and the constantly changing technology of the time didn’t always keep up with safety measures.

Fun fact: Crinolines allow for great air flow.

I don’t just say this because they are surprisingly comfortable to wear in the summer months. Compared to the layers of my 1890s costume, which cling to my legs, my hoop skirt is significantly cooler.

This ventilation also increases the danger. Not only do the wide skirts of the mid 1800s have a tendency to do unsafe things like brush up against fireplaces like an affectionate cat, knock over unsteady candlesticks, or trip up the wearer if she isn’t careful, but they also allow said skirts to light up like a Molotov cocktail.

Aside from the risk of fire, there were other dangers associated with the cage crinoline that I suspect were not considered by the original designer.

In the 1800s, especially prior to the end of the Civil War, women in America were considered incapable. More than that, they were placed on pedestals as paragons of morality and virtue. The idea that a woman could lie was nearly unthinkable, so the thought of one committing a crime didn’t even bear mentioning.

Women were keen to take advantage of this in times of strife.

While some women avoided the hoop skirt altogether by dressing as men and enlisting in both the northern and southern armies, others used the contraptions to their advantage by lining the insides with everything from contraband weapons and food to desperately needed medicines, money and jewels to sell for supplies, and secret messages. For the men guarding the borders between North and South, the idea of searching a lady–especially searching her undergarments–was completely unthinkable. For the early years of the war women passed unmolested over the Mason Dixon Line before the armies caught on. Some women, like Bell Boyde, became so infamous for smuggling and carrying information that they were arrested or halted at the border for lacking travel passes.

Overall, I still like the look of the hoop skirt. An “average” crinoline is about 6′ in circumference, which can be awkward to wear at first but becomes easier with practice. The large, more comical illustrations in the linked pages below were mostly just that–comical illustrations, though some ball gowns could be quite large.

A 1950s style crinoline

As fashion progressed, the hoop fell out of fashion, and then so did the bustle. It did have a brief resurgence in the 1950s, however, when it was reincarnated as layers of stiffened synthetic netting, which makes for a lightweight, flouncy, but very hot petticoat essential to the 1950s silhouette. having worn both types of crinoline, I still think the Victorian version is more comfortable–though I’m still not one to say no to an opportunity to wear my poodle skirt, either!


Further reading:
The Cronilone and Class Divides
Death by Crinoline
Civil War Women Smugglers

Like what you see? Check out The Age of Entertainment: Victorian (1837-1901)