What is a Crinoline?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A crinoline is a type of women's undergarment, originally made from a material of the same name. Crinoline was a mixture of linen and horsehair marketed for its strength and stiffness. As the material began to be used exclusively in the creation of stiff petticoats, the petticoats themselves came to be known as crinolines, to distinguish them from softer silk and taffeta petticoats. The crinoline reached its height as a fashion item in the early 1800s, and had almost disappeared entirely by the late 1800s.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The name “crinoline” was a portmanteau developed by an inventor of the fabric. It combines crin, a French word for hair, with lin, the French for flax. Other etymologists believe that the word is derived from the Latin words for these objects, crinis and linum respectively. The fabric was stiff enough to support the full skirts in fashion in the 1800s, and was undoubtedly scratchy and uncomfortable as well.

Full skirts became popular in the early 1800s, when women of all classes wore multiple petticoats and a crinoline to inflate their skirts. The bulky petticoats would have made women very hot, and also subjected them to the potential of becoming tangled in their skirts. The development of the crinoline helped to reduce the number of necessary petticoats, and the cage crinoline, introduced in the 1850s, further reduced the number of skirts which needed to be worn.

The cage crinoline is very similar to a hoop skirt. It uses bands of stiff material in graduating sizes to create a bell shaped support for a dress or skirt. However, the crinoline was worn by women of all social classes, rather than just upper class women, as was the case with the hoop skirt. Cage crinolines were just as dangerous as hoop skirts, unfortunately. The lightweight flammable materials used to make them were a serious fire risk, and women could also unwittingly knock things over, especially in larger skirts. The crinoline could also catch in moving machinery, posing a serious risk to the wearer.

As women's fashions changed, the crinoline evolved into the crinolette, which put the bulk of the material towards the back of the body, creating a wedge shape. The crinolette in turn gave way to the bustle, which ultimately evolved into a wad of stiff material which caused the back of a dress to flounce out. A slip would have been worn under a crinoline to prevent scratching and for modesty.

When big skirts came back into fashion in the 1950s and 1960s, so did the crinoline, to help support them. Crinolines are still used in some types of formal wear, and by historical reenactors who want their skirts to be full, flowing, and even. Modern crinolines are much smaller than the formidable hoop skirts of the 1800s, and are somewhat easier to wear, because they are made with lightweight plastics and elastic attaching systems.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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