A brief history of the crinoline

I studied 20th century fashion history at college, but we only covered 1900 to 1980. I still can’t really put my finger on what 1990s or any other subsequent decade amounts to in dress terms. A area I will need to research at some point.

But it had not occurred to me to go backwards.

For years I had no interest in Victorian fashions – with their outlandish shapes. Until. Until our draping class was given the project of draping over under structures. I chose a 1950s example, and was pleased with it, but I began to take an interest, instructed by tutor Daniel Kinne. At a similar time avid blogger and Birmingham Mathstress Demented Fairy was showing her workings as she proceeded to create a “Steam Punk” wardrobe. I didn’t know what Steam Punk was but it involves dressing up in Victoriana type costumes, often with particular accessories. I decided I needed a little education about the crinoline, so booked a trip to Brussels to see an important exhibition.

It was most interesting, and I hope to give you an outline history, with a few photographs from the Museum of Costume and Lace.  Although the exhibition is now over I will cover it in greater depth on another occasion.


This is the period when women’s dresses had sloping shoulders and full skirts. Originally these dresses were supported by the traditional set of petticoats until the Crinoline was invented.

Crinoline (stiff fabric made from horse-hair and linen) was used from about 1840 onwards to create a stiff petticoat which would support a wide skirt. The name began to be associated with the under structures of the age and sprung steel was later used as it was light, flexible and robust.

In my ignorance I had seen the crinoline as hampering, ridiculous and quite impossible for a working woman. But actually the structured crinoline was a big step forward in that it meant women no longer had to wear several layers of petticoat to create the look they desired. I don’t know if you have ever worn several layers of skirts – but you will know they are heavy, cumbersome and unhygienic. I remember reading (I think it was Herman Hesse’s Damian) where as a boy he describes hiding under the skirts of his mother, and she wore a skirt with seven layers, which were rotated.

Here is a good summary history from the V&A. 


The design of the crinoline had to be firm enough to support all those skirts, but also bendable so women could sit down.

Here is my experiment.

This was the real purpose of my visit Museum in Brussels. We zipped across to Belgium by Eurostar and had a fun weekend. Trying on this outfit in the museum was much quicker and more pleasant than making my own crinoline. First, over my jeans and jumper, I put on the crinoline (it had a modern elasticated waist). Then, over the top, a grey polyester skirt with further structure. Once in, I draped my tartan scarf over it for a more interesting look. Then I tried the sitting down technique.

The Museum helpfully provided both chair and cardboard-cutout husband. And a mirror.

My crinoline was stiffened with modern, flexible, plastic boning. Victorian underskirts could support a skirt with the maximum circumference of about six yards, which would have been a problem in the theatre or getting into a carriage, providing endless fun for cartoonists and satirists.  My experience was that it was quite fun to be so big – small in the top (suppressed and held upright by a corset in Victorian times), but wide across the hips to hem, gave me a feeling of stature and elegance, against my expectations.

c1850 dress round crinoline dress
c1850 dress round crinoline dress


By the 1860s the crinoline had shrunk (the projected crinoline), and now the front of the dress was much flatter with all the action taking place behind. By 1866 it began to loose its appeal and fall out of fashion. This charming summer transformation dress shows how one skirt had two interchangable tops. The short puffed sleeves are edged in ribbon and the boned evening bodice is covered in lace. The long sleeved city bodice is also boned and features blue, covered buttons. The crinoline skirt is flat at the front with the volume at the back created by a series of inverted pleats.

c1865 Transformation dress
c1865 Transformation dress


From 1867-1880 we have the era of the bustle.  This dress from 1870 is made in yellow silk taffeta with a lilac check. It has a fitted bodice, long pagoda sleeves and lots of fringing. There are two rounded basques at the sides and a longer one at the back in order to adapt to the bustle skirt. There are two bias-cut flounces at the bottom and an apron effect at the front, with a polonaise at the back. The “Faux Cul”bustle pad introduced in about 1875.

1870 Taffeta summer dress with rounded basques at side and back with bustled skirt and polonaise
1870 Taffeta summer dress


This warm brown watered silk and ottoman outfit is trimmed with machine made lace. The skirt is very narrow and highly decorated – typical of the “upholstery” style. The bustle is now a “lobster tail”.

1883 Taffeta faux cul (small bustle)
1883 Taffeta faux cul (small bustle)

There is so much to learn – please excuse me if I have got it wrong (like the no-knickers suggestion I made in a previous post). Happy to stand corrected!





17 Responses

  1. BMGM

    That looks like fun historical research!

    I was the wardrobe mistress for a Shakespearean play, set in Victorian dress. (Don’t ask why.) We had bustles busting out all over the place in our limited dressing room space. What fun memories.

  2. jay

    Thanks for this jolly interesting whizz through the crinoline era. I too studied history of costume as part of a course, but much has now faded from memory. The dresses are so beautiful, each one packed with a level of detail we don’t bother with in modern dress. An aspect I find intriguing is the transition from elaborate floor sweeping structured creations to the short shifts of the 1920s. I wish I’d thought to ask my grandmother about how she found wearing the first knee length skirt. A program I watched recently suggested that TB was a factor in shortening skirts. Apparently, it was thought that the disease might be brought in to the home by the skirt hem.

  3. Sheila Harvey-Larmar

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this post! Having also read the V&A article that you directed us to, I now want to follow all the links in that article to find out more – and I’m supposed to be sewing today!

  4. ChaCha

    Thanks to your most excellent suggestion, I went to the V&A last week and had a thoroughly good look at the costumes with my 15 year old daughter. She was shocked and kept saying things like “what on earth was that for?” It was funny seeing all the bustles and crinolines through young eyes again!

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