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An Alphabet of Feminism #3: C is for Crinoline

2010 October 18


In the 1956 version of The King and I, there’s a bit where Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) is surrounded by an army of small children trying to lift her skirt up. Understandably disturbed (her background is, after all, in the mores of Victoriana), she seeks an explanation from the eponymous King’s ‘head wife’, who replies placidly that they think she is dressed like that because she’s “shaped like that”.

“Well, I certainly am NOT,” she replies, lifting up her crinoline to reveal a neat little pair of ankle-length bloomers.

Anna Leonowens surrounded by the King's children.

Deborah Kerr: A Crinoline Made of Children

The King and I was one of my mother’s army of VHS tapes recorded off 1990s TV to keep her offspring pacified of a Saturday night, and I always watched Deborah Kerr sailing around the orientalist palace with a confusion similar to that expressed by the child army. Why did these women wear clothes that made them look like a different species from their male counterparts? It’s apparently illogical, one of fashion’s many confusing mistakes, yet the big skirt trend was one that dominated female fashion for at least three centuries, and continued to have iconic moments long after the Victorians. In fact, it’s a true constant, from Madame de Pompadour and Elizabeth the First to Dior’s New Look, Marilyn Monroe’s subway moment, Grease (where Sandy rejecting it in favour of spray-on wet look leggings always feels troubling), and, relatively more recently, the designs of Vivienne Westwood.

There is an obvious explanation for its attractiveness which can be seen simply by looking at the silhouette: in algebraic terms, massive hips = lots of lovely womb space to let. In the case of the twentieth century’s most famous blonde, the explanation reaches new realms of subtlety (big skirt + wind + camera = £££). But this precludes their frequent favour with the women themselves: Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette were, as Westwood is, fashion leaders, not followers, and it cannot be denied that there is a certain something about a skirt with a big twirl factor that feels inoffensively joyful. And looking back to Elizabeth ‘Heart and Stomach of a Man’ The First, it seems unlikely that the Ditchley Portrait is trying to convey nothing more than Hey Boys, Check Out My Womb.

Hair of the Dog

So what is a ‘crinoline’? It’s actually something very specific; in its original sense specific enough to be a brand name, referring to ‘a stiff fabric made of horse-hair and cotton or linen thread’. The brand name in question uses crinoline‘s literal meaning, ‘hair-thread’ to allude to its composition from horse hair, but later on, crinoline comes to refer to other materials, such as ‘whalebone or iron hoops’, which serve to expand petticoats. The dictionary gives as a second definition the crucial word ‘hoop-petticoat’, which it glosses as something ‘worn under the skirt of a woman’s dress in order to support or distend it’.

Queen Elizabeth I

The much-touted Ditchley Portrait. Check out the womb.

This ‘hoop-petticoat’ was the eighteenth century term for the big skirt, and here it took the form of an architectural arrangement of side-panniers so wide that doorways frequently had to be expanded to accommodate their wearers. But it was not something new: on the contrary, the hoop bore no small resemblance to earlier innovations, most notably the sixteenth-century (Ditchley Portrait) ‘farthingale’, supposedly so named in reference to the wooden structure that gave it its shape – which was, ironically enough, a sort of wooden cage. Conversely, the crinoline, a nineteenth century invention, reached new heights of freedom, since for the first time the skirt could move independently of its owner, a phenomenon that may have led to the Victorian preoccupation with ankles, but which certainly created a new erotic focus for men walking through the park on a windy day. Previous to this, women hankering after widened hips had to wear many layers of heavy under-petticoats in addition to the cage-structure, which not only hindered their movement but also hampered the skirt’s possible circumference, so once the light and airy crinoline-cage appeared, a side-effect was the virtually limitless expansion of the skirt’s width – reaching its nexus in Anna Leonowens’ ridiculous garments, whose recreation in 1956 combined the excesses of the New Look silhouette with the historical extravagance of the Victorian empire.

Indeed, it is perhaps here that the crinoline shows its teeth: the well-known Getting To Know You sequence shows a maternal, wide-hipped Anna Leonowens sitting among her Gentle Savage pupils and breezing about the palace with an ease denied to the stiffly clad king’s wives, making the big skirt somehow emblematic of the West’s superior treatment of women, and the ‘enlightened ideas’ of the British Empire, while its unstoppable expansion may itself have something to do with the ever-increasing size of colonial ambition.

Her crinoline defences

Perhaps, then, with all these sartorial possibilities, it was to be expected that the term should gradually itself expand, to encompass transferred meanings: a piece of diving equipment allowing the diver to ‘breathe more freely’ – of course, everyone knows about whalebone’s famous facilitation of easy breathing – and, for ships, a ‘defence against torpedoes’. I particularly enjoy the use of traditional pronouns in the last citation the dictionary gives, from 1885: ‘Her crinoline defences against torpedoes’, because it returns to one of the petticoat’s primary social significations, mooted in The Spectator way back circa 1711:

‘Our sex has of late years been very saucy, and [so] the Hoop-Petticoat is made use of to keep us at a distance’.
The Spectator, 1711

Another journal commented that the hoop’s ‘compass’ keeps ‘men at a decent distance, and appropriates to every lady a spacious verge sacred to herself’. It is interesting to note the strength words in this context – from the whalebone ‘supporting and distending’ the skirt, steel hoops and all the way to the initial definition of the word as a ‘stiff lining’. The suggestion here could be that the structures underneath a woman’s clothes must either lend strength to something fundamentally flimsy (that old ‘body of a weak and feeble woman’ chesnut), or, conversely, that this is a type of armour, the armour worn by, as Elizabeth I would probably have put it, a ‘king, and a king of England too’. In the queen’s case, I’m sure there’s something going on with metaphorical hip-circumferance fertility: the virgin mother of the nation, but one whose regal power gives her a strength akin to a sacrificed Christ, a mother who will fight tooth and nail to protect her child-country. Less maternal, more martial?

NEXT WEEK: D is for Doll


23 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 18, 2010

    My first thought on crinolines concerns a (1980s?) television series on the history of costume. A model demonstrated the effect of sitting incautiously whilst wearing a crinoline. The entire structure of hoops rose from its accustomed horizontal alignment to a vertical one, exposing all undergarments worn below the waist. Having seen this, it seemed to me that the crinoline was yet another device to oblige women to move with caution, and more slowly than they would naturally do.

    • Hodge permalink
      October 18, 2010

      Oh I’m sure this was very much the case.

      However, one of the things that made me want to write about crinolines was the (particularly c18th) flipside that, with your woman and her massive structure sitting cautiously, her body is separated off into its own personal space.

      Samuel Richardson in particular makes interesting use of this trope in *Clarissa*, when the rather fiery Anna Howe demands that her unwelcome suitor sit further away because, as she puts it, ‘I desire that my hoop shall have its full circumference’, and when Clarissa herself no longer wears a hoop, you know she’s in trouble, because she clings to it as a guarantee of safety from sexual assault.

      There’s something distasteful about this, of course, as in so many aspects of crazy costume history (corsets…) but (just as with corsetry) there’s this funny little alternative.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        October 18, 2010

        Your comment, Hodge, made me smile — because it put into my head the idea of wearing a crinoline on the Tube to create some personal space. (I note that, in the real world, people create personal space on the Tube by reading a book.)

        My smile faded when I thought to connect the shape of the crinoline with the stance adopted by too many men on the tube — of sitting with their legs wide apart. Personally, I find this both repulsive and disturbing, I’d rather not find myself looking into the crotch of anyone with whom I don’t share an intimate relationship. I’m not sure where that takes me. There is something in the outline of a crinoline akin to widely separating one’s legs. The phrase “with her legs apart” usually implies sexual activity.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          October 18, 2010

          Another connection? The crinoline produces a shape akin to the upward pointing triangle used to represent the “masculine” elements of fire and air. (Compare with my comment under “bitch).

        • Hodge permalink
          October 18, 2010

          Ipods too (the name alone…). You could do a lot with the idea of modern personal space all round, actually.

          The crotch issue is definitely there: that whole widening of the hips thing creates that idea of fertility which is, I suppose, akin to turning a woman into a giant womb. (I think I once heard something about this being related to the economy, but then, what isn’t?).

          It’s also a double edged sword in the sense that a crinoline is a sort of defiant statement of purity (men stay away – like in the Spectator quotation) and a self-consciously conspicuous sort of gesture saying CHECK OUT HOW MORALLY UPRIGHT I AM WOULDN’T I BE A GREAT VESSEL FOR YOUR (DEFINITELY LEGITIMATE) CHILDREN, and i suppose possibly also with the subtext of sexual availability But Only Within Marriage.

          Then again, Ladies Of Easy Virtue are almost always coded as such in contemporary art by appearing sans hoop – ;, which could be either a sartorial lapse to match their moral one (as in Clarissa), or an allusion to their removal from conventional societal sexuality?

          I don’t know, it’s all very circular. (Ho ho).

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            October 19, 2010

            Circular: the crinoline hoop as the Worm Ouroboros, nurturing itself by eating its own tail?

            At first, I wondered at your taking crinoline as your C… but, on reflection, it may be the most interesting of the first three subjects. It combines natural femaleness (notably wide hips) with artificially constructed femaleness. It combines elements of liberation (setting up personal space) with oppression (restricting movement). It may prove a microcosm of what I take this alphabet to be about.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 19, 2010

    Bother! I meant to write “artificially constructed femininity”, not “artificially constructed femaleness”.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 19, 2010

    The use of “crinoline” to mean a ship’s defence against torpedoes reminds me of the use of “skirt” mean the lower part of a vehicle’s body. I’ve seen “skirt” used for the part of a bus’ body closest to the road, and (more commonly) the lower portion of a hovercraft.

    “Skirt” seems to be a specifically feminine word. If a man wears a skirt, for any purpose other than to feminise his appearance, it is not a “skirt” but a “kilt”.

    • October 22, 2010

      Hmm… I believe, via some complicated linguistic hereditary, that skirt, shirt, kilt and kirtle are all cognate, and reflect their common roots in a kind of ungendered smock our germanic ancestors wore. There may be some mileage in studying the splitting and gendering of the word.

      • Hodge permalink
        October 22, 2010

        For this, I recommend sticking around till G, when I will be addressing a very similar issue.

  4. October 22, 2010

    I also think there’s a class thing to the whole thing. There are a number of items of clothing specifically associated with the rich – wide skirts, white sporting clothes, trousers without creases – which exist purely because they are impractical unless you are rich.

    Women who wear big skirts can’t usefully work. So wearing a big skirt means you’re not working. Wearing a skirt so big you can do almost nothing useful or yourself is even better, because it means you’re not working and you have servants to take care of you.

    (In a similar way, white sporting clothes need frequent and careful washing, and trousers without creases need to hang rather than be folded; all serve at least partly to draw attention to either the owner’s indolence, or his or her assets, or to the number of servants who tend to him or her.)

    Not to contradict any of your above, but my own tuppence.

    • Miranda permalink*
      October 22, 2010

      Yes. The early women’s suffrage movement was mainly spearheaded by affluent ladies (pretty much post-crinoline and moving into crinolette/bustle, but anyway), because working class women often had to do just that – work. This hit an interesting note when the more militant wing of the movement found themselves in prison, often alongside working class women. Lady Constance Lytton suspected they were also treated differently in prison, so she disguised herself as a poorer woman, and was promptly force-fed pretty brutally. So she wrote an expose in The Times. Rock on Constance.

      Yeah, this was a bit of a tangent, but basically yeah, I agree, class and gender do interact pretty heavily in costume history. And, y’know, generally.

      • Miranda permalink*
        October 22, 2010

        That said, there is some evidence that the crinoline reached more women than previous skirt-expanders. says: “The American W. S. Thomson patented the metal cage crinoline in the USA, France and Britain in 1856. Marketed in these three countries it soon became a huge hit. The crinoline knew no class differences and it was the first fashion to be adopted in England and America by all classes, even if the quality of the crinoline was doubtful the cheaper it got. Illustrations of working women wearing cheaper versions of the cage show ugly ridges of steel bands.”

        So basically you could rock the look on less cash much more easily than you could a previous version like a farthingale. And it was more flexible, too.

        I think they’re being a bit glib with “all classes” there, mind. The thing was hardly all the rage among farm hand women. Women of the lower middle classes gained access to the fashion for big skirts via the crinoline explosion. But I think it’s reasonable to assume they were frequently aiming to *look* well off with it, this being a staple aim of a fair amount of fashion even now for a lot of people – the same way people today go round toting fake Louis Vuitton handbags.

        And the women of the slums of London, as in, the full-on London Victorian Poor, certainly weren’t wearing it. You didn’t get this sort of gear in the workhouse, eh.

        • Hodge permalink
          October 22, 2010

          Well, as with all fashions, lots of working-class women at least attempted to adopt them for themselves. There’s a lot of stuff in c18th and c19th literature about servant girls wearing homemade crinolines (and in *Pamela*, the eponymous servant is given her mistress’ crinolines as a sign of her usefulness to the family. This does, of course, feed into Richardson’s snobbery about having a servant as a heroine (so she must be as sartorially middle class as possible), but nonetheless tells us something about how pervasive the fashion was. Moreover, since the shape as a whole was such a sort of intrinsic one to how women were perceived (think of toilet signs… it still is) I wonder if the work issue (while stubbornly present whenever we have discussions about women in history) took something of a back seat to the sexual issue: after all, the higher up the social ladder you get, the more crucial legitimacy of issue becomes, and the wider and more public your metaphorical (and literal) personal space needs to be.

          Also, in the case of The King and I (which, while a 1950s film, was still a c19th memoir), part of the point of Anna Leonowens (and one of the reasons for the King’s hostility to her) is that she is a working woman determined to make money for her son after the death of her husband – and she CAN do that. In some way, there’s this terrible merging of feminism and racism / imperialism which, as I commented in the article, feels like it’s linked to dress (I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, but there’s this whole section in it where she tries to get the king’s wives all up in crinolines for the Big Imperialist Visit from England). So while, of course, anything that restricts movement must be tied up to work in some way, it may not always be quite so clear-cut.

          Apologies if this is incoherent and / or reads really badly. Am writing from my sickbed, in a wonderfully eighteenth century manner.

          • Miranda permalink*
            October 22, 2010

            Oh GOD, the crinoline scene with the wives! I’d forgotten that bit. I should re-watch it with adult eyes, actually – I saw it when I was very small, and just didn’t clock a lot of the sheer imperialist argh, though I remember cringing a little bit at some of it. Ah, the Fifties.

          • Hodge permalink
            October 22, 2010

            Oh and there’s also ‘But Mother! The prime minister is naked!’
            ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Louis, he can’t be naked. He’s only…. half naked.’
            Will stop now.

          • October 25, 2010

            You’re going to inflict Richardson on me? Have you no conscience? Why not just pull out Clarissa and we can club some baby seals to death with it?

            But seriously, fair points all. The phenomenon that can be neatly pointed to a single societal cause is a rare and precious one.

          • Miranda permalink*
            October 25, 2010

            Too late; we already did pull out Clarissa earlier! The seals are doomed.

            It’s a noble cause, though.*

            * note for RSPCA members: no seals were harmed in the making of BadRep &c &c

      • Stephen B permalink
        October 22, 2010

        “So she wrote an expose in The Times. Rock on Constance. ”


        “In November 1911 Constance Lytton was imprisoned in Holloway for the fourth time, after breaking windows in the Houses of Parliament”

        She was *amazing*.

        And gets +100 points for this:

        “I had decided to write the words “Votes for Women” on my body, scratching it in my skin with a needle, beginning over the heart and ending it on my face. I proposed to show the first half of the inscription to the doctors, telling them that as I knew how much appearances were respected by officials, I thought it well to warn them that the last letter and a full stop would come upon my cheek, and be still quite fresh and visible on the day of my release”

        • Miranda permalink*
          October 22, 2010

          You know the “History Is Awesome” category? It’s not visible to our readers yet because I haven’t finished the posts that will go in it, but there will be a post on Constance at some point, because she is fascinating.

          Oh, and you know Emily Davison, right? That horse was the tip of the iceberg.

          “On 2 April 1911, the night of the 1911 census, Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster overnight so that on the census form she could legitimately give her place of residence that night as the “House of Commons”.”

          I am planning a series of early feminist hero-primer posts. (Not just rich white ladies, either.) Hopefully people will find them fun. :)

          • Hodge permalink
            October 22, 2010

            Yes, I tried to find that scene on Youtube for this post, but sadly, it was not to be had. All I really remember is when she shrieks and says the immortal line: ‘OH! Your majesty! They have practically NO UNDERGARMENTS’, to which Yul Brummer responds, outraged, ‘UNDER-GARMENTS????!!!’ (which is now what I hear in my head whenever I walk through John Lewis’ lingerie department)
            There’s also that whole bit with the ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’, which is cringe.

          • Miranda permalink*
            October 22, 2010

            Oh LORDY the Uncle Thomas bit. I think I’d actually blocked that bit out!

            Dear Lord, it’s a tunnel of cringe, isn’t it. But an excellent starting point for this post – perhaps for that very reason – I think.

    • Hodge permalink
      October 25, 2010

      Mate, I inflict Richardson on my mates down the pub. And he’s totally on it with the hoops.

      But yeah, thanks a lot for your comments – as you say, there’s always so much going on with all of these words, and I can never hope to cover them all, so extra discussion is awesome.

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