Wednesday, 20 May 2009


As many as twelve whole feet in circumference; stiffened almost beyond its control; a tortuous constructon of whalebone or steel; ill-fashioned for throughways and commonplace seating: the 19th century crinoline took no little part in its era's containment of women. No need in this case to resort to the tropes of imprisonment, bondage, and cages. Comprised of stiff bars running down and across; strapped onto the bodice, pulled tight and laced up; laid over a petticoat woven from hair: the garment interprets itself. The Victorian woman, daily and by her own hand, donned her garment of crime, shame and madness. And pity the beau with an amorous heart who chanced to approach his beloved: it formed her small waist and her childbearing hips, but it wound round her virtue a fence made of iron.

Yet what abandon was there underneath its harsh frame, as limbs that had formerly lived out their sentence in swathes of weighty, encircling clothes that clung close and cloyed like a sickening child were all at once freed by their self-contained skirt for motion not hitherto easy. Eugenie of France, who made crinolines famous, began strenuous walking for health, and housemaids all over, and factory hands, felt a newfound release at their work.

Not even a decade would pass 'til a system of pulleys and ropes was designed by which a lady might raise all her skirts for pursuit of more vigorous games. Thus the habit par excellence of her detention was her first fitting out for release.