Woman in a Cage: A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective of the Victorian Crinoline

A modern reconstruction  of a crinoline

A modern reconstruction of a crinoline

The basic structure of a crinoline is a cage, so a woman wearing a crinoline is actually trapped inside a cage, unable to run or move about freely. If there was ever a more powerful metaphor to sum up the restrictions of a Victorian woman’s existence, I can’t think of one. As both a writer and a feminist, to me the crinoline sums up worst behavioural excesses of the Victorian era.

Steel-cage crinoline circa 1858.

Steel-cage crinoline circa 1858.

Some styles of crinolines even resembled bird cages. What an image … thousands of women walking around inside their cages, unable to accidentally brush up against a fellow human being, struggling through doorways, constantly having to be aware of their surroundings in case they knocked over furniture or small children. I know I’d be on edge. as I am not the most graceful woman to start with. And oh … the issues with going to the toilet!

Bustle-cage crinoline worn with a corset

Two English crinolettes, circa 1872-75, from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Two English crinolettes, circa 1872-75, from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

As well, the crinoline couldn’t have come into use without the corset, as the corset helped support the weight of a crinoline more evenly and easily. The corset was another way of restricting and controlling a woman’s body and making it conform to society’s expectations. There is a good reason why ‘strait-laced’ means someone prudish or puritanical, rigid in their morals and beliefs.

Bustle-cage crinoline, circa 1868,  from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bustle-cage crinoline, circa 1868, from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Quintessential Clothes Pen  Crinoline without cover

Crinoline from the Quintessential Clothes Pen website.

The Quintessential Clothes Pen  Crinoline cover

Crinoline from the Quintessential Clothes Pen website.

Conversely, a woman who refuses to wear a crinoline might be seen as both a rebel or as a free thinker, or it might symbolize her youth. Corsets played a role in the plot of the 1950 musical Two Weeks With Love, where wearing a corset was the symbol of womanhood, and a corset-less girl was considered too young to woo; crinolines could play a similar role.

crinoline11-2008d

As for me, I am more inclined to see the freedoms allowable in a girl child being crushed into the conformity of womanhood. Crinolines were responsible for women wearing long-legged drawers -because crinoline were often hard to control and wind gusts and accidents happen. These drawers were the forerunners of bloomers, athletic trousers for women, so some good came from the fashion for crinolines.

Western women crinolines from approximately 1830 to 1860, when they were at the height of fashion. Then they started to be replaced by the crinolette, which in turn was quickly replaced by the bustle. If your Steampunk narrative in set in these time periods, take note.

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20 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Fashion, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Victorian-era Fashion

20 responses to “Woman in a Cage: A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective of the Victorian Crinoline

  1. Kara Jorgensen

    Reblogged this on Author Kara Jorgensen and commented:
    Great article about the manifestation of women’s role in society through fashion.

  2. Do you know if cages were still used in the 1880s?

  3. Actually the steel-cage crinoline wasn’t invented until the 1850’s- prior to the “crinolines” were petticoats made out of horsehair, or crin. Most crinolines worn by everyday women (in other words, not the wealthy, who had the space, leisure, and money to be outside the norm) were on 90-120 inches in circumference (or 30-40 inches in diameter), which isn’t actually that large. As for problem using a toilet, the drawers were open crotched well into the Edwardian era, so chamber pots could easily be used. The cage crinoline was an improvement over the heavier corded petticoats of the 1830’s-1850’s, and in reality, corsets were rarely tightlaced and achieved several goals- supporting the body, as well as the garments and providing a smooth silhouette. In some cases, yes, waist reduction (most women laced only 2-3 inches below their natural waist, which actually causes less organ displacement than occurs during pregnancy) was a key goal, but that ideology was limited to the upper classes (ei, women who didn’t have to do their own physical labor). The drastic change in waist size seen in most period images is an optical illusion caused by the wide skirts and trims, and if it is a drawing of some kind (esp. fashion plates), it is just as likely that the artist could have drawn the subject in a more idealized manner. I say this, as a feminist, because I think we need to look beyond the mere shape of a garment and think about how things changed over time and consider facts (such as the actual use of a garment and where these things came from) when we make an argument.
    On corsets:
    http://io9.com/no-corsets-did-not-destroy-the-health-of-victorian-wom-1545644060
    On crinolines:
    http://www.cloakandcorset.com/products/websiteinfo/ebooklets/cordedpetticoats.pdf
    http://vintagefashionguild.org/lingerie-guide/crinoline-petticoat/

    • Thank you for sharing those sights. A really in depth look into the use of crinolines and corsets wasn’t the actual goal of this article, it was more about using the garments as metaphors in the Steampunk literary genre. However, I agree with your points, most eras fetishized their fashions in illustrations and articles to a high degree.

  4. How could they ever sit down in mixed company?

  5. Reblogged this on chrispavesic and commented:
    Somehow this makes our modern fashion struggles a bit easier to accept.

  6. Loredana Isabella Crupi

    I could not have survived living in this era….absurd expectations placed on women!! Very interesting write up! 🙂

  7. Makes you wonder whether women imposed these things on themselves or had them imposed by men. I am guessing the former.

  8. Aly

    As someone who has dabbled with a number of historical styles, I would say that the crinoline is far less restrictive than many. It has the benefit of allowing for personal space – who wants a stranger brushing up close to you – whilst at the same time being suitably flexible to manoeuvre through doorways and confined spaces. They took the weight of heavy skirts away from the body and are wonderfully airy on a summers day! And as for going to the bathroom – a doddle! Just lift the bottom hoop and gather up all the fabric. Likewise for walking, no heavy fabric dragging along behind you and easy to lift if you did wish to walk at a quicker pace.

  9. I doubt I would have survived the confines of corset and crinoline. I find it amusing that a woman was “protected” by layers of clothes and barriers of crinoline yet her “drawers” were crotchless. It also seems ironic that she is hampered from running or escaping from an attacker, leaving her dependent on her male companion. Once down, how coul done easily get up with crinoline all askew? And, her netherparts exposed by the crotchless drawers. This paints quite the picture in my mind.

  10. Janet Peace

    The crinoline was actually very liberating for women. It freed up their legs for movement and replaced the 5-7 petticoats previously required for dress. I wrote a research paper on crinolines–I’d be happy to share it with you if you are interested.

  11. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    I’m reblogging this as it goes well with the Cummerbund and Dickie post from yesterday.

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