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.
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!
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.
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.
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.