Crinoline was originally a stiff fabric with a weft of horse-hair and a warp of cotton or linen thread. The fabric first appeared around 1830, but by 1850 the word had come to mean a stiffened petticoat or rigid skirt-shaped structure of steel designed to support the skirts of a woman’s dress into the required shape. In form and function it is very similar to the earlier farthingale.
After the French Revolution, French fashion turned against the elaborate styles favoured by royalty, the court, and the aristocracy. As Parisian fashion was very influential, most western European countries adopted the same styles.
Under the prevailing neoclassical influence, women’s fashions had adopted a simple style based on the simple draped garments of Ancient Greece and the togas of ancient Rome. Skirts were straight and slender, and worn with very few — if any — petticoats.
However, the silhouette did not remain that way for long, and skirt hems began to widen to give a cone shape. In the 1810s, gores began to be used in skirts again, and skirts grew wider in the 1820s. The width of these skirts was sometimes supported by a small bustle. These were not always sufficient, and so extra petticoats were worn to help.
The first 'crinolines' were petticoats starched for extra stiffness, or made out of the new crinoline fabric, and they often had ruffles to support the skirts to the desired width. However, dress fabrics were heavy but not stiff enough to support their own weight, which tended to collapse the petticoats out of shape. Extra rigidity was added to petticoats through rings of cord or braid running around the hem. In the 1830s, women started to wear petticoats with hoops of whalebone or cane around the hem.
The first hoop skirt in the US is from 1846, patent number 4,584 of David Hough, Jr. In 1858, IRJ Mann's US patent number 20,681 was the first latticework of strings and hoops.
In 1858, the American W.S. Thomson greatly facilitated the development of the cage crinoline by developing an eyelet fastener to connect the steel crinoline hoops with the vertical tapes descending from a band around the wearer’s waist. The invention was patented in the United States (patent US21581), France (patent FR41193) and Britain (patent GB1204/1859). This facilitated the fashionable silhouette's development from a cone shape to a dome. It was not an entirely original idea; Thompson was probably inspired by the open cage or frame style of farthingales and panniers.
The cage crinoline was adopted with enthusiasm: the numerous petticoats, even the stiffened or hooped ones, were heavy, bulky and generally uncomfortable. It was light — it only required one or two petticoats worn over the top to prevent the steel bands appearing as ridges in the skirt — and freed the wearer's legs from tangling petticoats.
Unlike the farthingale and panniers, the crinoline was worn by women of every social class. The wider circulation of magazines and newspapers spread news of the new fashion, also fueling desire for it, and mass production made it affordable.
The second problem was the potential impropriety of the crinoline. Its lightness was a curse as well as a blessing, as a gust of wind or a knock could set it swinging and reveal the wearer's legs. Even worse, if she tripped or was knocked over, the crinoline would hold her skirts up.
The third problem was the pressure, but a tight, stiff corset spread the pressure.
Sitting down could be a problem if the wearer failed to spread her skirts out properly as the entire hoop contraption would fly up in her face. This embarrassing but humorous tendency is often depicted in comedies of the era.
The greatest problem with the crinoline, though, was that in some situations it was dangerous — because of its size, the wearer was often not aware of where its edges were. It was only inconvenient and annoying when a maid’s crinoline knocked a vase off a table or upset a cup, but for factory girls, there was the risk of crinolines getting caught in machinery and dragging them to be mutilated or crushed to death. Crinolines also burnt easily, partly because air circulated freely underneath them and partly because the fashionable dress fabrics, silk and cotton, were highly flammable.
The crinoline had grown to its maximum dimensions by 1860. However, as the fashionable silhouette never remains the same for long, the huge skirts began to fall from favour. Around 1864, the shape of the crinoline began to change. Rather than being dome-shaped, the front and sides began to contract, leaving volume only at the back. The kind of crinoline that supported this style was sometimes known as a crinolette. The cage structure was still attached around the waist and extended down to the ground, but only extended down the back of the wearer’s legs. The crinolette itself was quickly superseded by the bustle, which was sufficient for supporting the drapery and train at the back of the skirt.
With the recent trend towards lavish weddings and grandiose bridal attire, the crinoline has started making a comeback. For her first solo collection, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood looked to the crinoline for inspiration. The collection, titled Mini Crini, featured shorter crinoline skirts with more flexible plastic hoops.