Cage Crinoline (1860) made of wool and cotton with a spring-steel frame
Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum
As the skirts of the mid-nineteenth century ballooned in size, women wore numerous layers of petticoats to achieve the desired bell-like silhouette. The word crinoline was initially used to describe a petticoat cloth made of crin (French for horsehair) interwoven with lin (linen). After the 1850s, the word crinoline evolved to describe a "foundation garment composed of graduated steel or whalebone hoops that distended skirts and preserved their shape".
With innovations in the manufacture of steel, the introduction of the cage crinoline in 1856 allowed women to wear the fashionable wide skirts of the time without enduring the weight or warmth of multiple layers of petticoats. The news of this fashion innovation quickly spread through such publications as Godey's Lady's Book. In spite of the many difficulties and dangers caused by wearing enormous skirts, cage crinolines became hugely popular.
The crinoline was not the first time that fashion has emphasized a woman's hips. In Elizabethan times, the farthingale was worn, and in the 18th century, panniers created an expansive hip line. But in the middle of the 19th century, technology had advanced for the manufacture of low-cost flexible lightweight steel hoops to support the skirt structure. Unlike the previous hip expanding garments, the low cost of the cage crinoline made it accessible to all classes of women. Furthermore, improvements in looms and dyes in the textile industry and the invention of the sewing machine allowed the voluminous skirts supported by cage crinolines to be adopted by women of all social classes. For this reason, the cage crinoline has a significant place in fashion history.
Note: The above is an extract of a research paper that I wrote for a course in Fashion, Culture and Society at Ryerson University. I am fascinated with the crinoline because of its importance in fashion history as one of the first garments worn by all classes of woman and also because of its inherent sculptural qualities.