Friday, October 9, 2009

Symbolism of the Crinoline

Fashion historians have ascribed different meanings to the enormous skirts of the mid-19th century, which was a period of significant male domination and gender differentiation. Men were considered "serious, active, strong and aggressive" and wore dark clothes with little ornamentation. Women were "frivolous, inactive, delicate and submissive" and wore clothing that inhibited their movement in light pastel colours, ribbons, lace and bows. In one sense, the crinoline symbolized female fertility like all fashions that expand the apparent size of the hips. In another aspect, the huge bell like skirt concealed women's sexuality in a cage and created a form of female imprisonment.

Other fashion historians have asserted that the crinoline was representative of how the bourgeois women adopted a "useful cloak of armour" to mediate the experience of modern city life. The enormous width of the skirt provided a barrier between the wearer and everyone else. This was important in a time in which increasing urbanization and industrialization led to more frequent contact with strangers. In that sense, the crinoline was a modest form of "protection".

In spite of being much maligned in the press, the mass manufacture of the cage crinoline became an important industry and the largest firm W.S. and E.H. Thomson had factories in England, France, Germany and the United States. Technical advances reduced the manufacturing costs and brought crinolines within the reach of all social levels.

As the popularity of the crinoline grew, it began to lose appeal among the fashionable set as they sought to differentiate themselves from the working class. In the mid-1860s, the crinoline began to shift to the back of the skirt, leaving the front skirt panel more or less straight. By 1868, the reinforcement of the skirt had slipped entirely to the back becoming a half-crinoline. By 1870, the crinoline disappeared altogether and was replaced with the bustle.