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Under The Crinoline

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"The missish and vulgar modesty of a damsel in a hoop skirt." So remarks that consuming moralist of our day, Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn. A damsel, then, in such a skirt is lewd! Let us look into this damsel's hoop—bobbed up again.

Following upon the slim and slinky Empire styles, which just skirted the edge of nudity, Marjorie's skirts again begin to widen. To hold them out she puts on petticoats, four or five, heavily starched and copiously flounced. How is a poor damsel to escape being lewd?

Again the object of Fashion is to increase the lower proportions of Marjorie's silhouette. For a time, she simply has her flounces lined with stiff muslin, and the edges of her gowns with horsehair; or, on top of her long chemise and tight-lacing, she piles on starched or "caned" petticoats. Soon we begin to hear again of the bustle. When, in 1830, Marjorie is living in Miss Mitford's Village, she is described as having "a waist like a wasp, a magnificent bustle." Later, Dickens asked, "Whether she was pretty, whether she wore much bustle ?"

Her mere bustle, before long, is not sufficient for Nineteenth Century Marjorie. She begins to wear under her skirt graduated tubes made of horsehair. And so, crinoline, as the fashion is this time called, makes its appearance, presently to echo the glories of its prototypes. Marjorie experiments with a cylindrical contrivance constructed of steels or whalebone and covered with a series of flounces. She strips this and wears it underneath the dress like a huge bustle. Soon the great rings of wire arranged like the hoops on a barrel are universally worn.

It would appear that the hoop this time first sprang up in England, and that the date of its arrival was about 1855. And it is not long, of course, before Mr. Punch becomes sarcastically much disturbed. His perturbation increases as the crinoline flowers even more. He suggests, early in 1859, that every lady become "her own fire-engine."

By this time the innovation of extending the petticoats by means of air-tubes moves Punch to give as a "moderate computation" that "a properly-spread petticoat contains some thousand feet of tubing." Mr. Punch is horrified by the chance of "female suicide" through contact with open burning fires. "As it is," he declares, "we never see a lady on the hearthrug, without fearing she will make an auto da fe of herself."

Females are to be saved from "sacrifices on their idol Fashion's altar." Lives enough are lost, the article avers, through their pinched shoes and tight-lacing, without "adding Crinoline as a depopulating influence." The chances of incendiarism are so numerous that, were a Crinoline Insurance Company established, it could not possibly withstand the constant claims that would be made on it. For ladies "alight," fire-escapes should be provided in all drawing-rooms.

As an additional precaution, it is proposed that the air-tubes of the petticoat be filled with water and "fitted with the means, when needful, to eject it." Every lady thus "could play upon herself the moment her dress caught." And Mr. Punch, in this ironical utterance, concludes that "the more cold water that is thrown on Crinoline the better."

Crinoline Marjorie's stays also come in for a good deal of agitated comment. Doctors protest against them. Others declare no harm is done. As early in the century as 1810, a fashion critic sternly stated : "Stays are now composed not of whalebone or hardened leather, but of bars of iron and steel from three to four inches broad and many of them not less than eighteen inches in length." This distressed commentator declared further that it was not unusual to see "a mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and placing her foot 0n her back, break half a dozen laces in tightening her stays."

And considerably later, at the close of the third quarter of the century, a treatise on the corset was issued in London, enumerating some of the diseases caused by wearing it: "Apoplexy, earache, nose bleed, whooping-cough, hunch-back, cough, asthma, consumption, acidity, bad digestion, diarrhoea, colic, jaundice, inflammation of the liver, hernia and epilepsy."

Meanwhile, Marjorie keeps right on with her tight-lacing--all through the eighteen hundreds. The fashions during this period vary the hourglass effect. Despite danger from fire and awful maladies, Crinoline Marjorie of England is described as "health incarnate" by an admirer who happens to be an immortal connoisseur of women.

With her change of clothes, Marjorie has of course herself changed again. She is, indeed, a creature of infinite variety. She never reverts to precisely the same Marjorie she was some time before. When, not long ago, she made a fashion cult of the "antique," she remained quite distinguishable from the Marjorie of ancient Greece. With her new hoop, she is again a new Marjorie—with her pigeon-plump figure, merry bright eyes, fresh complexion, flowing ringlets, and lips pursed up in a Cupid's bow.

Crinoline Marjorie is fond of displaying her tiny feet and darling ankles (and a little more) in gales of wind on cliff and pier and parade. Her stockings, of course, are white. Many boys of this time have never seen black stockings. What else has she on within the wide area of her distended skirts? In the first decade of the second half of the century, as one of the most stylishly dressed women of the period, she displays long pantalettes beneath her crinoline.

An accident violently tilts Marjorie's hoop, and her pantalettes are revealed full length. First, we are somewhat startled by their straight, bare unattractiveness above the knee. In this section they rather comically suggest a couple of ghostly white stove-pipes hinged together like a pair of compasses. From slightly above the knee to the ankle they are gay enough, with a series of perhaps five or six stiffly protruding ruffles.

In this period Punch is Leech. And thus the comedy of the crinoline is delightfully told by one of the most prolific of English artists—a master of light, humorous, superficial social criticism. Who is the charming creature who pervades John Leech's show from beginning to end?

She is a darling! Just that. Light of heart, she is perhaps also a little light of head. It is not considered "delicate" for her at table to ask for any piece of the chicken except the wing. It would be awful for her to request a "piece of the dark meat." Sometimes the captain gives the wing of the fowl to some other darling! That is almost the worst trouble she can conceive of. The other darling, by the way, might be her twin sister.

When that noble sportsman, Cornet Flinders, is frozen out and cannot hunt, she plays cat's-cradle with him in her father's country house. Then she pitches chocolates into his mouth from the oak landing. Again, she lets him fasten the skates on to her pretty feet. Happy hero, to enjoy so intimate a favor! She plays billiards with her handsome cousin—a guardsman, at least. And when she stands under the mistletoe, she calls out in distress because this privileged relation has scratched her pretty cheek with his pointed waxed moustache. Then when her portly uncle is there at dinner, she and a sister darling pull crackers across his august white waistcoat and scream in pretty terror at the explosion.

Sometimes, indeed, she is quite serious—under the smart of Cupid's arrow. Then she seeks Mr. Tongs, the hairdresser, and bids him cut off a lock of her hair, where it will not be missed; a jetty tress destined as a solemn token for that irresistible officer with the lovely ambrosial whiskers. In short, as John Leech sees her, she is all innocence and liveliness—a human kitten.

What happened to the Victorian kitten when she took off her crinoline and her pantalettes and put on her nightgown? What, indeed, became of her ? It's a curious thing that then her idolator John Leech mysteriously and completely deserted her. Not a single picture of her in her nightie can be found in Punch throughout the entire period. Nor does our learned Professor know of one elsewhere. There are, indeed, pictures aplenty of the mid-Victorian nightgown, but not inhabited by the darling who has just been rhapsodized. Far from it.

This strange lack should excite our intellectual curiosity, for the interrogation of manners and morals is the fundamental note in any real study of the history of lingerie. The Professor, taking up one of his blessed dictionaries, reads this definition of the nightgown: "A light garment worn in bed, more specially one worn by women and children."

This phrase "more specially" reminds us that the sleeping togs of our great-grandsires, before they became generally "nightshirts," were not unusually termed nightgowns. And, indeed, at this time the nightgowns of the other sex were not unlike the nightshirt.

The inseparable companion of the nightshirt was the night-cap, and a flavorsome treatise might be written on the tasseled nightcap as a symbol of a certain span of civilization. It is, in its most familiar form, Pickwickian. Dickens delighted in a nightcap. This object, marking the manners of a time, ornamented the pages of Punch throughout the days of its noblest tradition. The contours of the nightcap were ironically caressed by the hand of Cruikshank, of John Leech, and of Charles Keene.

It went with snuffers and the bedroom candle. And it went also with a snuffers state of mind in the history of the manners and morals—of the bedroom. It went, for instance, with Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures, a farcical work which enjoyed a wide celebrity both in England and America from the late forties until well into the nineties. This production, originally contributed to Punch, consisted of a series of marital monologues delivered after retiring by a woman to her meek and drowsy husband, also in bed. This personification of a wife was considerably more notable for decided views than for bedroom charm.

Mrs. Caudle was, of course, a broadly humorous creation. But was she not relished to a remarkable degree precisely be-cause, over so wide an area of time and space, she struck a responsive chord of recognition? Mrs. Caudle, with her austere nightcap firmly tied under her chin and her long-sleeved, straight up-and-down nightgown hardly more aesthetic in effect than a man's nightshirt, was presumably emblematic of the prevailing idea that in a God-fearing world it was the function of a right-thinking woman, once she was married, to be severe rather than seductive—curiously enough, particularly when presenting herself to wayward man in the intimacy of bedroom dress.

A drawing by Leech which appeared in Punch in 1861 presents a side-whiskered gentleman in dressing gown in a state of much perturbation. Seated by the grate in a living room, he has evidently been engaged with a book. The volume is now flung from him, his footstool is rolling toward us, and a statuette is crashing from the mantelpiece, as he looks up over his shoulder with fright at a frozen figure in the door behind him. Candle in hand, it wears the nightcap and forbidding nightgown of the era. The caption explains that the book the gentleman has been reading is the popular novel of the day.

Then: "Pray, Mr. Tompkins," says Mrs. T., "are you never coming upstairs ? How much longer are you going to sit up with that Woman in White?" The title of this picture is Awful Apparition!

The awful apparition motif was characteristic of the night-gown jokes of the time. So garbed, indeed, the wife of one's bosom must have been an awful apparition in any circumstances. Or, indeed, so may have been the wife of some-one else's bosom.

George Moore, as a youth in the day of the nightcap, the nightgown, and the nightshirt, exclaimed to his mistress, "Love is dressed ridiculously, made to look like a zany."

In France, the crinoline came on the scene in the latter part of the reign of Napoleon III. The hullabaloo set off by the advent of the fashion was hardly equaled by any political question of the day. Society in the Second Empire was split into two factions, something rather like the Wets and the Drys in our own recent history, the "agins" being the Prohibitionists. Again, however, the hoop rolled triumphantly on its way against its opponents.

There were the Die-Hards. Something like fourteen years later, this party was still declaiming against the fashion, now declaring that the reign of crinoline must come to an end because of its excesses. The other side had an interesting retort. It was declared that "as women now walk so badly on their high heels crinolines are necessary, and must be retained, because they sustain the weight of the skirts."

But crinoline was, so to say, on its last legs. By 1869 the style had begun to waver, and by the following year the returning bustle had supplanted the hoops. Within a few years Fashion became rather eclectic—styles of nearly every period were more or less successfully blended.

The eyes of the world of Fashion were at this time fixed on the splendid wedding of Mlle Bettina Rothschild, described at length in all the papers. The trousseau, it was reported, included undergarments worth 200,000 francs.

With the opening of the last quarter of the century, the upper skirt of French Marjorie, widely open in front to display the splendid petticoat, formed an ample train at the back. At home, she wore muslin peignoirs of a shape call "mobile." Or she wore what must have been a highly engaging garment of fine nainsook, with a lively name, saut-du-lit—"jumpout-of-bed. "

At the turn of the eighties frills and pleatings of lawn or muslin were much worn, and Marjorie went in considerably for luxurious lingerie. Corset-chemises made with gussets were in fashion and were included in every wedding trousseau.



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