Crinoline: The Victorian Fashion Garment That Killed Around 3,000 Women
Unlike the farthingales and panniers, the crinoline was worn by Victorian women of every social class.
In his etiquette manual published in 1875, George Routledge criticized London housemaids for wearing hoops at work.
He said that when the maids kneel to scrub the floor, the hoops raise to expose the lower bodies, inspiring street harassment from errand boys and other male passers-by. Routledge suggested that servants dress appropriately for their work, and save their fashionable garments for their leisure periods.
However, some servants saw the attempt to control their dress as equivalent to controlling their liberty, and refused to work for employers who tried to forbid crinolines.
Aside from the various groups protesting the wide use of crinoline for women at work, the fashion garment was facing a yet bigger flak...
The flammability of the crinoline was widely reported. It is estimated that, during the late 1850s and late 1860s in England along, about 3,000 women were killed in crinoline-related fires.
One such incident is the death of a 14-year-old kitchen maid, Margaret Davey. It was reported in The Times on 13 February 1863.
Her dress, “distended by a crinoline,” caught fire as she stood on the fender of the fireplace to reach some spoons on the mantelpiece. She died as a result of extensive burns.
A similar case was reported later that year, when 16-year-old Emma Musson died after a piece of burning coke rolled from the kitchen fire and ignited her crinoline.
The severity of the death toll is blamed in part to the large amounts of inflammable fabric used for the women’s crinoline dresses. Two notable victims of crinoline fires were William Wilde’s illegitimate daughters, Emily and Mary, who died in November 1871 of burns sustained after their evening gowns caught fire.
In 1864, Slaveykov reported that over the last 14 years, at least 39,927 women worldwide had died in crinoline-related fires. Although flame-retardant fabrics were available, these were thought unattractive and were unpopular.
Other risks associated with the crinoline were that it could get caught in other people’s feet, carriage wheels or furniture, or be caught by sudden gusts of wind, blowing the wearer off their feet.
In 1859, while participating in a paper chase, Louisa, Duchess of Manchester, caught her hoop while climbing over a stile, her skirts thrown over her head, her scarlet drawers were exposed to the assembled company.
Textiles firms instruct female employees in 1860 to leave their hoops and crinolines at home. A report in The Cork Examiner of 2 June 1864 recorded the death of Ann Rollinson from injuries sustained after her crinoline was caught by a revolving machinery shaft in a mangling room at Firwood bleach works.