The Cage Crinoline as a Social Metaphor

7:46 PM

As a sort of followup to my last head-to-toe post, where the cage crinoline was mentioned, I thought I'd write a bit about the social symbolism of the crinoline.

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The cage crinoline first appeared in the mid 1850s and would continue to be popular until the 1870s, when it transformed into a bustle. At this time in history, women had very few rights and were generally second class citizens. They were seen as delicate, frivolous, submissive, and intellectually inferior to men. A woman was an ornament. They dressed in more colorful and decorative clothing (as opposed to men who wore dark, plain suits) to show off the wealth of either their fathers or their husbands. This stifling atmosphere did its best to confine a woman to the role of dutiful daughter and then dutiful wife, leaving little room for any other aspirations. You probably see where I'm going with this. Women were, metaphorically, caged by their society, just as their bodies were literally caged by a cage crinoline.

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Modern fashion historians aren't the only ones who picked up on the idea of the cage crinoline as a literal cage. Here a cartoonist from the period shows how useful this cage can be for men.

Just as this was a period of female intellectual and social repression, it was also a period of sexual repression (although sexual repression was a hallmark of Victorian society as a whole, not just the women of the period). With the crinoline covering the lower half of the body, a woman's sexuality was literally in a cage, inaccessible to anyone except a husband. Interestingly, historically men weren't seen as the more sexual beings. Women were the sexually rapacious gender, and men were simply poor victims lured in by those pesky horny females. Thus the crinoline can be seen as a cage confining a woman's sexuality for the protection of men, just as one would put a ravenous animal in a cage for the protection of the people around it.

Interestingly, with all of it's symbols of female repression, many men thought the crinoline was incredibly stupid. It was way too big, taking up all of the room in carriages and making it that much harder to get close to a woman. Which leads to the other side of the social symbolism. In an increasingly industrialized society, cities were overcrowded and with any large city comes a large crime rate. Wearing a giant cage can be seen as a form of protection against the hundreds and thousands of suspicious strangers a woman might come into contact with walking down the street. Furthermore, caging a woman's sexuality can be seen from another angle. By putting her genitals behind a cage, a woman is at least symbolically protecting herself from sexual predators.

In addition to this social protection, the cage crinoline offered health benefits as well. Before it's invention, women achieved the fashionable wide-skirted silhouette by wearing many layers of heavy petticoats. This was not only uncomfortable but unhealthy. The cage crinoline offered a much better alternative. It was much lighter, wasn't nearly as hot as wearing multiple layers of cloth, and allowed for a greater range of movement. So on the one hand it symbolized female repression, but on the other it provided a sort of female liberation.

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I'm no expert on gender studies, but these are just some of my thoughts on the possible symbolism of the cage crinoline. What do you all think? Is it a greater symbol of repression? Of liberation? A combination of both? Let me hear your thoughts!

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  1. I loved this post. And yes I agree with most of what you said. The crinoline was used to show the magnificence and copious amounts of material that the woman wore, implying that her husband was both obscenely rich and had great taste. And the downside was that a crinoline took up so much space, getting in and out of carriages, or walking past furniture in a room became a nightmare.

    There was only one area I would disagree on. Before the invention of the crinoline, "women achieved the fashionable wide-skirted silhouette by wearing many layers of heavy petticoats. This was not only uncomfortable but unhealthy". I would say that the Regency period was actually known for soft empire style dresses and chemisettes - attractive, but also comfortable and sensible.

    Wouldn't it be ironic if women's rights were growing during the Regency period, then started going backwards during the middle Victorian era, only to emerge again as an issue in the Edwardian period.

    p.s "putting her gentiles behind a cage"? ha ha.. poor Jews.

  2. Yeah, as I was going to get some dinner I suddenly realized I made that typo...

    Actually, before the crinoline period was the romantic period (1830s-early 1850s), where women had about the same silhouette (albeit a bit narrower) but it was created with petticoats. The two pictures on the side bar of Queen Victoria and the Princess de Broglie show dresses held out by petticoats, not a crinoline. The regency period came before the romantic period.

    Thanks so much for your comment, glad you liked the post!

  3. I'm just going to hone in one one issue you mentioned, because I'm just about blogged out for the night. I don't think the symbolism behind "putting women's sexuality in a cage" in the cage crinoline is a particularly potent one. It's not like they'd actually caged her genitals in a chastity belt. If anything, cage skirts technically allowed a woman more freedom. Less garments to push through for any potential sexual liaisons. I'm ignoring any facts about how women's sexuality was perceived and treated and just simply pointing out that the cage crinoline didn't serve as a literal cage for sexuality, even if women's sexuality was metaphorically "caged" at that point and time and cage crinolines also happened to be popular too.

    As a general comment, I loved finding your blog. I'm a fellow undergrad who's spent her teen and college-aged years obsessed with fashion history and hopes to become a costume collection curator as well. Also rocking the CSA membership (as well as an AAM one ;). I almost could have sworn that I was writing your blog in a regular trance state or something, till I saw that your college is not my own, and neither is your favorite music list, haha. Your blog is like what my blog might be like if mine were less rambly and contained a lot more effort. ;)

  4. I realize this is an old post by now! But I wonder about the warmth issue. Maybe in colder climates women missed the warmth of the many petticoats? I have the impression typical British and European rooms were much colder in cold weather than most people keep their rooms nowadays. I wonder if there are any cases of women putting off the transition from stiff petticoats to the new, lighter-weight fashionable crinolines because they liked how much toastier their legs were before? On the other hand, in the warmer countries of Europe, I'd imagine the cage crinolines were a godsend in summer because of the improved coolness.

  5. A very valuable resource ... many thanks.
    M.K. Tod (aka Mary)