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Weird History: Crinoline Fires

We're heading back to the Victorian era for this week's history lesson, because Victorian history is just teeming with bizarre and macabre accounts. Remember those giant hoop skirts during the 1800s? Well, eventually the fashionable trend became so outlandish that women started catching fire. Per usual, we're not kidding.

Crinoline skirts of the Victorian age featured steel metal or whalebone cages draped in fabric, usually horsehair combined with either cotton or linen. Eventually known as hoop skirts, the design was meant to broaden the silhouette of the skirt in order to give the impression of a small waistline (the extremes of Victorian waistlines can be a story for another day).

These skirts got wider and wider as the 1860s rolled around. According to the European Fashion Heritage Association, the circumference of a such a skirt could be up to 18 feet. That's the length of a two-car driveway!

None of this was lost on the media, which openly remarked on the fad through satirical cartoons such as this one from 1857:

Anyone who has ever worn a large costume knows the prohibitive nature of moving in such a garment. You can't always be sure of what you are bumping into. This proved hazardous for women in wide crinoline skirts, for those very skirts could easily brush against a candle or a fireplace. And you might not even realize it at first, because of the cage structure keeping the fabric up.

Some sources report that thousands of women died from crinoline fires between the 1850s and the 1860s. In addition to fires, women had to worry about their clothing getting caught in machinery and carriage wheels. Even a particularly strong wind could send them tumbling.

By the late 1860s, the giant hoop fashion was starting to shrink. The difficulties of large garments were too risky an inconvenience. By the 1920s, slim silhouette flapper dresses would be all the rage.

Oh, fashion.

[Image Credit: color illustration via Wikimedia Commons, crinoline ink drawing by David Ring via Wikimedia Commons, Harper's Weekly satirical cartoon via Wikimedia Commons]

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