From the Exhibition:

Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette

Following the fashionable columnar silhouette of the early nineteenth century, women’s skirts had expanded by the 1830s, with hems reaching record circumferences by mid-century. Introduced in 1856, the cage crinoline offered a lighter-weight alternative to the many layers of petticoats previously used to support the voluminous bell-shaped skirts of the era, yet the new understructure did not make the style any less unwieldy. When Empress Eugènie’s lady-in-waiting Madame Carette recalled that “to walk with so immense a paraphernalia around one was not very easy; and the slender body, placed in the centre of this volume of material, appeared to be detached from the rest of the body altogether,” she was referring specifically to the “rebellious springs” of the cage crinoline.1

Although the cage crinoline revived and reinterpreted the eighteenth-century hoop skirt, and its name derived from the stiff horsehair (French: crin) petticoats that preceded it, the markings at the back waist of this particular example attest to the cage crinoline’s modern, industrial manufacture. This was an understructure that was engineered rather than tailored, and its label bears the name of the first Frenchman to patent the form, R. C. Milliet of Besançon.2 The printed label also names Thomson, the leading crinoline manufacturer of the 1850s and 1860s. The brothers W. S. and C. H. Thomson operated crinoline factories in England and continental Europe, but their company’s reputation was firmly associated with American industry,3 which perhaps explains this French-made crinoline’s special designation as a “Jupe-Cage Américaine.”

Many advertisements for Thomson’s Jupe-Cage Américaine appear in French newspapers from 1862, emphasizing the product’s “marvelous lightness” and flexibility as much as its promotion of “elegance, well-being, economy, [and] hygiene.”4 However, the Thomson crinoline in this exhibition bears no mention of the company’s first-place prize from the London Exposition of 1862. Later advertisements proudly cite the award, as does the label of another extant Thomas crinoline exhibited in 2010,5 but judging by differences in construction, the crinoline in this exhibition seems to represent a slightly different, possibly earlier model. Although in profile this crinoline displays the “projected” silhouette popularized in the early 1860s, which shifted the skirt’s volume to the back, its concentric hoops are not reinforced by extra tapes at the center back.

Also in 1862, the English satirical magazine Punch complained that “not all the powers of ridicule, nor the remonstrances of affection, have been able to beat down that inflated absurdity, called Crinoline! It is a living institution, which nothing seemingly can crush or compress.”6 Nevertheless, by the later 1860s the crinoline’s proportions had begun to shrink, as dressmakers added still more decoration to the backs of women’s skirts and the silhouette became narrower. This added volume at the back waist necessitated a new support known as a tournure, which coexisted with the cage crinoline until the latter disappeared from fashion in the late 1870s. “Crinolineomania” may have been short-lived,7 but designers in recent years have sought to revive and reinterpret the cage crinoline, most notably Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan, and Yohji Yamamoto.8

1.Madame Carette, My mistress, the Empress Eugenie; or, Court life at the Tuileries, authorized translation of Souvenirs intimes de la cour des Tuileries (London: Dean & Son, 1890), 173–74.

2.Alison Gernsheim, Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey (New York: Dover Publications, 1981), 45.

3.“Employment of Women—Thomson’s Crown-Skirt Factory,” Harper’s Weekly, February 19, 1859, 125, cited in Julie Wosk, Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 50; Émile Bourdelen, “Revue Industrielle: Fabrication des Jupes-Cages Américaines de MM. Thomson,” Le Monde Illustré 6, no. 262 (April 19, 1862): 256.

4.E.g., advertisements in Le journal de Vienne et de l’Isère 26, no. 17 (April 27, 1862): n.p.; Le courier de la Drôme et de l’Ardèche 31, no. 255 (November 1, 1862): 4.

5.Crinoline from the collection of Gilles Labrosse, pictured in Au Temps des Crinolines: Nice 1860, exh. cat. (Nice : Musée Masséna, 2010), figs. 48, 49.

6.“The Despotism of Dress,” Punch, 1862, cited in Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines (New York: Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1991), 136.

7.“Crinolineomania,” Punch, 1856, cited in ibid., 135.

8.Sophie Lemahieu, “Corsets, Crinolines, and Bustles in Today’s Fashions: Drawing Creative Inspiration from the History of Undergarments,” in Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, ed. Denis Bruna (New Haven and London: Published for Bard Graduate Center by Yale University Press, 2015), 243-57.