Many people associate the Victorian-era hoop skirt, also known as a crinoline, with romantic images of Southern belles and extravagant balls in candlelit ballrooms. Most, though, would be surprised to find out that this iconic fashion was incredibly dangerous. In fact, it was directly or indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths.
A look back at fashion history makes it easy to understand why the crinoline became so popular. Before its invention, the layers of petticoats worn by women, combined with tight corseting, could be literally stifling to their wearers. In contrast, the crinoline was much lighter and cooler as it required fewer petticoats.
Ladies of all social classes could be seen sporting the new skirts soon after their invention in the 1850s. As with many fashions, things quickly got out of hand. The circumference of the hoops grew from a few manageable feet to up to fifteen feet wide. They often required women to walk through doors sideways and sometimes made it physically impossible to sit down.
Crinolines were also flammable. Women who inadvertently got to close to a fireplace or candle would be rapidly engulfed in flames. In one two-month period in England, nineteen women died in this manner. At the Continental Theater in Philadelphia, nine ballerinas died when one of their skirts bumped into a candle. The fire quickly spread among the dancers’ skirts.
A particularly deadly incident occurred in a church in Santiago, Chile in 1863. A gas lamp caught fire and was spread throughout the church by the crinolines the ladies wore. Escape from the flames was made more difficult by the fact that the wide skirts made exiting the church difficult. Over 3,000 people died in the church that day.
Fire wasn’t the only hazard presented by the crinoline, either. The hoops were easily caught up in carriage wheels, causing women to be dragged to their deaths. High winds could catch the skirts and knock women over. If the women were knocked into a busy street or into a body of water, the results could be deadly. Several factories had to ban their workers from wearing crinolines because so many workers were injured or killed when they got caught in machinery.
According to the New York Times, by 1864 over 40,000 women had been killed by the deadly crinoline. This number does not even take into account the number of non-lethal injuries sustained by fashionable, hoop-skirted women.
It is little surprise, then, that the popularity of the crinoline was short-lived. By the late 1870s it had fallen out of fashion. It was briefly revived in much smaller form as a support for the newly trendy bustle in the late 1800s. Smaller, safer crinolines were occasionally worn by the fashionable until the flapper obsession with more comfortable dress finally killed the crinoline for good. Now, the only place to see these deadly skirts is in a museum or on a costumed historical re-enactor.