I watched the recent programmes presented by Suzannah Lipscomb on the subject of “Hidden Killers of the Victorian home” with great interest. Some research I’ve been doing concerning women’s rights issues in the mid-nineteenth century has revealed another of these hidden killers, though the hazard was in fact the all-too-visible one of outrageously wide and inflated crinoline dresses. One programme touched on the later presence of celluloid in dresses as a fire hazard, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was “the excess in amplitude of skirt” that threatened women with a fiery death. It’s easy to imagine the vulnerability to immolation of such unwieldy garments at a time of coal fires and unguarded gas and candle flames. The Illustrated London News of 31st January 1863 reported:
“At Nice the English community has been thrown into mourning by the dreadful death of a beautiful young lady, who was burnt to death on her return from a ball given in honour of the King of Bavaria. Her dress caught fire from the embers of an open hearth. Her mother, in endeavouring to succour her, was so frightfully burnt that she has since died.”
The periodical described several similarly horrifying instances of the same, before concluding:
“The outcry against crinoline has been renewed with redoubled vigour in consequence of these catastrophes, and all the misery and suffering of burning alive are laid at the door, or rather the ribs, of hoop-petticoats. Against the immoderate use of crinoline all sensible persons protest…”
The issue of votes for women was becoming active in the 1860s and it’s not surprising that there was a link between fashions and questions of women’s rights around this time, due to the highly restrictive nature of their dress generally. Having to wear murderous corsetry, umpteen layers, and being required to change several times a day for different occasions must have been highly oppressive. (Though it is often forgotten, when generalisations are made about the Victorian era, that the dictates of fashion only applied to a prosperous minority. Many poor people were just glad to have something to wear.)
Attempts to introduce codes of “rational dress” did not get very far and excited much mockery. When Amelia Bloomer came over from America to Britain in autumn 1851 to advocate “trousers for women” she, and her supporters, were subjected to waves of ribald laughter and coarse derision. A gossip column of the time stated, “A party of ladies in Bloomer attire made their appearance among the crowds at the Great Exhibition on Friday last. The novel and unfeminine costume attracted, as may be imagined, no small share of public interest; and in a very short time the fair wearers found it convenient to call a cab.”
Admittedly the hybrid look she sought to introduce was not of the most pleasing nature, as appears from the following drawing of Mrs Bloomer (from whom the term “Bloomers” is of course derived):
Despite my passion for the nineteenth century, I must admit to preferring the freedom of modern times when there is no dictatorial nonsense about correct modes of dress.