Friday, December 9, 2011

Will the REAL Crinoline please stand up?

Because if it were a real crinoline, it probably could. (Stand up, that is.)

The Jehossee project has been a learning experience at EVERY possible turn. Not just because it's opened my mind in new and unexpected ways, but because I am apparently waaay more ignorant that I originally suspected.

Blame it on a childhood spent in front of an ancient wood-paneled Zenith watching a crackling VHS tape of "Gone With The Wind," but I associate virtually the entirety of the 19th century with a hoopskirt. It's instinctive! They're iconic! It was sort of shocking to discover that hoopskirts (as they are generally thought of in association with the American Civil War and the fore-mentioned GWTW,) were only in fashion for about 10 years. Ten years?? Mind blowing. 

The romantic era that they are attached to, at least for Southerners in America, transcends the fashion itself. The "look" is tied to an emotional history that has far more traction in the public consciousness than the reality of Victorian aesthetics. This brings me to Harriet Aiken.

 Harriet Aiken, c. 1858. Probably wearing a crinoline, not a hoopskirt here as well.

When I embarked upon the Jehossee project and initially began researching costume in 1850, I simply assumed that I'd be making a hoopskirt to achieve the bell-shaped skirts associated with the fashions of that year. Harriet was a wealthy woman and a society leader, though she wasn't in her first bloom of youth. She and her husband, William, were fond of continental travel. She spent much of 1848 in Europe with William, primarily to collect art for their in-home gallery in Charleston. (Their home, the Aiken-Rhett house as it is now called, still stands. ) But wealthy, fashionable women were NOT wearing hoopskirts in 1850. As I discovered, they were still trotting around in an ever-expanding series of petticoats.

The ace in the petticoat deck for a fashionable woman in the years prior to the hoop was the horsehair crinoline, or "crin." The word itself is derived from the French word for horse hair and the material from which it was made was generally a mix of linen and horsehair with a bit of binding agent to make it nice and rigid. Not a helluva lot of early crinolines survive, though a surprising number hale from the latter half of the 19th century. (Machine stitching: Sorry, ebay-seller-who-shall-remain-unidentified, but nobody was sewing on a machine in the 1840's in America.)

Great! So all I needed to do was acquire a few yards of horsehair woven with linen!


Yeah, so that didn't happen. Apparently horsehair is available in two forms these days: the whole bushy tail, or glue. (And high-end upholstery fabric in England. Go figure.)

This brought me to the lovely Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles and a quiet entry for "Crin Vegetal," or literally, "vegetable crinoline" material. Just as the "crin" word remained in place as a synonym for "hoopskirt" in later years, it was used for the alternative "Vegetal" material as well. To replace the stiffening effects of the horsehair, additional binding glue or adhesive was used along with the linen and occasionally, cotton. This sounded a whole lot like buckram, which is readily available (except when it isn't) from my local Hanc*ck's. 

My theory was further supported by a passage from Cunnington's "History of Underclothes" in which he describes the wearing of "a petticoat of book-muslin" in the 1840's for evening wear skirt support. Fairchild's credits "book-muslin" as being just another word for... yup, buckram.

Pictures of the crinoline are coming another day. It's still in the works at the moment, but it will closely resemble the construction of this image from the Met:

This dates from the 1840's (if my notes are correct...) And demonstrates a pretty ingenious bit of engineering. The drawstring waist is looped through a thinner layer of material (likely linen) which allows the string to pass through easily. That linen band is attached to the top layer of crinoline material and the inconsistency in the join between the two allows the crin to "billow" out more than it could if it were the only textile used. The second layer of crin, gathered like a ruffle from the middle of the petticoat would have added additional loft and support to the petticoats and skirts above.

In general, crinoline petticoats of horsehair or buckram would have had much the same effect as a corded petticoat. They would have kept the lower limbs free from restrictive extra layers of thinner petticoats and they would have enabled the wearers to get more volume with fewer layers in an age before the almighty hoopskirt came into general use.

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