Crinolines & petticoat skirts were big style in the 1950s… and in the 1850s

Crinolines and petticoat skirts were big style in the 1950s - and the 1850s

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In the 1950s, the petticoat crinoline made a triumphant return to the fashion scene, with a bounce in its step and a swish in its sway.

It was an article of women’s clothing, yes, but it was also a cultural statement. After the restrained and practical fashion of the WW2 years, the world was ready to let loose and have some fun. The crinoline — with its playful elegance and the indulgence of layers and layers of underskirts — was ready for a revival.

Full skirts and dresses of the 1950s with crinolines and petticoats

Of course, those petticoat and crinoline styles were nothing new. They had been a staple of womenswear a century before — in the 1850s and 1860s — puffing up skirts and taking up lots and lots of space (often to the chagrin of others, as you can see in an antique editorial cartoon lower on this page).

Women in full-skirted dresses with petticoats back in 1854

Petticoats as a cultural statement

The reintroduction of crinolines was led, in part, by fashion icons like Christian Dior. Clothing designer Dior’s “New Look” of 1947 heralded a return to glamour and ultra-femininity, featuring fuller skirts that called for the support of a well-structured petticoat.

Made from starched layers of nylon, tulle, taffeta, or netting, these petticoats gave skirts the desired volume, enhancing the feminine silhouette that was central to the era’s aesthetic.

Christian Dior and his New Look fashion - including crinolines (1948)
Christian Dior and his “New Look” fashion elements – including crinolines (1948)

Crinolines were emblematic of a shift in societal values and norms. As post-war prosperity brought about a return to more traditional lifestyles, women were encouraged to embrace roles as homemakers and mothers. The full-skirted dresses, supported by layers of petticoat, became symbolic of an idealized image of womanhood.

Retro 50s petticoats for swirling full skirts

Floofy skirts are also just plain fun

Despite the societal expectations wrapped up in this trend, there was an undeniable joy and frivolity to the petticoat. As referenced in the reprinted articles from 1954 below, no one expected this trend to last as long as it did, but when the market decided to embrace this style, it was all in (little did they know then, the girly full-skirted look would remain in fashion well into the early 1960s!).

Full skirt styles from the 50s

Dances, parties, and social gatherings of the 1950s were filled with the swishing and swirling of skirts, as women reveled in the petticoat’s flair for the dramatic. Celebs, too, were instrumental in promoting the crinoline dress trend, giving it an extra touch of glamour and appeal.

Icons like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn were often seen flaunting the full-skirted dresses, complete with petticoats that epitomized the era’s style, and cementing their status as a must-have item of the decade.

Crinoline petticoats are more popular than ever (1954)

From The Herald (Rock Hill, South Carolina) July 6, 1954

Summer is back, and the crinoline petticoat is more popular than ever. This continued fashion disproves the old theory that women’s styles are always changing.

Summer fashions for women - Dresses from 1957

The year 1954 will be the biggest for the bouffant under-skirt industry. Full petticoats, a fad which some credit to Empress Eugenie and which has recurred over and over again in fashion history, just seem to “go on and on as a best seller,” as one leading lingerie buyer puts it.

Vintage crinolines - Bouffant petticoats from 1954

It is little wonder why the full-skirted petticoat is becoming more and more a permanent part of the feminine wardrobe from day through evening.

The bell-shaped skirt supported by crinoline is almost two centuries old, and it has enjoyed two recurrent cycles of fashionable acceptance. The present trend, though, is growing and growing.

Crinolines and hoop skirt fashions for women from 1864
Crinolines and hoop skirt fashions for women from 1864

It all began in 1947, when New York lingerie designers and manufacturers decided to re-emphasize the use of crinoline, an old-fashioned starched fabric, in slips to accentuate the full-skirted silhouette. It was an improved type of crinoline, as opposed to that usually used in linings of coat jackets, belts, and shoulder pads.

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Simple 50s tulle crinoline skirts
Simple 50s tulle crinoline skirts

Up to this time, its main use as a dress material was for bridal costumes, ballet dresses, little girl dresses, and doll clothes. So, actually, starched crinoline was a relatively unimportant item in women’s apparel.

Most distressing of all, the starch disappeared after washing, and with it, the stiffness left the petticoat. The problem was solved when they introduced a permanent finish process which made it possible to wash the crinoline without it losing any of its required stiffness.

1950s women's undergarments and lingerie including crinoline petticoat skirts

Although the new code was slow in winning followers, interest grew so much from 1948 to 1951 that manufacturers developed improvements in style.

One manufacturer has introduced a white-on-white floral design which is impressed in the crinoline. Other styles contemplated are flocked colored polka dot and floral effects. Many structural changes were also made in the petticoats to solve such problems that caused stocking snags and uncomfortable posture.

1955 Petticoat lingerie - Flutterby beauty

The trend was expected to end in 1953, but woman, being her unpredictable self, decided to go all out for crinoline, and sales exceeded all years since 1947 added together. It seems everybody wanted crinoline — the manufacturers, the department stores, and the homemakers.

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Vintage white petticoat skirts - crinolines from 1957

Now, in 1954, sales for the first five months have passed all sales in the full year of 1953. Fashion forecasters foresee even greater years ahead for the crisp petticoat.

Perhaps one of the major reasons why the crinoline petticoat will be a permanent part of every woman’s wardrobe is because it is flattering even to the imperfect figure.

50s model in bra and crinolines

1950s actress June Allyson in a dress with crinoline petticoats

1950s actress June Allyson in a dress with crinoline petticoats

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The dress circle at a concert, front row (1857)

Here’s an old editorial cartoon mocking crinolines — a resized version of the artwork that was first published in the 1850s.

1857 editorial cartoon mocking crinolines - The dress circle at a concert, front row

One girl per six petticoats (1954)

By Bruce Robert – Tampa Tribune (Florida) November 7, 1954

A pretty skirt may catch a man’s eye — but it can also push him off the sidewalk, smother him at the movies and eat up his paycheck with starch bills.

Crinolines - petticoats in 1954 (3)

The reason is crinoline. That’s the new stuff — yards of it — which the gals are using to push out their skirts and push the men back into a corner.

We’ll let you in on a secret. ‘Tain’t new! Great grandma used to billow around in the identical style and crinoline — only she used a hoop to acquire that billowy look, and now it’s done with starch.

Today the crinoline petticoat rage is threatening to disrupt modern civilization — or some phases of it anyway. The rage is spreading from teenagers in schools to middle-agers in business offices.

Secretaries are losing their notebooks and lipsticks amid the crinoline which surrounds them. Elevators are jammed with two girls. There’s no telling the number of romances crinoline has broken up. “The boys can’t kiss their dates goodnight because the crinoline gets in the way and holds them off,” says Ruth Dyer, a senior at Plant High.

Crinolines - petticoats in 1954 (1)

“The boys hate ’em — I mean the crinoline petticoats, not the girls,” she said. “They have a lot of trouble taking the girls out on dates. When a girl snuggles down in her seat at the movies, she has to be careful her skirts don’t gush up and smother her date.

“There’s also the problem of walking on the sidewalk. A girl has to be careful about the wind and keep her petticoats in order, so she doesn’t lose her dignity. When she’s got on four or five crinoline skirts, a strong gust of wind can cause trouble.

“A girl also has to be careful not to crowd her date off the sidewalk with her skirts. Going through doorways is a problem. If one of your petticoats gets caught, the best thing to do is let your date come to your rescue,” she said with a smile.

Crinolines - petticoats in 1954 (4)

Anna Graves, an attractive blond senior in the same class as Ruth at Plant High, also has some views on the proper care and wearing of crinoline skirts.

“Getting on and off buses is a big problem,” said Anna. “There’s always the danger the door will close before you can maneuver your skirts in or out. Some of my crinoline skirts have 18 yards of material in them. When you have three or four of them on at one time, you’ve got a lot of cloth to watch — and wash later.

“Walking down a flight of stairs is a major operation. When the crinoline is sticking out on all sides, I can’t see the steps. Girls have to be careful about going down stairs or they might land right in the arms of their date,” cautioned Anna.

Crinolines - petticoats in 1954 (2)

The inconvenience of hooped skirts and crinoline petticoats is only part of the problem. Men — fathers and husbands — pay the bills. Upkeep is high. Naturally, every girl wants a selection of colors — so the clothing manufacturers produce all kinds of shades.

“Each skirt requires a full box of starch each time it’s washed,” explained Ruth. “This means a dozen or so boxes of starch for each wash day. The starch bill is a major item in our family budget now,” she added.

“But it’s worth it. Even though the boys complain about the crinoline skirts on dates, I still think they enjoy watching us go down the street. All the girls are wearing them — including me.”

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Actor Julian Eltinge in The Crinoline Girl (1914)

Julian Eltinge in The Crinoline Girl (1914)

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