How did Victorian fashion trend for large crinolines intersect with London crime?
By Summer Anne Lee
From the Regency to the Victorian period, ladies in London kept up with the constantly evolving fashions of the nineteenth century. And when the slim ‘Empire’ silhouette of the early 1800s transformed into large, voluminous skirts by the middle of the century (fig. 1), the trend brought smugglers and shopkeepers alike to police attention. Continue reading to learn more about women’s fashion in London from 1800-1860s, and how bustles and crinolines got people into trouble!
WOMEN’S FASHION IN PRE-VICTORIAN LONDON
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, women’s fashion was reflective of recent societal upheavals in neighboring France. The French Revolution (1789-1799) did away with much of the eighteenth-century ‘power dressing’ of the French aristocracy, and throughout his reign (1804-1814) Emperor Napoleon spread his taste for the Neoclassical. Also, during that period of great political instability, Paris temporarily lost grip on its status as Europe’s center of luxury and fashion. That meant it was really London’s time to shine! A taste for simplicity and the English countryside influenced fashion more than ever.
The image above (fig. 2) is an English gown made around the year 1800 from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. This gown exemplifies the shape of women’s fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century, which included a very high waistline, placed just underneath the bust, and slim hips — no hoops here! This radical new silhouette is known as the Empire Line, named for the Empire of Napoleon, and was inspired by the classical costume worn by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Also, the most fashionable material for women’s dresses at this time was a very fine white cotton textile known as ‘muslin,’ which was very expensive and imported from India. This very fashionable gown is indeed made from embroidered Indian muslin.
A watercolor painting of Covent Garden Market by Thomas Rowlandson, completed between 1795 and 1810, shows fashionable female shoppers wearing Empire-style white gowns (fig. 3). Their heads are covered by colorful bonnets trimmed with feathers, and more than one appears to hold a parasol to protect their complexions from the sun.
By the end of the Regency, things were headed in a new direction. For one, Paris was once again looked to as Europe’s leader in women’s fashion. London’s most fashionable ladies would desire to emulate Parisian fashion illustrations, which were often copied and published in English women’s magazines such as La Belle Assemblée. The illustration below (fig. 4) depicts a fashionable ensemble to be worn to the opera in March of 1826. We can imagine many similarly dressed ladies emerging from the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane!
The other new influence that was changing women’s fashion was Romanticism. In response to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, this was a movement that produced fine art and literature idealizing Europe’s pre-industrial past. The influence of Romanticism was prominently seen in women’s dress by the mid-1830s, both in silhouette and textiles. In a nod to the costume of Tudor and Jacobean times, women’s waistlines returned to their natural position and skirts began to grow more voluminous. Instead of lightweight white cotton, colorful, heavy silk fabrics also came back into fashion. All of this is exemplified by a tartan silk velvet gown worn by the future Queen Victoria in the mid-1830s, which is in the Royal Collection Trust.
TROUBLE WITH CRINOLINES AND BUSTLES
Over the next several decades, fashionable women’s skirts continued to grow larger and larger. And this, apparently, was quite inspirational for smugglers looking to move lucrative contraband across borders without detection.
In order to support these growing skirt shapes, women wore layers of underskirts and various supportive underpinnings. One such undergarment was known as a bustle, which is illustrated in the satirical image above (fig. 6). This illustration, dated 1829, was intended to poke fun at English women’s fashion including the extreme hourglass effect achieved through the juxtaposition of voluminous sleeves and skirts with the use of corsetry.
In December of 1843, the British newspaper Examiner published an article titled ‘Novel Bustle.’ The article described how a ‘slightly-formed young woman’ by the name of Eliza Jones was charged by a customs officer for attempting to smuggle cigars into London. Jones traveled via steamer into Horsleydown and claimed she had no articles liable to duty. However, the ‘inordinately large’ size of her bustle made the customs officer suspicious. A French fashion plate from the winter of 1843 (fig. 7) shows a skirt size from the time that would have been considered appropriate. The officer reportedly felt her bustle and ‘found it was not composed of the usual material of which that personal adjunct is generally constructed’ — rather, it contained 3.5 pounds of cheroots. Jones was fined fifty shillings.
The following year, it was reported that a lady arriving by train from Prussia to Belgium was found with ‘not less than one hundred and seventeen pairs of white stockings  ‘ attached to her crinoline — all of which were confiscated. A crinoline was an underskirt stiffened with horsehair, and hiding these luxury items from customs officers was a crime because one needed to pay duties in order to bring them into the country.
Through the use of crinolines, fashionable skirts grew even wider in the 1850s than they were in the 1840s. However, some smugglers achieved this silhouette by stuffing their skirts with contraband. A brief warning from France was published in the Morning Chronicle in April of 1857:
‘Crinoline dresses have been largely employed to smuggle goods into Paris without paying the octroi duties; female searchers are about to be employed at the barriers.’
This trouble was brought to London in the case of Lottie Dartdemere and her widely reported ‘tobacco petticoat’ that July. Dartdemere was described as a ‘little Dutch woman’ by the Daily Telegraph, who arrived at St. Katherine’s wharf on a steamer from Antwerp. Similar to the story of Eliza Jones fourteen years earlier, the ‘extraordinary bulk’ of her dress attracted the attention of customs officers. Despite her insistence that she was not carrying any goods liable to duty, Dartdemere was strip-searcher by an ‘unrelenting Englishwoman.’ The search revealed ‘a huge petticoat which encircled her person, and which was lined throughout which compressed tobacco.’
Dartdemere insisted that she was simply trying to mirror the fashionable crinoline petticoats worn in England (fig. 8), but substituted tobacco because it was cheap in Holland . Her excuse was not believed, and she was taken into custody and prosecuted. At her trial, a custom-house officer produced the petticoat. It was described as a ‘large petticoat, made of canvas, with straps attached, to make it fast to the shoulders of the wearer … filled with tobacco.’ Dartdemere pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to pay a fine of 100 pounds to the Queen. However, because she was unable to pay, she was to be imprisoned for six months. She was permitted to take her eight-month-old baby with her.
Even without a hidden layer of tobacco, or over a hundred stockings, many women found their many layers of underskirts to be hot and cumbersome. This problem led to the invention of the cage crinoline in about 1858. Although this contraption may look intimidating, it was lightweight and collapsable, allowing women to maintain their fashionably large skirts while preserving their comfort.
The French satirical image above (fig. 9) dates to circa 1858, and its title translates to ‘fortune and misfortune of the crinoline.’ Among the various depictions of imagined scenes with the newly-invented cage crinoline, one appears reminiscent of these multiple smuggling tales. On the bottom row, second to the right, we see two customs officers lifting a woman’s dress to reveal various meats attached to her underskirts. She cries as they tell her ‘On ne porte plus de gigots ma petite mère,’ or ‘We don’t wear lambs anymore my little mother’ in English.
Not all police matters regarding cage crinolines had to do with contraband, however. By the early 1860s, these contraptions were even larger and far more popular than they were in 1858 (see fig. 10), and they could easily be purchased from a London fashion merchant. Yet for one milliner, Mrs. Lewis Harron of Upper King-street, her selling of crinolines brought her to Bow Street.
Harron was charged with having suspended a considerable number of ‘large inflated’ crinolines eight feet above the sidewalk and projecting three feet into the public thoroughfare — which, according to the Morning Post, was ‘contrary to the provisions of the Metropolitan Paving Act, 57, Geo. III, c. 65.’ Her display possibly resembled that shown below (fig. 11). After complaints were received by the Board of Works, she was asked to remove the crinolines by the inspector of nuisances but refused. When taken before the magistrate of Bow Street Police Court, Mr. William Corrie, in July of 1863, it was proven that Harron violated the act.
She was given a ‘nominal penalty of 1 shilling and costs,’ with Mr. Corrie concluding ‘and the lady, no doubt, will take her crinolines down.’ The Morning Post reported that Harron refused again, telling him: ‘No, I’m sure I shall not. The ladies in the squares do not wish it.’
- ‘Police Intelligence.’ Daily Telegraph, 31 July 1857, p. 4. The Telegraph Historical Archive. Accessed 13 Aug. 2023.
- ‘Police Intelligence.’ Morning Post, 20 July 1863, p. 7. British Library Newspapers. Accessed 27 July 2023.
- ‘Police.’ Examiner, 2 Dec. 1843. British Library Newspapers. Accessed 2 September 2023.
- ‘A Tobacco Petticoat.’ Harper’s Weekly, September 12, 1857. Accessed 2 September 2023.
- ‘Literary Miscellanies.’ The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 47, June 1859. Page 288. Accessed 2 September 2023.
 ‘Police’ 1843
 ‘Literary Miscellanies’ 1859
 ‘A Tobacco Petticoat’ 1857
 ‘Police Intelligence’ 1857
 ‘Police Intelligence’ 1863