Full crinoline underskirts were necessities of popular women's fashions of the mid-1800s. As skirt styles became fuller during the century, women were burdened by having to wear several layers of petticoats, or stiff, heavy, and uncomfortable, fabric underskirts. Petticoats were replaced by lightweight hoop crinolines, which allowed skirt styles to expand even further.
The word crinoline comes from the French word crin, meaning "horsehair," because early crinolines were made from horsehair and wool. Elegant ladies of the mid-nineteenth century wore very wide skirts, and stiff horsehair crinolines held the skirts out from the body. Some crinolines measured more than four yards around the bottom, and women wearing these skirts had to move carefully to avoid knocking things off of tables as they moved around a room. It was said that an averagesized room could hold only two or three women wearing crinolines.
Around 1850, women were much relieved when a new kind of crinoline was invented. The hoop crinoline, as it was called, was made of a series of steel rings, which got gradually bigger in size, connected by cotton tape into a sort of cage that fit under a skirt to hold it out. Though the new hoops were much lighter weight and more comfortable than the old horse-hair crinolines, they still had one similar problem: if a woman was not very careful when she sat down, her skirt would swing up in front of her, exposing her underpants. This was a serious problem in a time of great modesty, when the sight of a woman's ankle was considered shocking. The wide skirts also made it impossible for women to sit down in carriages, and a woman travelling often had to kneel or sit on the carriage floor.
By the late 1880s, women had had enough of the inconveniences of extremely wide skirts and crinolines passed out of fashion as slimmer, more tailored-looking skirts became popular.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.