Crinoline was originally a stiff fabric with a weft of horse-hair and a warp of cotton or linen thread. The fabric first appeared around 1830, but by 1850, the word had come to mean a stiffened petticoat or rigid skirt-shaped structure of steel designed to support the skirts of a woman's dress into the required shape. In form and function it is very similar to the earlier farthingale.
In 1858, the American W.S. Thomson greatly facilitated the development of the cage crinoline by developing an eyelet fastener to connect the steel crinoline hoops with the vertical tapes descending from a band around the wearer's waist. The invention was patented in the United States , France and Britain. This facilitated the fashionable silhouette's development from a cone shape to a dome. It was not an entirely original idea; Thompson was probably inspired by the open cage or frame style of farthingales and panniers.
The cage crinoline was adopted with enthusiasm: the numerous petticoats, even the stiffened or hooped ones, were heavy, bulky and generally uncomfortable. It was light — it only required one or two petticoats worn over the top to prevent the steel bands appearing as ridges in the skirt — and freed the wearer's legs from tangling petticoats.
Unlike the farthingale and panniers, the crinoline was worn by women of every social class. The wider circulation of magazines and newspapers spread news of the new fashion, also fueling desire for it, and mass production made it affordable. It took several years for high society to accept the wearing of the cage crinoline as it started as — and remained in perception — a middle class affectation. It not only freed women from the weight of massive numbers of petticoats, but also the expense of owning, washing, and starching such copious petticoats. Thus, wider skirts were achievable by a greater number of less-affluent women.
The crinoline was the subject of much ridicule and satire, particularly in Punch magazine. Dress reformers did not like it either — they seized upon the cage aspect of the crinoline and claimed that it effectively imprisoned women. Given that the crinoline did eventually have a maximum diameter of up to 6 feet, it is easy to imagine difficulties in getting through doors, in and out of carriages, and the general problems of moving in such a large structure. However, while the crinoline needed to have a degree of rigidity, it also had a degree of flexibility. A particular kind of steel, known as spring steel or watch-spring steel, enabled the hoops to be temporarily pressed out of shape.
The second problem was the potential impropriety of the crinoline. Its lightness was a curse as well as a blessing, as a gust of wind or a knock could set it swinging and reveal the wearer's legs. Even worse, if she tripped or was knocked over, the crinoline would hold her skirts up. That's why women took up wearing legged undergarments, called drawers. Invented earlier as a high-society trend, they were largely ignored as almost improper, being bifurcated and thus far too "masculine", until the use of cage crinolines made the risk of accidental indecency very real.
The third problem was the pressure, but a tight, stiff corset spread the pressure.
Sitting down could be a problem if the wearer failed to spread her skirts out properly, as the entire hoop contraption would fly up in her face. This embarrassing but humorous tendency is often depicted in comedies of the era.