Margaret Adrian-Vallance looks at how 18th and 19th century fashions produced international debate, grisly deaths and ROSL’s own historic staircase.

On 7 January 1875, a commander in the Royal Mail Service discovered to his horror that his ship was 40 miles off course and that this had been caused by a fashionably dressed woman seated on deck: her skirts were extended by a crinoline cage of sprung-steel hoops, and the metal had played havoc with the ship’s compass.
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Up to six feet in diameter, crinolines could also knock people off pavements, overturn furniture and get stuck in machinery. Newspapers reported a disembowelling from gashes inflicted by broken steel. In Australia, there was talk of a legislative ban. ‘The Crinoline has become responsible for more than any other fashion has ever caused,’ said the Murray Advertiser in December 1861.

Although a designer had invented a safer crinoline in 1856, it was inflated by bellows and air had to be expelled if the wearer wanted to sit. When they wished to stand, bellows were needed for re-inflation. Steel triumphed. Three years later, Sheffield was turning out enough crinoline wire for 500,000 cages a week.

This history has a bearing on ROSL’s crinoline staircase. Or is it a hooped staircase? And if both, when did one become the other?

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When James Gibbs built Rutland House (now part of Over-Seas House) in 1736, for the Duchess of Norfolk, the fashion for the wealthy was the hoop-skirt. This first appeared in London in 1711 and was a simple cage of willow rods, held together with ribbons. By 1730, it had grown so wide – with the help of whalebone, padding and under-petticoats – that Gibb’s second staircase at Rutland, with spindles bowed outwards, was a brilliant idea.

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The word crinoline, however, was not in general use until 1830, when a manufacturer combined the Latin crinis (hair) and linum (flax) to describe the supporting fabric of horsehair and linen. By 1850, crinoline meant a structure of steel that supported the skirt, later a style of dress. So ROSL’s staircase accommodated hoops for around 100 years and crinolines for around 50. Another narrower, mainly straight-spindled example exists at 1 Greek Street, Soho, built in 1746. Ironically, in 1811, the house became an office for men (Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Metropolitan Board of Works) who built 86 miles of sewers for London.

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