Originally posted on Jonathan Walford’s Blog.
1861 wasn’t a good year for skirt fires. At the ending of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, (Spoiler Alert) Miss Havisham dies when her forty-year-old tattered wedding dress catches fire after touching a hot coal from the fireplace. In the real world, Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wife of the famous American poet, also died from burns after her dress caught fire from a fallen candle. In an attempt to put out the flames, her husband suffered facial burns, which resulted in his growing whiskers for the rest of his life to hide the scars. Worst of all, the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia burned to the ground in 1861 killing nine ballerinas whose gauze skirts caught fire on stage after one ballerina’s skirt touched a gas lamp. Fact is, a large skirt of a combustible material in a world heated and lighted by open fire was not a safe fashion choice in 1861.
Long skirts had always been a fire hazard for as long as there had been long skirts, but since the 1820s women’s skirts began growing in width by the addition of starched petticoats. By the early 1850s, upwards of six or more petticoats were being used to achieve the widening style, making women unaware of their enormous circumferences in relation to oil lamps on tippy tables, and fireplaces without screens or fenders.
In the mid 1850s a petticoat reinforced with wire hoops and/or woven horsehair bands, called crinoline, removed the necessity of multiple layers of petticoats. The style was praised for being a more hygienic and healthy way to achieve the fashionable silhouette, until it was realized that the hooped underskirts also expedited fire by the addition of a draught that caused a fire to burn faster. And to make skirts extra-flammable, the solvents employed for dry cleaning silk dresses at that time were all …