Brian May’s tribute to craze for the crinoline


15 April 2016 by Maev Kennedy

Book explores one of fashion’s most recognised garments and draws on Queen guitarist’s collection of Victorian photography

Crinoline image
An image from Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster.
Photograph: London Stereoscopic Company

It took a while before the Queen guitarist Brian May realised he had acquired a lot of photographs of Victorian women in their underwear – an entire book’s worth, in fact.

“Anyone who spends a lot of time looking at stereoscopes is going to come upon crinolines,” he explained.

May owns one of the largest private collections of Victorian photography in the world, including a vast assembly of stereoscopes from the 19th-century craze for double photographs which, through the special viewers, created startlingly convincing 3D images. While other guitar heroes were wrecking hotel rooms or setting fire to their instruments, from the time he dropped out of his astrophysics course to tour with Queen, May was diving into junk shops and rooting through boxes of old photographs.

The craze for stereoscopes precisely overlapped with the craze for the vast hooped undergarments made of light strips of wood or cloth or sprung steel that meant a fashionably dressed woman took up as much space as a billiard table. One of the first sets of photographs sold for the luxury drawing room toys of 1867 was titled Mysteries of the Crinoline.

It was May’s fellow author Denis Pellerin who convinced him there was a (fairly) serious history to be written, and the result is their book Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster.

Many of the images mock the women having to be helped into their huge skirts by circles of servants, and then getting stuck in doors or blown off their feet when they ventured out, or being forced to shed the crinolines before boarding a horse-drawn omnibus, or lift them up to cope with steps, revealing an expanse of ankle.

However, May said many Victorian women loved the new fashion, which was lighter and more comfortable than the previous layers of petticoats, and made them feel more powerful, literally taking up more space in the world. His wife, Anita Dobson, and daughter Emily, who modelled replica Victorian outfits for the book launch, said they felt and moved differently in the bell-like gowns.

Pellerin said the “disaster” of the title was also historically true: hundreds of women died as their huge skirts brushed against an open fire or a candle and burst into flames, or were blown into water or under the wheels of traffic. However, there were also stories of women who had fallen or thrown themselves from bridges and were parachuted gently down and kept afloat by their skirts.

The book comes with notes from 20th century re-inventers of the fashion, the designers Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, and some of the original photographs are on display at the V&A museum exhibition on underwear.

The book is the fourth published by May’s London Stereoscopic Company based on his enormous collection. Since the beautiful original mahogany and brass viewers now cost a fortune at auction, each volume also includes the plastic viewers he had designed and manufactured to allow others to share his passion.