May now has one of the largest private collections of Victorian photography in the world: some 100,000 pictures. He bid for these at auction, dived into junk shops on the lookout for them and waded through thousands of boxes of early photographs at fairs.
Many of these photographs, May realised, were of Victorian women flashing their underwear, the voluminous crinoline underskirts made of strips of wood or steel, the craze for which ran from 1856-67 and overlapped the Victorian obsession with 3-D stereoscopic photography.
“Crinolines and stereoscopic photography were twin sensations of the 19th century,” said May.
He was himself introduced to the wonders of stereoscopy as a child, finding 3-D cards in his breakfast cereal.
Now he and Denis Pellerin, an expert in stereoscopic photography and curator at May’s London Stereoscopic Company, have co-written Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster, digitally restoring the original stereo cards that now appear in the book.
Exploring the story of the steel petticoat, the ‘disaster’ in the title was real as hundreds of women died as their vast skirts brushed against a candle and burst into flames, or they were blown over bridges into rivers or under the wheels of traffic.
It has been published to coincide with the V&A’s current exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.