History of Fashion: The evolution of the Petticoat

I came across this content when searching my online folders. I had initially researched and written this piece on historic shapewear for a magazine segment, but sadly it never materialised. I still enjoyed the content when I re-read it, so now it is featuring on my own blog.


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When you hear ‘petticoat’, what do you imagine? Is it the voluminous impression of a retro ‘50s look? Maybe the net finish available in a variety of colour? Or perhaps you imagine the traditional petticoats – the beautiful silhouettes created by the endless layers of fabric beneath historical dresses.

The petticoat became popular in the 1500s, the purpose being to imitate a particular shape. Wider hips created by fuller skirts accentuated a smaller waist and a bigger bust – a shape traditionally considered the ideal figure of a woman. Replicating this shape presented ‘ideal wives’ – child bearers and a lady of a respectable societal class.

The petticoat is a detachable garment, hanging from the waist. It began as a separate skirt under the main dress, layered with other fabrics to stiffen the form. Fabric was expensive; the petticoat to being an exclusive style for the upper classes. Embroidery designs and trimmings were put on petticoats, co-ordinating with other elements of the outfit. Despite being rarely seen, if a glimpse of the underskirt was shown, women took no chances – they wanted all their clothing be of a high standard, both of fashion and class.

During the same period the Spanish farthingale was also became popular. It was a hooped underskirt, fixing the shape for the main dress.

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The Farthingale

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII first wife, is considered to have brought the farthingale to England. Like all fashion, the thought of an exotic style became very exciting, with women adopting the style. The material used for English Farthingales was whalebone, benefitting working class women in fishing towns. Their access to the boning allowed them to make their own versions, beginning to bridge the gap between the social class divide of fashion.

The farthingale and the petticoat merged, creating the crinoline. It translates to horsehair, ‘crin’ – the stiffening material, alongside linen, hiding the ridges of the hoops. The impracticality of layers of the petticoat lead to heat exhaustion and difficulty in movement. The crinoline solved these issues, lightening the dress to just one or two layers. Before, the average amount of layers was about 6 to 8.

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Crinolines diminished in the late 1800s, the fashionable shape becoming the bustle – emphasising the rear.  (think a giant lobster tail!) The crinoline did make another small appearance within the First World War years. The shape was considered patriotic, a more serious and practical attire for women. By the mid-1920s a completely new shape was in fashion. The ‘Flapper’ style reflected culture change; a sense of freedom of the war influenced females to reimagine the stereotypical shape of women. More gender neutral and shapes were desired; the latest fashions removed all boned shapewear and for a loose and free shape.

During the Second World War years, the petticoat again resurfaced. The Queen adopted the ‘bell shaped’ crinoline as an evening look – inspiring society to follow suit. This was limited to evening wear, as civilians opted for practical attire and adaptable outfits for daytime. The petticoat style also struck America; Vivien Leigh popularising the traditional petticoat in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. 

Vivien-Leigh-

In 1947, Dior brought the petticoat back to everyday fashion, introducing the ‘New Look’. Stiffened crinoline petticoats reinstated the fuller, traditional ‘hour glass figure.’ The look teamed modern styles, such as fitted jackets and pleated skirts with a traditional petticoat, creating a classic look.

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The 1950s also focused on the silhouette and shapes. However, unlike the previous uses of a classic and dainty style, petticoats and dresses emphasised volume, bright colour and patterns. The American polka dot is associated with this style as well as popular films such as Grease. The increased quality made the petticoats long-lasting, applicable for both day and night wear. Net material became popular by this point as it did not restrict movement, working well with the cultural aspects such as jive dancing.

Despite the petticoat disappearing from some areas of fashion, it is clear that the petticoat is timeless. Each time the garment is revived, it produces a fresh new style – either improving upon its previous use, or incorporating fashions of the present day. The original purpose of the petticoat is forever present – creating that certain shape. However, the exclusivity of petticoat wear is overruled, allowing everyone to replicate its shapewear.

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