A Brief History of the Petticoat

A petticoat is an article of women’s clothing, specifically an undergarment, which is worn under a skirt or a dress. Petticoats tend to hang from the waist and are a serrate garment from the rest of the outfit.

The idea of wearing petticoats as an undergarment was first established in around 1585. They were widely adopted by women who wanted to achieve a fashionable shape with their clothing, and also to accentuate their figures. If the petticoat is really full, it will hold the overskirt out in a dome shape, which complements a large bust and also makes the wearer’s waist appear smaller.

In the mid-16th century, very lacy petticoats were worn under open fronted gowns – to show off the prettiness of them. In the 18th century, woollen or silk petticoats were quilted for added warmth and worn with matching short gowns of jackets. These ankle-length petticoats remained a fashion amongst the countryside set well into the 19th century and are still seen today as they are part of the Welsh national costume.

Also in the 18th century was the fashion for wearing beautiful silk dresses with very elaborate, lacy petticoats, which were often also supported by whalebone frames. This was a time of great intricacy in fashion, with ladies wearing corsets, stockings, and layers of petticoats to achieve the desired shape. No wonder many ladies had maids to help them get dressed!

In the early nineteenth century, the style of dresses worn became much narrower and simpler, so a lot fewer undergarments were needed – thank goodness! However, this reprieve didn’t last long as the Waltz became a popular dance in the 1820s, which led to the revival of petticoats worn under full-skirted gowns in Europe and the United States of America! By the time the mid-nineteenth century came around, ladies were wearing drawers, corsets, corset covers, hoops and petticoats – imagine how hot and heavy they must have been?! The weight of all this clothing, along with the way them women liked to wear their corsets really, really, tight meant that there was a problem with women fainting!

The style of wearing multiple petticoats continued right up to the early 1870s when the bustle was introduced, and this saw a return to narrower style skirts. The “Gibson Girl” look of white blouses and long narrow skirts (named after the satirical pen and ink drawings of the feminine idea of beauty drawn by Charles Dana Gibson) stayed popular during much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The style for narrow, tighter skirts stayed popular until around 1945, with the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War Two affecting material supply. However, when the War ended in 1947, Christian Dior revived the popularity of petticoats with his “New Look”, and they remained popular right through the 1950s. Unlike the earlier petticoats, they tended to be knee length and made of tiered, ruffled, stiffened material such as nylon, chiffon taffeta or organdie. At the start of the 1950s, girls wore three petticoats to give them the effect they wanted, but manufacturers soon caught on to this and began to produce double and triple layer petticoats instead. Petticoats were usually made with a narrow slip underneath, to protect the wearer’s legs from the “scratchy” material.

Petticoats have slipped in and out of fashion since then, although they have always been popular for weddings and prom dresses. The general design of today’s modern petticoats has stayed the same as the 1950s design, although nowadays lots of bright non-traditional colours are used to fit in with modern fashion.


To achieve the desired look for your fifties dresses, take a look at the collection of petticoats available at Little Wings Factory, by browsing our website at www.littlewingsfactory.com

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