Past Blast Tuesday: Fashion Nightmares, Part 2 – The Petticoat


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 Woman w Petticoats Exposed

A woman with her petticoats exposed (all of them…)

Photo Credit: “La crinoline – 1866”: Haabet/ Wikimedia Commons /CC PD Mark

Last week’s Past Blast Tuesday post was Part 1 of my series on fashion nightmares from the past and discussed the corset . This week’s post focuses on another piece of historical women’s lingerie – the petticoat.

I decided to explore the petticoat for this series after this interesting Facebook post from the National Women’s History Museum. Until I read the post, I was convinced that the petticoat was a rather innocuous piece of clothing. After all, what harm could an underskirt do? But it turns out the answer to that question is, “plenty!”

The petticoat was sort of early version of the slip but much more complex. Worn as a skirt underneath the actual skirt (so, unlike the corset, it was worn on only the lower half of the body), the petticoat first came into fashion in the mid-16th century and proceeded well into the 19th century. It helped women keep warm during the winter (remember that wearing pants, for women, wasn’t widely accepted until the 1930’s, helped along by popular actresses such as Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo who wore them regularly). It also helped skirts take the kind of bell shape that was thought feminine and attractive for women at the time.

I find it ironic that even though, as I mentioned in my blog post about the corset, the hourglass figure was thought becoming in women, at the same time, the blooming skirt that rustled with layers of petticoats underneath and hid a woman’s figure became popular. But perhaps this is precisely the point. After all, women’s legs were often the target of sexual provocation in earlier days (consider that Pre-Code Hollywood films often pictured actresses exposed almost to the thigh and the come-on for a man was when a woman exposed her leg above the knee). The petticoat was a way to cover up women’s legs to the extreme, as the more layers she wore, the less you could see them. There is a wonderful scene in the play and film of The King And I, which takes place in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860’s. When Anna arrives at the palace of the King of Siam, the king’s many wives flutter around her, trying to peek under her skirts. When Anna asks the head wife Lady Thiang why they are doing this, she answers that they are curious to see if Anna figure is shaped like her skirts. Anna laughs and assures them that she has two legs like every woman, lifting her skirts a little bit to show them her feet.

Gertrude Lawrence As Anna King And I

Photo Credit: Gertrude Lawrence as Anna in the 1951 Broadway version of The King And I: Wehwalt/ Wikimedia Commons / PD US no notice

In addition, petticoats could sometimes be made of material like horse hair that was extremely irritating to the skin and, like the Facebook post indicates, could be quite heavy for women to lug around their waists.

One thing that I found fascinating is that in the 19th and early 20th century, a form of punishment emerged for boys called petticoat punishment/discipline. The idea was to dress boys in petticoats and other girlish garments and parade them in public as a way of humiliating them as punishment for naughtiness and orneriness. In other words, if a boy became too independent and undisciplined, he would be shamed into behaving “like a girl” by dressing up as one, petticoats included. I think that this form of punishment says more about the attitudes towards girls and women in general of the time than it does about the actual misdeeds of the boys being punished!

Thankfully, unlike the corset, the petticoat did not endure much past the mid-19th century in a way that upped its status as a fashion nightmare. With the arrival of the bustle, the layers of petticoats women were expected to wear under their skirts disappeared and narrower skirts came into fashion, especially with the popularity of the Gibson Girl in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, we didn’t see the last of the petticoat, as it made something of a comeback in the 1950’s, although not as encaging as its 100 year old sister because skirts were worn shorter so there was less restriction of movement. They also tended to be “fluffier” to accentuate femininity rather than bell-shaped to hide the legs. Doris Day wore a lot of these types of dresses and skirts in her films, especially in her early musicals in the 1950’s.

1950s Petticoat

A rather naughty advertisement from the 1950’s showing the petticoats of the time.

Photo credit: fineprintablepinups/ Flickr / CC PD Mark

While the petticoat is not as big a fashion nightmare as the corset, I think it’s safe to say that many women are glad that they went out of style and even women in the Progressive Era, who were beginning to recognize that there were other alternatives to the restrictions of the separate spheres not only from a political standpoint but from a fashion one as well.

Next week will be the last post in this series of fashion nightmares from the past, the hobble skirt.

Further Reading: (a detailed article about petticoats in the 19th century) (a short article about petticoats in history) (blog post about the petticoat comeback in the 1950’s) (more about “petticoat punishment”)