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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 June 2009

Petticoats

I’m going to do a simple post today on the topic of petticoats. In my books (set in the 18th century), petticoats is the generic term for all the layers of a woman’s skirts, the outer as well as the under. By the Regency, a petticoat has come to mean a specific undergarment; a layer that goes over the stays but under the gown. It serves a couple different purposes: It adds to the opacity of the ensemble (many gowns being basically see-though) and it can add warmth (esp if it’s made out of something like a lightweight knit wool).

The examples I’ve seen tend to either close in the back with Dorset thread buttons or with drawstring ties (one for the neckline and one for the waist), or they button under the arm (which was also common for habits and walking dresses which were comprised of a skirt [with a small bodice to hold it up] and a spencer/jacket).


The first image is a petticoat c. 1800 with whitework around the hem.
The second is another c. 1820. You can see that the waist has moved down and the bottom has multiple layers of cording to stiffen it and help hold out the skirts.
Anyone have any questions about petticoats or any other specific bit of underwear?

14 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for the info, Kalen - so it would be shift under stays and petticoat over stays -- would they ever wear more than one petticoat?

9:32 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Could you date (approximately) women's under-panties? I don't think medieval... but ?

11:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kalen! Thanks for recent help on petticoats and corsets for a scene I was working on (I'll think I understand everything, and then suddenly the mechanics of a particular scene makes me realize I'm not sure where/how a particular garment fastens). Regency nightdresses were like chemises, right? Simple garment that dropped over the head? But in some pictures they have long sleeves.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Jane Austen said...

When I was in college I did an informative speech on the history of women's underwear. I'm surprised at how many people did not know the bra was a twentieth century invention. There's a great pop-up book called "I Wonder What's Under There?" That takes readers through underwear's history. Just remember what you were taught in Latin class : Semper Ubi Sububi. (Always wear underwear.)

12:12 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Regency nightdresses were like chemises, right? Simple garment that dropped over the head? But in some pictures they have long sleeves.


Yes. Resist the lure of the silk and lace nighty (which seems to have taken over Romancdlandia).

12:17 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Could you date (approximately) women's under-panties? I don't think medieval... but ?

Depends on the country. In the 16th century you start to see women's drawers in Italy (open-crotch affairs). These make their way into France by the 17th century and to England, maybe, by the late 17th (Pepys has a comment in his diary about his wife's drawers). But they don’t become a commonly adopted garment until the 1820s (and they continue to have an open crotch until the 1920s!).

In the Medieval era, I have seen images of women in drawers, but the images are all German allegories about hen-pecked husbands and comments on who wore the pants in the family, so they really can’t be used as documentation for women having actually worn drawers (quite the opposite in fact, since they’re pointing out via just such an image that the woman is a harridan, LOL!).

12:25 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh dear, petticoats, another layer to take off. I always mention them, but I always think of them as kind of a half-slip that ties around the waist. Am I wrong about that, Kalen?

Meanwhile, I love the 1820 petticoat with the multiple layers of cording to stiffen it and help hold out the skirts... to the extent that I love any of the clothes from the post-Waterloo period that I always wind up writing about.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Terrific post, Kalen! I keep looking at the first image you posted and (being a rather well endowed woman up top), can't imagine where most women would fit their boobs in that tiny strip above the artificially high waistline. Even corseted, should a woman be spilling out over the top of the bodice? I sure know I would!

6:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I always think of them as kind of a half-slip that ties around the waist.

Because of the high-waist during the Regency, petticoats were more like jumpers. I've seen ONE extant petticoat that was just a skirt (it is also knit wool and from Norway).

I keep looking at the first image you posted and (being a rather well endowed woman up top), can't imagine where most women would fit their boobs in that tiny strip above the artificially high waistline. Even corseted, should a woman be spilling out over the top of the bodice?

It's not really meant to contain the bust, that's the job of the corset. The bodice on the petticoat is just to hold it up.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

In the 16th century you start to see women's drawers in Italy (open-crotch affairs). These make their way into France by the 17th century...

In my research on Catherine de Medici for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES I read that she is credited with introducing the split-crotch drawers from Italy to France.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Just another sigh about how really clothed Regency ladies were, tho in Romancelandia they're often imagined wearing little wispy spaghetti-strappy things.

How about the really scandalous (and skinny) ones like Caroline Lamb, tho?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

In my research on Catherine de Medici for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES I read that she is credited with introducing the split-crotch drawers from Italy to France.

I've seen this mentioned, but never seen any documentation to back it up (and I'd be surprised if there was any, since the drawers weren't really popular in Italy until well after she'd left for France . . . ).

2:10 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

How about the really scandalous (and skinny) ones like Caroline Lamb, tho?

Aside from her outing dressed as a page, I've never read anything to indicate that her normal mode of dress was distinctly outrageous or different (not that I’ve done a lot of research on her . . .).

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wear a modern petticoat under a wool A line skirt a lot in the winter time. Mid calf length, all nylon, with little netting, it is oh so warm. Not enough bulk to really let anyone know it is there, but keeps me much warmer than pants.

susan Johnson

2:57 PM  

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