Petticoat: An Undergarment That Spans Centuries

A petticoat isn’t a coat but was historically used with warmth in mind. It’s an undergarment worn by women dating back several centuries. Today, the petticoat is used as more of a fashion statement than a necessary element of daily wear.

The History of the Hooped Undergarment

In the 18th century, women’s dresses were designed with open skirt fronts. Because of this, the first layer of the skirt, the underskirt or jupe, had to be as elegant as the dress itself. At the time, the petticoat was made from the same extravagant material as the dress. By 1715, the petticoat was designed to give structure to the outer dress or skirt and was made using sections of whalebone.

In the 19th century, petticoats developed several functions. They were used to:

  • protect the outer clothing
  • give a more modest look by acting as a cover for the legs
  • provide structure to the skirt or dress
  • add a layer of warmth for the wearer

Victorian women added the petticoat to their extensive range of undergarments, which already consisted of a corset, chemise, and drawers. Throughout the 19th century, petticoats were generally worn in two forms: as a full-body petticoat that consisted of a corset-like top or a separate garment that could be adjusted for more support at the waist. 

Function Combined with Fashion

Petticoats were often worn in layers. They were made out of several different materials depending on the need, from cotton in the summer to flannel for the colder months. Eventually, petticoats became less structured, and once the crinoline cage was invented, the petticoat was usually worn as a single layer for warmth and modesty.

Some women also wore another petticoat over the crinoline cage to give a softer look to their outfits. The structural changes to the petticoat led to more shape options, as seen in its narrower styles in the 1860s and the frilled styles of the Edwardian Era. 

Fashion Houses Re-Established the Petticoat’s Popularity

Some famous names associated with the petticoat include Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Princess Diana, and Winona Judd, each for different reasons. 

  • Christian Dior created a line that brought about the revival of the bouffant skirt, which led to the need for petticoats. The iconic look became a fixture of 1950s teenage fashion. Think rock ‘n’ roll, jiving, and Grease. 
  • Vivienne Westwood used the medium of theater to revive the popularity of the New Romantic dress.
  • Princess Diana wed Prince Charles in a crinoline-skirted wedding gown with a petticoat, which gave rise to the use of the petticoat as shapewear for bridal gowns.
  • Wynonna Judd wore petticoats in her country-western attire on stage.

No matter how the petticoat was used in the past or today, it’s likely the petticoat will be a statement piece in women’s wardrobes for centuries to come.