What Were Petticoats Used For?

Petticoats are often associated with old-fashioned dresses from times gone by, but they are also very useful today.

They add extra volume naturally to skirts and dresses and were once commonly used for everyday wear as a form of undergarment before layering the most fashionable skirts on top. 

What Were Petticoats Used For?

Petticoats are usually worn underclothing to provide additional support and shape. They come in various styles and lengths, such as knee-length, midi-length, floor-length, and even thigh-high.

What Exactly Is A Petticoat?

A petticoat is a woman’s undergarment consisting of a skirt attached to a bodice. Petticoats are usually made of cotton or silk, although some modern varieties are made of nylon.

They were originally designed to protect women against cold weather but now serve mainly decorative purposes.

In modern usage, the term refers primarily to a short, loose garment worn beneath a skirt for warmth or decoration.

The word derives from the French petit châtaigne, literally “little chestnut”, referring to the shape of the garment.

In England, it came into use during the 16th century; the first recorded instance of the word in print is dated 1578.

In Scotland, where it is called a plaid, it originated earlier, probably around 1300. In Germanic languages, such as Dutch, it is known as a stokbroek (“stocking”).

These are very simple and subtle formations of the petticoat throughout history mind, not traditionally what we know of in the 18th and 19th centuries, but still interesting to know. 

What Are The Origins Of The Petticoat?

What Are The Origins Of The Petticoat?

In the 14th century, women were wearing long gowns over short outer garments called “underclothes”. This type of clothing remained popular throughout most of the 15th and 16th centuries.

During the 17th century, the fashion trend toward skirts led to the development of the petticoat. Petticoats were often worn underneath the dress. They were usually held up by stays, hoops, or buttons.

The term “petticoat”, meaning a small piece of cloth sewn onto another item, originated in the late 1400s. By the mid-1500s, it had come to mean a woman’s innermost garment.

As such, it is now used to refer to the lower half of a person’s body, especially the buttocks and thighs. It is sometimes used as a synonym for panties.

What About Over The Most Recent Centuries?

During the 18th century, people began to wear dresses that were wider and looser than previous styles. These dresses included large flounces that extended down to the floor.

Often, the flounce covered the entire bottom of the skirt.

At this time, petticoats became smaller and thinner. They were no longer visible beneath the skirt. Instead, they were attached to the inside of the dress.

By the early 1800s, the petticoat was considered to be a separate article of clothing. Women continued to wear petticoats even though they could be covered by the skirt.

However, the petticoats were still considered underwear and were kept hidden from view.

As the 19th century progressed, the petticoat just became an everyday wearer’s garment that provided that extra support to not only cover up in the colder months and to maintain modesty, but to add volume depending on what was popular. 

Are They Still Used Today?

You may still find modern versions of the petticoat today in some skirts and dresses.

They are used to provide an extra layer of support or coverage if something is particularly sheer or see-through, or even if the fabric just doesn’t feel supported enough on its own, so an added layer will be sewn in usually. 

Today, the petticoat dress continues to be worn by some people. Some modern designers continue to use the term “petticoats” to describe the lower portion of a woman’s dress.

Some people who are historical lovers wear full-body 19th-century garments today, and these include petticoats. 

The drawers and chemise, and corset are layered first, which could be the oldest of the garments because they made use of what they had at the time, so it didn’t matter if these layers had a few small holes or imperfections. 

Also, the most important thing, before lacing your corset, if you want to do this yourself, put your shoes on first! It just saves time, later on, trust me.

You then need to just keep adjusting your corset while tightening it until it’s how you want it, however, it should never be uncomfortable to the point where you can’t breathe.

This is a misconception about historical corsets. 

Your next layer will be the corset cover, it does as it says, it covers your corset, and protects your clothing and undergarments.

Then a lobster tail bustle was fastened around the waist with a loose tie, which is as fun as it sounds if you can imagine a lobster tail at your backside!

Next, we finally have our petticoat!

This layer is pulled over your head and is easy and lightweight to fasten around the waist, this layer forms the shapes and volumes of the silhouette for the next skirt layer, these can have internal ties to make them easier to fasten.

Remember, after putting on all these layers, the easiest thing is to jump a little to shift your skirt layers down rather than pulling at them. 

Trust me, I’m a historical wearer myself, and you may feel ridiculous, but it’s the easiest way! 

Finally, the lightly boned bodice is put on to finish the ensemble, usually made of cotton with a simple lining. These fasten at the front, usually in the late 19th century. 

Final Thoughts

We hope that this article has answered all your questions surrounding the use of petticoats and their rich history over the centuries.

The fact that, in some form, they are still used today is truly amazing. The petticoat added volume and, most importantly for the time period, a sense of modesty under one’s skirts. The more layers, the better! 

Willa Price
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