It’s a strange name, petticoat. If you knew no better (for example if you were brought up in a colony populated solely by males) you might even think it’s something worn on the top half of the body like other coats. But the word coat used to have a much more general meaning, namely clothing or covering, like the fur of an animal – and petit is a French word meaning small, which manifests itself in modern English as petty and petite. But tracing the word back to meaning a “small garment” hardly describes its purpose, which, for the benefit of those male colony inhabitants, is a kind of underskirt designed to add shape and structure to an outer skirt.
But even this narrow definition is not strictly true. At certain times in history the petticoat, while definitely being an undergarment, was meant to be seen in all its intricate detail. If you’ve ever seen a performance of the cancan, that iconic stage dance that’s synonymous with Moulin Rouge decadence, it’s a fair bet that you’ll be very familiar with the intricate details of a petticoat. In modern times, the petticoat is fully liberated from its mere supporting role, too. It turns out that its natural, self contained structure makes it ideal as a deliberately ornate outer garment, although modest and understated it ain’t. There’s probably one in every goth’s closet and if a girl wants to make a splash at a party, a petticoat left free to flounce says “fun” like nothing else.
Although petticoats looked all but extinct between the wars, when women wore their skirts that followed their natural contours and petticoats gave way to simple underskirts, they were due an unexpected second coming in the 1950s. Imagine those impressive skirts and dresses made famous by the Doris Days and Marilyn Monroes of the era without the magical effects of the architectural wonders below the waistline.
Sadly for the petticoat, the renaissance was short lived. The sixties gave us the mini skirt and in the seventies, skirts hung loosely, so once again the petticoats went back in their boxes, presumably with a little lid sitting to make them fasten shut.
All was not lost, though. A revival of traditional proms, which have now crossed the Atlantic to form part of the British school leaving ritual, has brought the petticoat back into use. Prom dresses seem to be ever rooted in the 1950s thanks largely to the Hollywood influence, but it remains to be seen whether the Pippa Middleton effect will open the way for more figure hugging to take over until the next blockbuster re revives the fifties’ glamour.
The conclusion from all this is that petticoats, which have been with us for at least 400 years, will surely take more to dislodge them than the tides of fashion. Vintage clothing stores are reporting steady trading in the garments, although this doesn’t say whether they’re being used as outer garments or underwear; but if you choose a particularly stunning example, there’s no reason why it can’t make appearances in both ways. They’re available in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours, so with creativity and confidence, anyone can pull off the petticoat look.
Vintage fashion is suddenly big news. Very popular again are petticoat skirts and underskirts plus other retro styles of vintage fashion such as the dresses and knitwear stocked by retailers like http://www.rokit.co.uk/ and others. James reports on the dynamics of the vintage fashion industry.