Posted on

THE 19TH CENTURY VICTORIAN UNDERWEAR REFRESH: THE PETTICOATS

 

Now this is where I confess another terrible sin of mine – I didn’t really find the glory of petticoats until recent years. Yes, Yes, I know – I lecture on so much about structure and support garments and yet I used to be a total slacker when it came to things like petticoats.

They just seemed… frivolous. I’d put so much time into the corset, the bustle, the skirts and the accessories and I just felt like – Ugh, can you even tell the difference?

Sloppily, I just wore another thin skirt beneath my first gowns – it was enough to hide the lumps of my plastic tubing cage bustle and I thought that was that. Surely all the ruffles at the hem of my skirt would pick up the slack and make my skirt flow and ripple like I was a graceful swan floating across a lake. Right?

No. That’s not what happened. Not At All.

I confess – I hate making petticoats. I find them tedious with so much gathering and pinning and more gathering. I do it all by hand, because I like the look of hand gathered ruffles much more than the ones I get from my ruffling attachment. But it makes for long days of gathering and pinning – especially when you decide to make six or more at once.

So why do I make so many? Why do I punish myself with this bulk order practice of self-abuse?

Because when they’re done and worn under a gown things get goddamn delightful. 

Ignore the fact that these are made up of no less than three different shades of white cotton. I was using up stash. These things use up a lot of fabric when you’re making them in bulk batches.

I can’t remember when it happened, but there was just this amazing moment when I realized the sheer elevation that occurs when you get the petticoats right. Having been doing them half-assed for years now, I can’t imagine going back to the old ways. No more “good enough” for me, I want the crisp rustling of freshly starched petticoats every time we get dressed now. When you finally do a spin about in a gown properly shaped with a good petticoat, you’ll finally understand what it feels like to be the prettiest of princesses. You can’t properly sweep across the ballroom without them.

Don’t balk. I’m not telling you this because I’m trying to be a costume snob here – I’m telling you this because I want you to feel like the belle of the ball. Trust me, the petticoats are worth the effort.

And don’t make the same mistakes we made!

Don’t skimp on these – my limp little spare polyester skirt hidden inside my gown didn’t cut it. You CAN use your skirt pattern to make your petticoats but it needs more than just that. Add bands of ruffles, starch it, add pleats, and give it LIFE. It’s not just in there to conceal the boning of your support garments. It’s there to fill your gown’s shape. Regardless of what silhouette era you’re making, work with that shape to achieve the “look”. Sure, you can’t see them outside of your dress, but they make the dress look right and amazing!

LAYERS – I’ve reached the point where two petticoats is our minimum and that might get bumped up as we acquire more of them in our wardrobe inventory.  I used to wear just one, if I wore one at all, and you can get away with that, but if you want maximum impact layering is the way to go. The way the dress and the layers sway and rustle is almost magical when you get the right layers together. I’ve read that some might wear up to a dozen of them (though that seems extreme even to me), we tried six on Ashley just to see how the shape and feel would differ between layers and six actually seems extreme to us. Maybe in winter six would be more comfortable because Ashley was instantly over warm when we reached that point, so for now 2-3 per girl is where we aim for.

Use Cotton – I’ve found that petticoats historically were made from cotton, linen, wool, and even silk, but overwhelmingly they were usually made from cotton. Cotton is amazing for petticoats. It’s soft, comfortable, it breathes, and it’s much more washable than many other fibers. It also starches like a dream. Once upon a time we thought we were clever in using a stiff polyester drapery material. It didn’t require starching because it was already stiff, it brushed clean fairly easily and it was dense and heavy enough that we figured we would only need to wear one of them. That worked for us for a while. We’ve still got them in the wardrobe as back ups, but next to the cotton petticoats they can’t compare anymore.  They’re great if you’re just going for a costume look, but if you’re going to wear your Victorian clothes with any frequency – go with layers of cotton instead. Polyesters also don’t breathe nearly as well as cottons do – so you will be very uncomfortable and hot wearing layers of polyester around your legs.

It’s a fact that cats love fresh clean cotton – especially if it’s expensive! Kiko pretty much nested in them the entire time I was working on them.

 

Lighter, Not Heavier – Further to our mistake in using a heavier polyester thinking that it would be beneficial to holding out our skirts – that’s not how it works. Heavier fabrics droop more thanks to gravity, and while the heavier fabrics were stiffer than the light cotton, they were lumpier than they were graceful. Layering them would have been a nightmare. Pick a lighter cotton – not too light because it still needs some body, but my favourite petticoat cotton right now is extra wide cotton sheeting when I can get it. It’s proven very versatile and comfortable so far, but a lot of the time I’m using whatever cheap 100% cotton (or at least a very high cotton count) light cloth I can get ahold of, because petticoats use up a lot of fabric. Muslins, broadcloths, etc. are typically suitable. 

 

An Example of one of our earlier “cheating” petticoats. This dense polyester was nice enough for getting started with, but cotton is a thousand times better. 🙁

 

Starch – You can get away without starching. Layers of petticoats still have a lot of shape and rustle to them without it – but if you really want to treat yourself, take the time to starch your petticoats. They are like a dream to wear. The gowns rustle when you move, skirts flutter when you spin, it’s like your ball gown defies gravity.  None of these pictures have starched petticoats in them because we’re waiting for the weather to warm up outside so we can make an assembly line in the backyard to dip starch our new petticoats all at once. We used spray starch on several petticoats for last year’s gala and even those turned out amazing. Dip starching is the ultimate level of awesome though – we’ll write a big post about that adventure when spring arrives. Starching also has the added perk of keeping your stuff cleaner – once dried and set you can brush off dust and dirt from the fabric much easier, keeping the dresses cleaner longer between washings and restarchings.

So that little lecture aside – we finished SIX petticoats recently (Two each for Three of the girls) and we decided to layer them all up on Ashley at once to see the difference each new layer makes. To most eyes, it doesn’t look all that different from the first petticoat to the sixth, but in reality the density and fullness of all those layers is amazing – but a little too hot to wear on a practical basis.

Layering Petticoats has a HUGE impact!

If you want to see how they look in action you can check out a short clip of Ashley spinning around in them on our YouTube channel here: 

 

So I’m proud to say that I’m a petticoat convert – they might seem needless and cumbersome to some of you, but trust me that they are well worth the extra effort. The petticoat pattern we use most is TV170 – Victorian Petticoats by Truly Victorian. It’s an awesome pattern package that has a pattern for 4 different eras of Victorian silhouette. It fastens at the waist with a drawstring and is brainlessly easy to assemble. I love it!

Thanks for reading!