Have you ever felt like your A-line dresses and skirts were more like…B- lines?
That is to say, has your retro-chic look ever felt like it’s been falling a little flat? Well, if you’re not equipped with a good petticoat, there’s a reason for that!
Just like no victory roll is truly complete without hairspray, no swing dress is going to have the 50’s flair OR flare it deserves without the proper undergarments to poof it out. But where’d we get these things from, anyway?
Flashback to the 14th century: “petticotes/petty coats” meant ‘small coat’. Unlike the non-performance pieces of today, these then-unisex undergarments were usually starkly contrasting colors to the outer dress as they were designed to be seen with the open dress styles you can still catch at your local Ren faires.
As the centuries wore on, the sight of petticoats shifted more towards adding a decorative extra hem to elaborate dresses, and more emphasis was placed on adding volume to wide skirts. Famously, the Rococo era supposedly saw the rise of women needing assistance to get through high society doorways with all of the exaggerated hoop skirts and layers of petticoats they wore! We might wonder if that’s were ‘French Doors’ came from…
While hoop skirts and crinolines weren’t petticoats in and of themselves, the two were often worn together. The petticoat in this fashion was meant to hide the lines of the hoop skirts and were worn between the cage and the outer dress.
With the hoop skirts doing most of the volumizing work, petticoats of the later 18th and 19th century got thinner and more utilitarian–layered for warmth and a smoother shape to the dress rather than being used for the silhouette itself. Since strong winds, carriage entrance, and even just sitting down too quickly all posed a risk of scandalous leg exposure with cage skirts, it was also typical to see a petticoat worn under the stiffer structures to protect one’s feminine modesty.
As skirts narrowed and shortened during the turn of the century, evolving into the 20’s ‘flapper’ look we all know and appreciate, petticoats were set aside in favor of slips that protected the dresses from foxtrot sweat and wear. It wasn’t until 1947 that Christian Dior’s Corolle Line, later dubbed the ‘New Look’, as seen here courtesy of the Vogue archives, saw longer hems and wider flares, and the new need for petticoats to keep dresses and skirts from deflating!
This bouffant look was created with layers of starched petticoats (usually with one unstarched bottom layer to avoid uncomfortable gam-chafing), some including modern plastic rings for extra poof. Shiny taffeta was used for evening looks when an errant dip was bound to reveal a swath or two of one’s delicates. Why not give the local dancery something to look at?
Although this is where our clientele usually hop off, there is more to petticoats with styles after the retro period we throw in our ensembles. Vivienne Westwood flirted with the expansion of skirts in the 1970’s, and as the Lolita style nurtured in Japan in the 90s, shorter petticoats kept bell skirts and A-line Rococo-inspired wear well-flounced.
The advent of raver culture also saw wild neon colors and petticoats as 100% outerwear on the techno scene as dancers sought a modern and more revealing take on doll-like femininity that was suitable to dance in for hours in airless warehouses.
For mid-century looks though, modern day petticoats can be a mixed bag if you’re not sure what you’re buying. Shorter, poofier petticoats can be found fairly cheaply and easily, but trying to fit a longer swing dance-ready dress over a ‘bubble’ petticoat that ends at your hips is not going to get you the look you’re after… trust us.
Quality petticoats that have their hems right around the hem of your dresses and skirts for the perfect rockabilly or pinup look can be found in all colors, and we’re proud to be a great resource for these storied accessories. If you feel like there’s not enough swish in your skirts, don’t distress—make like an onion and layer up!