|The back of an 1895-1900 silk and lace|
petticoat, with back gathering and
back fluff helper tie!
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Victorian era is rife with petticoats. We know that each stylistic era had its specialized petticoats which supported the prevailing silhouette, from 1830s corded petticoats, to mid-century hoopskirts, to late Victorian bustles integrated into petticoats. The mid-1890s was no different, although awareness of the types of petticoats I am going to write about doesn't seem to be general in in the costuming community -- the information sure was new to me.
Reliance on Advice Literature
Advice literature had plenty to suggest about petticoats. However, I have not spotted 1890s extant petticoats constructed with the more unusual additions of hair cloth and wires that the advice literature suggested, and only one with back ties. Does the warning that historians have given for decades apply here, that prescriptive literature is likely to reflect less what was done than what segments of society said should be done?
Or if the petticoats haven't survived in numbers, may it partly be due to the materials they were made of? Haircloth, a stiff, coarse, woven material made with horsehair or other hairs, and crinoline aren't that comfortable, and a haircloth petticoat? As a utility garment, I suspect that not many people might select to keep such a thing for sentimental reasons or for reuse. As for wires, they are easily removed.
The Cut and Arrangement of Petticoats Holds Skirts Out -- and So Do Ties
So, let's begin. Wearing petticoats with similar lines to the skirt they support is going to help hold out the skirt. Isobel Mallon, one of the two main fashion and sewing columnists for The Ladies Home Journal, wrote:
"Except for a greater fullness the petticoats are cut almost exactly like the dress skirt. Lawn or cambric is used for them, although when thin white dresses are worn petticoats of dotted muslin are chosen, and being light tend to make the whole costume very cool and pleasant. The skirt of lawn with three ruffles, having upon them a group of tucks on each side of the lace insertion, and then below that a lace edge, is one that can endure much soap and water, and, not being over-trimmed, is good form. The fancy for setting lace in the skirt itself no longer obtains, and if anything, the trimming, which is all put on by hand, is simpler than ever before. A ribbon belt is usually drawn through a casing at the top, so that one may have one's skirt belt as loose or as tight as may be agreeable, and then, too, the doing away with the old close belt, to which the skirt was gathered, makes it much easier to iron the petticoat itself.
Silk skirts have pinked ruffles, with lace ones alternating. These are not made as wide as the white skirts..." ("Dainty Styles in Lingerie", by Isobel Mallon, Ladies Home Journal, August, 1894, p. 23.)The idea wasn't new. One year earlier, in 1893, Ms. Mallon's article "Dainty Lingerie of Today" (p. 20), had suggested the same thing, but she had added a significant detail: "no belt is put on these petticoats, but a drawstring is run in and the fullness kept well to the back." So here we have an easy way to add some fullness to the back of the skirt, if one is slender: put the petticoat on a drawstring and push the fullness to the back! Done with more than one petticoat, more fullness will be added.
One can take holding the petticoat's fullness to the back side even further. That's where the photo of the (probably) creped silk petticoat from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, comes in. It is provided with the drawstring, plus ties so that the fullness in back can be gathered up and held in place according to taste.
Let's look at that photo again. Brilliant! It may even be that the waistband drawstrings cover only the back portion of the waistband, so that the front and sides would remain smooth.
|The back of an 1895-1900 silk and lace|
petticoat, with back gathering and
back fluff helper tie!
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
About That Frou-Frou Sound...
Yes, "frou-frou" was a term coined in the era to refer to the rustle of silk petticoats under the gown. However, was making a lovely rustling as one passed by in good taste? In the 1893 article we've just talked about, Ms. Mallon could hardly be more clear about refraining from fou-frouing, alas:
Very few women wear white petticoats with anything except those gowns that necessitate them. And when they are required I advise that they should be either of cambric or dotted muslin, and the only suggestion of starch about them around the hem. The petticoat that rattles is excessively vulgar.The next year, she carries the warning to wearing silk petticoats: "Silk skirts have pinked ruffles, with lace ones alternating. These are not made as wide as the white skirts......for if they were they would rustle so that they would be counted in very bad taste." ("Dainty Styles in Lingerie", Ladies Home Journal, August, 1894)
So there you are.
I am inclined to rebel.
So were others. In the same magazine's write-in advice column "Hints on Home Dressmaking", March 1893, Emma M. Hooper, the columnist responded to a letter writer
MRS. JOSEPHINE S. --- Black silk petticoats are made of surah or taffeta, the latter being the "rustling silk" that you speak of, being preferred for that reason, as wearers of silk petticoats are not at all averse to the fact thus being known.
The Number of Petticoats
Note that I am saying "petticoats", not just "petticoat". It was normal to wear more than one petticoat, although, as we shall see, there were exceptions to the advice.
The British sewing manual The Elements of Modern Dressmaking for the Amateur and Professional Dressmaker, by Miss J. E. Davis (1894) suggested multiple petticoats, treated in specific ways. In the chapter on drafting and constructing skirts, and in the section about lining skirts, Miss Davis promotes stiffened petticoats as a satisfactory way to maintain the fullness of a skirt, in preference to the use of stiffeners in the bottom edges of skirts (p. 139):
Indeed, the use of stiffening in the [outside] skirt edge is a rather clumsy resource at any time, the wide effect being easier to secure if the upper petticoat below it is stiffened either with starched flounces, or with pleats and frills of horsehair. Upper skirts [meaning the topmost petticoat] trimmed with a couple of narrow flounces round the bottom edge set out the dress skirt well enough to give a moderately full effect, which will generally satisfy average wearers, especially if a narrow strip of horsehair is doubled and enclosed in the hem of each flounce, both being cut on the cross.Let's take apart this paragraph. First, when Miss Davis talks about an "upper petticoat" and "upper skirts"; she is talking about the topmost of multiple petticoats. How many, she doesn't specify. As a note, Emma Hooper, the other fashion-centric columnist in Ladies Home Journal, didn't specify, either, when counseling a reader in her advice column, "Hints on Home Dressmaking". Instead, she counseled the reader to use her own usual number -- indicating the number varied from woman to woman:
|Number of petticoats used. "Hints on Home Dressmaking",|
by Emma M. Hooper, Ladies Home Journal,
June, 1894, p. 30.
I could trot out lots more quotations in support of multiple petticoats, but that might multiplicate the boredom of reading this research article, which is, besides, a set of blog posts and not a piece I am submitting to an academic journal. Thus, no more quotes on this subject :}
An Interjection: Getting a Smooth Fit at the Waist With a Yoked Petticoat
As we're talking petticoats, let's cover this, too. You can imagine how petticoats on drawstrings just recommended, might ruck up around the waist, or otherwise lose its position, especially if the wearer was not especially slender.
The Delineator provided a solution in a petticoat with a yoke, and fixed gathering in the back for the necessary fullness -- yes, this design should remind costumers of petticoats in the Natural Form era. Sketches of the petticoat, along with the original directions for making it, appear below. Even without the actual pattern, I am betting that many of us could replicate the garment from what is here.
|A yoked petticoat with directions. The Delineator, February 18, 1895, pages 197-8.|
Here is another one, from the same issue:
|A yoked petticoat with directions. The Delineator, February 18, 1895, pages 240.|
Do note: the writer says that a white petticoat will not be worn under a gown for the street in winter. Memo to file when you make a winter 1890s skirt!
Similar advice is dispensed by Isobel Mallon in the previously mentioned "Dainty Lingerie of Today." She says:
If one is inclined to be stout a yoke is advised in preference to a belt, and this yoke should be at least three inches in depth. This buttons, and then it is necessary to have a drawing-string far down in the skirt to keep the fullness from sagging to the front."I am not sure, but that "drawing-string" might tie the fullness towards the back...and of course we've already read about that, and know its advantages.
Petticoats Stiffened With Starch, but Better, With Crinoline
If you were paying attention, and I am sure my prose is so lucid and exciting that you're reading this with trembling hands, you will have heard Miss Davis above suggest that a portion of the petticoats -- the flounces -- be starched, and Ms. Mallon say that the hem was the only place starch should be found. We all know starching practices used during previous fashion eras really help hold a skirt into the fashionable shape.
I suspect that Miss Davis really does just mean the flounces are stiff-starched, rather than the entire petticoat being dipped and starched, although it's possible that British taste in petticoats varied from American taste. Ladies Home Journal believed that women had experience with heavily starched garments being uncomfortable, especially in summertime:
|Over-starched frocks are uncomfortable. Ladies Home Journal, July, 1895,|
In fact, Isobel Mallon, a year earlier, wrote that muslin petticoats were out of style, and that petticoats were no longer stiffly starched:
"It has not been so very long ago since muslin was generally used for underwear. That it was thick, warm and by no means easy to arrange in a pretty way was not thought of, and if one suggested that in its place linen or lawn should be used someone else was already ready to announce that both of these materials were more expensive and more difficult to launder. Nowadays we know that lawn or percale, for the latter is frequently noted, is quite as cheap as muslin, because of the greater width, and that, as underwear is no longer made stiff with starch, its laundering is quite easy." ("Dainty Styles in Lingerie", Isobel Mallon, Ladies Home Journal, August 1894, p. 23.)
A side note: by this date, many petticoats were made of lightweight fabrics, as were undergarments in general.
As I have said before, the favorite material for underwear, of course not counting the flannel for petticoats, is either lawn or percale. When the latter is chosen it usually has a fine stripe or tiny dot of some color on it. What are known as the cross-barred muslins, which are, by-the-by, very thin and inexpensive, are occasionally used for nightdresses to be worn during the summer, but this material is not noted in any other garment. Occasionally a light-weight cambric is selected for petticoats, but lawn is given the preference. Silk underwear has not the same vogue it had some time ago, but it cannot be denied that if one can afford to wear it, it is the most agreeable material imaginable." ("Dainty Styles in Lingerie", by Isobel Mallon, Ladies Home Journal, August, 1894, p. 23)Starching the flounces of a lawn petticoat is going to have a different, more papery effect than starching a heavier weight fabric, such as a longcloth (which is thickish, soft, and dense), or a muslin. I do not know how well such would hold out a heavy silk or wool skirt, although it would work well for a summer muslin.
Thus, Miss Davis' second suggestion -- arming the upper petticoat with flounces that have been stiffened with narrow bands of horsehair, doubled for extra stiffness. Now that might have some holding power. This suggestion brings us to the next kinds of petticoat.
A Haircloth Petticoat, or Petticoat with Haircloth Additions
Haircloth is one of those utility fabrics which is still being manufactured, and still contains the horsehair or other hairs that it contained generations ago. It's still used in tailoring and other manufactures. Even Pellon, which manufactures interfacings, offers it.
|A selection of haircloth images on Google Images.|
The idea of using haircloth to make petticoats was nothing new. The Metropolitan has one from the 1834s (IMAGE), and they appear as part of petticoats in other stylistic portions of the Victorian era.
|Haircloth petticoat, 1840s.|
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In "Comfortable Dressing in Summer" in the July, 1895 Ladies Home Journal, page 21, women are recommended to wear a petticoat made of haircloth to help the skirt achieve the proper set. Isobel Mallon, the regular fashion columnist for that magazine, wrote, "I have before this described the haircloth petticoat, the wearing of which makes it possible either to omit lining the cotton skirt, or the having a very soft, thin one." Underneath, she recommends wearing a "skirt of flannelette, reaching the knees...for while it gives the required warmth to the body, it is not heavy, nor does it seem to become imbued with the outside heat." Here is the idea of the insulating power of clothes against heat. However, she does say a bit further on that "(m)any women complain of the weight of the haircloth petticoat in summer."
Alas, I do not have a picture anywhere, of what a haircloth petticoat would actually look like, and nor have I found her detailed description of a haircloth petticoat, though I shall keep looking.
In the same issue, the same author describes a silk petticoat with haircloth box-plaitings, to be worn under those skirts that are too light to carry a stiff lining. She writes:
The newest skirt, however, is the one shown at Illustration No. 2. It is made of white moreen, and is to be worn under cotton, silk, or any light-weight material that will not stand a stiff lining. It is cut by the godet pattern [in other words, with back godet plaits, which I will cover in another post] and has as decoration three box-plaitings of the white haircloth, the top one having as a finish a thick silk cord. This seems a rather expensive skirt, but it will be found very useful, especially to the woman who likes pretty cotton toilettes.Here is the illustration belonging to the description:
|Petticoat with haircloth box pleatings. Ladies Home Journal, July 1895, p.25.|
I find this petticoat idea very interesting. If I were to make one, each of the box-pleated flounces would be composed of silk covering the haircloth. That way the exterior would be smoother, prettier, and less likely to catch or rub on the skirt lining.
Bones and Wires In the Petticoat: A Hoopskirt For the 1890s?
In 1893 there were rumors that the crinoline would return. It never did, but that doesn't mean that advice columnists didn't advocate for what is in essence a hoopskirt! Who knew? Not many of us, I think.
Here is Isobel in the summer of1895, at pretty much the apogee of skirt circumference:
Many women complain of the weight of the haircloth petticoat in the summer. When this is felt I would advise a skirt of mohair, cut exactly as if it were a dress skirt, and stiffened with five rows, quite close to each other, of the narrow whalebones that come for this purpose. They are mounted in the center of a braid that, extending beyond the bone on each side, makes it easy to sew the bands in position. This bone is pliable, as the best quality of whalebone is used, and it certainly will hold the skirt exactly as fashion dictates. A cheap arrangement of whalebone which is covered, but which has no extension of braid like that described, is seen, but I cannot recommend it, as in sewing it on, the needle would be apt to go through the whalebone, and once it is split no wear can be expected from it. The one of which I approve I have seen tried, and that is why I commend it for stiffening petticoats or gowns for the woman who find the haircloth at once heating and heavy.There were braids fitted with whalebones sold especially for the purpose of creating what is essentially a hoopskirt out of a petticoat! Because the braid is sewn on to a petticoat shaped exactly like a dress skirt, the lines of the dress skirt would be retained. That means that we cannot just go and substitute a hoopskirt meant for another costume for the petticoat design described above; 1890s skirts have definite shapes, for one thing, and from the sounds of it, this braid was not that stiff, so that the result wouldn't wear with the bell-like motion of a hoopskirt.
Emma M. Hooper describes a similar product to a subscriber, Addie, in her write-in column, Home Dressmaking, in the April 1895 issue of Ladies Home Journal (p. 34):
There is a flat pliable steel covered with a kind of webbing that is excellent for using in a petticoat. It should be run in a casing an inch above the bottom edge and keeps the petticoat from flapping against the ankles. (2) A black alpaca petticoat is excellent for traveling.In this case, the reason for the hoop of steel is to keep the feet free, but it will likely help with the skirt, also.
For our purposes as costumers, I believe the hoop steel that we tend to use for crinolines these days will be too heavy and bulky. If a thin, softly springy steel can be found, it could be run in a casing just as Mrs. Hooper suggests. I happen to have some, the legacy of an antique crinoline that went to pieces long ago. Obviously it would have to be removed from the petticoat when the latter was washed, and being steel, it could not be exposed to any damp for fear of rusting. Stainless steel watch spring, which is flat like the steel in the antique crinoline I have, is still made. However, it may be a search to find it in useable lengths, and there is the question of expense. This is just a guess, but springy jewelry wire of the heavier sort used in a bundle of multiple strands might work: it could be braided or connected at intervals. The narrower version of German whalebone might work as well, although I cannot say if it would be too stiff and deform the petticoat, and it's expensive enough that I am not sure I'd like to make the trial. I wouldn't recommend thin rattan, although we'll hear more about that material in a later post.
That's all I have for now about petticoats and how they helped create the fashionable skirt flare of the day. I hope you found it helpful, and would be delighted to hear if you happen to use any of the methods in your own costumes.
A final note, for those of you not familiar with copyright: if you should choose to make use of the research above, please credit me. This long article, even published as it is as a series of blog posts, took a great deal of time and effort to develop. Even now I am finding little typos to correct. I am glad to share the information, but the courtesy of credit is both standard and appreciated.
Next time? Skirt interlinings, flutes, funnels and godets.