Sunday, April 14, 2013

Petticoats, plain and pretty

Last October I had a long conversation with a great aunt who is very dear to me. She worked as a hairdresser during the 60s and was generally a fashionable lady, even coming from a rather modest background. (I'll have to ask her more about her experience with hairdressing next time we chat.)

I enjoy hearing stories and memories from the elderly even more than I enjoy collecting items from past eras—which is a lot! Their tales are rich with wisdom, experience, and first-hand knowledge. Many have a very characteristic way of pronouncing words and telling stories that has disappeared with the younger generations.

But back to my great aunt.
During this phone call she shared with me memories of the time in the 50s when she was a teenager and young adult. She said back then women always wore a petticoat and a dress, never pants and shorts. The petticoats she wore were made of plain, white cotton. When necessary she would just wash and iron them, but doesn't remember starching them.

She also shared a fascinating tidbit with me, that when one petticoat got old, she would just layer another newer one on top. Often she would be wearing several at once to achieve the fullness she desired.

I find this technique to be fascinating and quite practical for the modern woman who wants to achieve a vintage or retro look. You can just layer a few skirts over each other, as long as they are each slightly shorter than the outermost skirt so they won't peak out from underneath.

As a little aside, how we think about previous decades is colored so heavily by the media—pictures, ads, television shows, radio programs—created at the time that have come down to us, but these more often than not misrepresent or distort everyday life, filtering out important if mundane experiences of people who lived through that era, experiences like the one my great aunt shared with me a half a year ago.

Back to petticoats. I see so much written about tulle petticoats (see this post by Vixen Vintage, for example), but so little about the plain, flat cotton style my aunt wore. So I went ahead and made my own using a simple circle skirt pattern and tutorial I found at Fickle Sense.

Here's how mine turned out:

Nothing to write home about, and since no one except my husband and me will ever see this little beauty, I made it more functional than aesthetically pleasing. I used the pattern that calls for a full 360 degree circle of fabric for the greatest fullness.

Much of the cotton fabric on the market today is too thin to make a good petticoat, in my opinion. The folds created by an older, more sturdy fabric will hold their shape better under the weight of a vintage skirt or dress, as in the example below:

Vintage skirt without petticoat

Vintage skirt with simple cotton petticoat

I hate working with tulle, so for me it's worth it to pay the extra price for a vintage petticoat made of that fabric. At the beginning of the post I included a picture of one I purchased a couple months back. With some new elastic and assorted repairs, this delightful garment will be in shape and ready for some wear during the spring and summer months.


  1. Great post! I actually just only bought my first petticoat yesterday. I'm sure that I will find those little tidbits from your great aunt very useful.

  2. That's great to hear! Hopefully you will have more opportunities than I do to wear yours. The full-skirted look is really noticeable and people aren't used to seeing it these days, so I reserve it for special occasions. If you can pull it off with an everyday look, go for it!


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