Elizabethan Petticoats

by Drea Leed

What's a petticoat?

In 100 words or less, a petticoat is:

The word "petticoat" meant many things in the sixteenth century. For the first half of the century it referred to a waistcoat-style garment worn underneath outer garments for warmth. From the 1550s on, however, it referred to a garment worm by women under their gowns.

There are a good deal of written references to petticoats, though to date no extant examples have been found dating to before 1600. Here's what we know:

We are used to thinking of a petticoat as a type of skirt. In the sixteenth century, however, this wasn't always the case: the petticoat was a skirt, but it was often attached to a bodice that (in England, at least) laced up the front. Cotgrave, in his 1611 dictionary, defined the french gonelle as "a whole petticoat; the bodies and skirts being joyned together."

There are references in Elizabethan times to "petticoats without bodies" (that is, petticoat skirts without bodices attached), and in Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe accounts and other wardrobe accounts, inventories and tailors bills of the time, petticoats are described as having bodices more often than not. In some cases, a petticoat had sleeves as well; there are references in late 16th century wills to "2 petticoats, 1 sleeves, 1 unsleeved","my workingday petticoat lacking sleeves", and "my russet petticoat with sleeves".

Some petticoats had a placard of fabric in the front to hide the lacings beneath. Queen Mary had petticoats like this:

as did Queen Elizabeth:

Unfortunately, images of petticats are hard to find. They were worn under gowns and rarely depicted in art. Only "strumpets" wore them visibly. Even so, There are some pictures from just past the turn of the 17th century that give insight into what petticoats looked like: Trevilian's Commonplace Book of 1608 depicts a woman wearing what appears to be a petticoat with bodies over a smock, and Francken's "Witches' Kitchen" of 1610 shows a very similar garment.

This nagging houswife wears a petticoat with bodies, partlet and apron. Commonplace Book of Thomas Trevilian 1608.

This woman wears a tawny petticoat with a red stomacher beneath. Detail from San Fiacre healing the sick by Alessandro Allori, c. 1596

Two women wear petticoats that lace up the front; one woman appears to have a skirt or under-petticoat under her petticoat.
Detail from the Witches' Kitchen by Francken, c. 1610.

This servant wears a red petticoat with a green stomacher beneath it and sleeves pinned to the shoulder straps. Lucas de Heere, c. 1570

Hariot's 1588 Briefe and True account of the New Found Land of Virginia likens native american dress to a petticoat--"Their woemen wear apparelled after this manner, butt that their apparell was opne before the brest, and did fastened with a little lesse, as our woemen doe fasten their peticott." The image accompanying this illustration does indead bear some resemblance to the front-laced petticoats of England and elsewhere.

Native American woman wearing a "petticoat-like gown". A Briefe and True account of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Hariot, 1588.

Some petticoats were gathered at the waist, and some were simply gored with few gathers. As the century drew to an end, gathered petticoat skirts became the norm.

Petticoats frequently had bodices of different color and materials from the skirts. THe petticoat skirts themselves, however, were almost universally red...particularly the petticoats worn by the poor and the merchant classes. Poor people wore petticoats of red flannel, red frizado, red kersey, and other cheaper wool fabrics; the rich wore petticoats of fine red wool. Queen Mary owned a petticoat of red scarlet--scarlet being the most expensive red woolen fabric available at the time--with a red taffata bodice.

Mary Queen of Scots and her ladies had several petticoats, known as a "wylie-coat" in Scots english. They were also red, had bodices attached, and were made from a variety of woolen and silk fabrics:

All of the petticoats in Thomasine Petre's wardrobe (c. 1555) were described as red pettiocats, made of varying types of fabrics:

Queen Mary Tudor's wardrobe accounts (PRO doc LC 5/31) also mentioned a plethora of red petticoats:

Why red? We don't know exactly why, but it is true that during the sixteenth century, red was though to be a warming color, and garments made of that color were thought to warm the body better than others. Shoes were lined with red scarlet fabric, for the same reason. People prone to chill were admonished to wrap themselves in a red garment to stay warmer.

This English countrywoman in London was drawn by Lucas de Heere c. 1570. Note the red visible beneath her outermost layer--a red petticoat, most likely.

The woman wears a red petticoat that laces up the front, underneath a jacket.
Detail from the Witches' Kitchen by Francken, c. 1610.

The shepherdess wears a red petticoat over her smock, one with short sleeves.
Detail from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1586

These women were petticoats of a variety of colors: red skirt with tawny bodice, blue bodice with tawny skirt, etc. Detail from Fete at Bermondesdy, c. 1570
Detail from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1586

There are exceptions to every rule: There were some petticoats without bodices, and not all of them were red. Peasants wore petticoats of russet (a grey wool cloth) and undyed white wool, as well. Queen Elizabeth had petticoats in a rainbow of colors and fabrics: peach satin, crimson-silver brocade, tawny velvet, blue flannel, and more.

Were petticoat skirts lined? It's unknown whether the petticoats of commeners' were, but the petticoats of Queen Elizabeth were lined in a light silk fabric for summer, which was switched out for light flannel linings for winter.

Were petticoats decorated? Some petticoats had bands of trim around the skirt, and some had fringe around the bottom of the skirt as well. Here's a sampling of the petticoats made by Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe, for the queen, her servants and her ladies in waiting:

Although there are no English petticoats remaining from the 16th century, there are bodices from elsewhere in Europe that served the same function. Called a "gamurra" in Italy, a "gonnelle" in France and an "unterrock" in Germany, gowns with skirts and a supportive, usually sleeveless bodice were a fixture of late 16th century dress.

The two extant bodices below are examples of such continental "petticoat bodies".

Eleanora of Toledo was buried in a Petticoat with Bodies and a gown. Only the bodice of the petticoat survives; it closed up the front with hooks and eyes and was made of velvet, lined and interlined with linen. Details and reconstruction Here.

A bodice discovered in a well in prague, and dated to the 1560s, also resembles a classic petticoat bodice. the outer fabric was originally a crimson and metal thread brocade--similar to the "tinsel" of the Elizabethan era--and was lined with a dark pink double-woven silk.

For more information on choosing the right fabric for your skirt, take a look at the article "Period Fabrics for Elizabethan Costuming".

Where can I find out more about Petticoats?

Clothes of the Common Woman 1580-1660 has the most comprehensive analysis of what petticoats were and how they were worn that I've found to date.

You can also Browse the Petticoats in Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe for inspiration.

Petticoats for Re-enactors: some considerations

When making a petticoat, there are a number of practical considerations to keep in mind.

Do you want a petticoat with a bodice, or simply a skirt? Petticoats with bodies are more versatile: you can wear it alone over a smock and go about your business, rather than needing a separate top to wear with it. In addition, the bodice holds the skirts up. Skirts without bodices have a tendency to slide down or cause uncomfortable pinching, if they are tight.

On the other hand, if you simply want a skirt to show when you kilt up your outer gown, a petticoat skirt may be all you need. It is easier to make a petticoat skirt without a bodice; and a bodice can always be added later when you have time to make one.

What material should you make it from? Many re-enactors spend a day in the hot sun, in summery weather that makes layered woolen garments uncomfortably warm. Unfortunately, there are no references to linen or fustian petticoats; wool was the only fabric mentioned for commoners' petticoats, and expensive wool and silk mentioned for petticoats of the nobility.

If you're standing over a cookfire, wool is good: woolen skirts burn far less easily than skirts of linen or cotton.

Also, If you do make a petticoat of taffeta or satin, a gown worn over it will slide and move more easily over the fabric than over a petticoat of wool.

How should you decorate it? In addition to looking nice, bands of trim or strips of fabric sewn around the bottom of a petticoat help the skirts stand out and give the skirt a nicer shape. Fringe around the bottom can do the same. A band of contrasting fabric around the bottom of the petticoat can be replaced when it gets dirty or worn. If you don't have quite enough fabric for the skirt, the contrasting fabric can also serve to lengthen the skirt and make it long enough.

Some petticoats of the eighteenth century were stiffened with narrow rope cording sewn into channels around the bottom. Although there's no evidence that this was done in the sixteenth century, several re-enactors choose to do this to achieve a full-bodied skirt without using a lot of fabric or a heavy cloth.

How do you make a petticoat?

A petticoat is a relatively easy item to make. It's versatile, too; with minimal changes, this pattern can be used for Cavalier and later 17th century underskirts, as well as for simple gathered overskirts.