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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne wonders if women who lived during the 16th to 19th centuries were enslaved by the dictates of fashion, or if they consciously selected to conceal their femininity under layers upon layers of uncomfortable garments constructed out of whalebone, wood, and metal. Laver (2002) theorizes that the crinoline, for instance, popular in the 1800s, likely bore a symbolic relation to the age in which it thrived. He points out that the 1800s was a period of big families therefore the crinoline may have symbolized female fertility by the expansion of the apparent size of the hips. Or, that maybe the expanded skirt may have been a symbol of the supposed unapproachability of women and seemed to say to the male species: “You cannot come near enough to me even to kiss my hand.” He then posits that the expanded skirt may have actually been an instrument of seduction (p. 184). The last point makes a lot of sense as we could argue that all these layers of undergarments would certainly have increased men’s curiosity and desire to find out what goodies women were hiding beneath their skirts.

A major fashion innovation in women’s undergarments that originated in the 1500s and remained in vogue for at least 300 years was the hooped under-petticoat or crinoline. The various styles of hooped-undergarments included the farthingale, petticoat, crinoline, panniers or baskets, bum roll, and bustles. What most of these undergarments had in common was that when placed under a woman’s skirt or gown they changed its appearance. The farthingale and crinoline, for example, gave the skirt a look of ample fullness and extended its circumference at the hem. Other styles like the basket, bum roll and bustle exaggerated a woman’s hips or sides, and back profile. The various styles of hooped-petticoats were constructed out of materials such as stiffened fabrics, horsehair, wood, cane, reed, whalebones, and wire hoops (Hansen, 1956, p. 129; Lester, 1956, p. 109). To achieve the proper fashionable silhouette when wearing a hooped garment, women wore a tight fitting corset to slim their waist (see History of Women’s Corsets, Parts 1 to 3 in this website).

The field of study of the hooped-undergarments worn by women between 1500 and 1900 is quite extensive. However, in this article we briefly focus on some of the major features of the most popular types of hooped-underskirts in vogue before 1900 such as the farthingale and bum rolls, panniers or baskets, bustles, petticoats, and crinolines.



In this section descriptive information is provided on three popular types of farthingales worn in Spain, France, and England.

Spanish farthingale. The farthingale, or verdingale, was introduced in the Spanish courts around 1525. It was originally worn by the nobility on ceremonial and court occasions, then later on by other classes until it lost its popularity around 1615. The Spanish farthingale consisted of a stiffened pad to which were sewn hoops made of supple switches of wood to hold out the skirt. The later version looked like a caged petticoat made up of a series of circular hoops of whalebone, cane, wood, and eventually of steel wire fastened around the waist and balanced above by means of a basquine or corset. This apparatus gave the entire silhouette a very unnatural shape. The circular hoops were inserted in a petticoat at intervals beginning with smaller hoops at the top which then gradually became wider in circumference until they made a large circle round the feet. The manner in which the hoops were placed changed the appearance of a woman’s skirt.The prevalent shapes were known as the funnel, bell, and dome (Boucher, n.d., p. 227; Lester, 1956, p. 109; Ruby, 1996, p. 15, 17; Sichel, 1977, p. 56).

French Farthingale and Bum Roll. In the 1580s, the French farthingale was more of a Court garment. It was then called the wheel farthingale because it looked like a horizontal cartwheel with a tub-shaped hooped petticoat beneath. The wheel part tilted forward slightly in order to accommodate the elongated front of the faddish stiffened bodice. Its wearer appeared to be standing inside a wheel with the skirt attached to the outer rim and falling vertically to the ground. It made the hips appear as wide as the length of the body and stood out at right angles. The roll farthingale, vulgarly known as the bum roll, was a more popular version worn outside of Court circles by women who could not afford the extravagant farthingale. It consisted of two ends of a padded roll of cloth in the shape of a boiling sausage, or polony, joined together at the front of the body with tapes, and worn round the waist under the skirt to hold it out. It resembled a swimmer’s life-belt with a small opening in the front to which ties were attached. When placed under a skirt it gave an upward tilt at the back (Laver 2002, p. 93, 97-98; Ruby, 1996, p. 16; Sichel, 1977, p. 55-56).

English Farthingales. The wheel farthingale, referred to as the Italian and Catherine farthingale was fashionable in England between 1560 and 1620. It was constructed out of stiffeners of wire and whalebone placed round the waist. According to Sichel (1977), the width at right angles to the waist measured 130 cm or less, depending on the dictates of fashion, but was always worn with the tilt-up at the back (p. 56). In a well-known painting titled, “Queen Elizabeth at Blackfriars”, the Queen (1558-1603) and all her ladies are seen wearing this unflattering garment which made them look like hobby-horses. James I of England (1566-1625) hated farthingales so much that he tried to ban them on two occasions. During his reign there was an accident when a group of women became wedged in the entrance to a “masquing hall” (Ruby, 1996, p. 16-17).

Most women lamented that the farthingale was uncomfortable. By 1651 it was no longer fashionable in Europe. Instead, women were wearing at least three petticoats to hold out their skirt (Ruby 1996, p. 21).

Next: Panniers/Baskets