Petticoats and Plantagenets

Petticoat american 1955 met

All-American petticoat 1955

Doubtless you’ve occasionally stopped in your daily round and wondered, “Why do we call a kind of frilly slip a petticoat? Doesn’t that mean ‘Little Coat’ or something like that? You know, French petite meaning small and coat meaning . . . well . . . coat.”

Gambeson 2

A he-man's petty coat

When I think petticoat I think of the Fifties and something frilly and stiff, maybe worn under a poodle skirt.


Poodle skirts. Those were the days.

But petticoats were not always so.

I blame the Plantagenets. Also the Tudors. 

Originally the ‘little coat’ was indeed a little coat. Worn by men. In fact, worn by men in battle under their armor.

The petty coat or gambeson was a short padded jacket worn to keep all that warlike fitted metal from chafing those manly muscles. This is not the sort of thing I ponder upon every day, but it occurs to me the simple act of wearing metal was probably fairly uncomfortable all by itself, without any battles going on, not to mention chilly in winter.

Thus the original petty coat. It also likely helped stop edged weaponry that had gotten past the metal layer. Your men-at-arms and peasantry on the march wore a slightly longer, multilayered and quilted version of this as their only protection.

Lucas de Heere c. 1570 with red petticoat

Bright red petticoat underneath her dress. 1570. Also a bird in  hand.
400px-Don_Carlos_Spanien wearing a doublet

You cannot actually see the petty coat here. It's under the doublet.

By the end of the Fifteenth Century the petty coat was also a men’s undergarment of the same general form as the military wear. In the  Boke of Curtasye, the chainberlain is told to get ready for his lord a clene shirt and breeches, a pettycote, a doublette, a long cote, and a stomacher. The petty coat was worn between the shirt and the doublet

Perhaps it was these civilian versions of the under-armor petty coat that created confusion. By the last half of the Sixteenth Century, a petty coat was also a garment worn by women. It might be a skirt or a skirt with an attached bodice and even sleeves. It could be worn as underclothes or be an outer garment. They were often a startlingly bright red. 

The petticoat had jumped the gender barrier and become woman’s clothing. It never looked back.

1740 to 60 petticoat silk cotton met

Here we see just the petticoat itself
image from

And here the petticoat and gown. This is a robe à la française

A hundred years or so later genteel woman’s dress evolved into a combination of gown and petticoat. The skirt of the gown was drawn back to show the petticoat below. The petticoat itself was a gathered skirt, often with a bodice. It had become a highly decorated garment, made of beautiful fabric.

Chemis third quarter 18 c Met

Regency shift or chemise. Well hidden underwear.

This makes sense of the lines in the song Mary Hamilton,

“Cast off, cast off my gown, she cried,
but let my petticoat be
and tie a napkin round my face,
the gallows I would not see.

Anyway, from all this you will see there is an old and venerable tradition of underwear/outer wear confusion and no real grounds for objection if folks choose to run about in camisoles, I suppose.

As we approach the Regency the rules change. A new style with slim lines, diaphanous  fabrics, and a high waist comes in. Exit the petticoat. For a few decades the undergarment of choice is the plain linen or cotton shift.


Petticoatearly1805 to 1815
A clothing expert points out that petticoats never really disappeared in the Regency era. The garments worn under a dress might be reduced to a single layer, but it was not always a simple shift or chemise. Sometimes the elaborate design tells us these were meant to be seen.



I am rather wedded to trousers, myself, and out of touch with dresses,
but it might be fun to swish about in petticoats.

Does anyone miss petticoats?