Of petticoats and crinolines

Detail from a Sears catalog, Summer 1959

Detail from a Sears catalog, Summer 1959

I’m not a professional stylist, nor am I a professional historian. I do not work for any fashion publication, large or small. I have no formal education in costuming.

What I am, however, is a dedicated historical fashion hobbyist. And, at least according to the curious number of people who have mentioned it in the last few days, I’m well-dressed. It’s flattering, and quite a feather in my cap. It’s also the background upon which I make this plea:

Please, PLEASE stop jamming full crinolines underneath quarter- and half-circle skirts. In your quest to look “period appropriate,” you wind up looking sloppy and/or uncomfortable.

1956 vs. 2013 trying to look period

1956 vs. 2013′s interpretation of 1956

On the left of this image we have a photo, taken by LIFE photographer Yale Joel in 1956, of actress Betty Furness wearing a black dress she wore while doing Westinghouse commercials on CBS that year. It is meant to appear both fashionable and accessible, and succeeds. If you look very closely at her hem (click on the image to enlarge it), you can just barely make out the lace edge of a petticoat beneath. The petticoat provides some shape and support, but notice that the skirt still falls in gentle folds. You can almost picture the waves of fabric swaying as Ms. Furness would walk across her Westinghouse set.

On the right we have an anonymous participant in a “1950s-styled” wedding, circa 2013. I’ve blocked out her face to protect her identity, but I assure you that she is every bit as beautiful as Betty Furness. The skirt of her dress is cut with a similar fullness to that of the dress worn by Ms. Furness. But here is where we diverge: someone involved with this fashion fiasco decided that all of the bridesmaids should wear a full, multi-layered crinoline under each of their dresses. On the positive side, they were ordered in a length that is correct for the length of the skirt (yes, petticoats come in different lengths. We’ll get to that in a minute). Unfortunately, the dresses are so stuffed so tightly that the skirts are riding up, and showing the bottom inches of the crinolines. Why not complete the look and pull your bra strap out while you’re at it? These overstuffed skirts do not move with flowing grace, but rather like dinner bells with legs for clappers.

I call this look on the right "The Drop-Off."

I call this look on the right “The Drop-Off.”

Subset A: Petticoats come in different lengths! It’s true! When shopping for gen-yoo-wine vintage, you often take whatever you can get. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can always wear whatever you got with whatever you have. In the example shown here, we have the L.L. Bean Signature poplin dress styled two different ways: on the left is L.L. Bean’s version, and on the right is a photo from an eBay listing advertising the dress as a “vintage 1950s style.” I don’t mean to infer that the seller is being dishonest; he or she does state in the listing description that the dress is near-new L.L. Bean. The seller has merely styled the dress in a way that L.L. Bean didn’t consider, or didn’t consider appealing to their target audience. And the possibilities are certainly there to give this dress a retro feel. The problem with this look specifically is that the crinoline used for the photograph is both too full and too short for this skirt, resulting in a steep cliff at the hem. It is not a very full skirt, and you’d do better leaving it alone or wearing a less voluminous petticoat or a slip with a pretty, ruffled edge. In those instances, the length is less of an issue because they’re providing minimal volume and not supporting the weight of the skirt.

Petticoats and crinolines are easy to find online, and while actual vintage can be far more difficult to locate in your desired size/color/length/fullness there are still options for brand-new petticoats/crinolines/prairie skirts made either en masse or even to your own specifications. A basic, brand-new, 35-yard petticoat should run you under $50 online, while custom orders can cost considerably more and take longer for delivery.

I’ve been lucky enough to acquire all (5) of my petticoats locally and don’t have personal experience with many of these retailers, but here is a list on online sources (all U.S. based, sorry) where you can buy your very own:

Hey Viv (ready-to-wear)

Malco Modes (RTW, many options; U.S.A.-made)

ReSashsay (RTW and custom; consignment)

Theda Bara’s Vintage Boudoir (vintage; availability varies)

Have fun, and look good doing it!

 

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