Petticoat Styles to Master Your Vintage Look

Give your retro-inspired looks an upgrade by matching the proper vintage petticoats to your style.

Published February 20, 2023

Dressing vintage doesn't come with a handbook. You want to replicate the beautiful silhouettes and styles you've seen in old films and magazines, but getting the period-correct styling down can be confusing to new vintage lovers. If there's one piece of vintage clothing you should never forget about, it's the petticoat. There are all different kinds of vintage petticoats, and each one will be perfect for a different retro-inspired outfit.

Petticoats Never Go out of Style

Petticoats have been around for centuries. They're an undergarment layer that's worn beneath a skirt or dress for several reasons.

  • They protect your clothes from your body's natural oils. Clothing was incredibly expensive, and people had far fewer pieces in the past than you do today. To make their clothes last as long as possible, undergarment layers would provide a barrier between your body's natural oils and the clothes' fabric itself.
  • They smooth your undergarment lines. In the early and mid-20th century, seamless panties didn't exist. To stop your dresses or skirts from rippling over your panties, pantyhose, or girdle, you'd wear a petticoat. This layer smoothed everything out underneath the fabric to create a seamless effect.
  • They help create volume. You can't get the perfect cupcake dress without adding a voluminous petticoat underneath.

Flounced Petticoats

In sewing terms, a flounce is a strip of fabric that's attached to a skirt, dress, or petticoat. You can usually see where these flounces are added because of the gathers at the stitch line, which are used to create volume and frill. These flounces can get really decorative, with lace and satin trim being woven into the bottom layer so that if you flashed someone with it, they'd see the most sumptuous part first.

These petticoats are quite old, and were really popular in the early 20th century, but they can still be adapted for modern dresses today.

Swing petticoats

Swing petticoats are unique because they're often used for swing dancing. They have deep roots in vintage western wear, and were usually worn underneath big, pleated circle skirts. Typically, you'd wear these with fashions from the 1950s into the 1960s. Unlike other petticoats that added volume, many of these were made out of more comfortable (aka less scratchy) fabrics like cotton, linen, and even polyester.

A-line Petticoats

If you're looking for a softer styled petticoat, then a vintage A-line one is great for you. They form a gentle triangle, sloping out from the waist towards the knees or ankles without any extra layers to add volume.

These slips come in a variety of natural and synthetic fabrics and can be made up of single cuts of fabric or stitched together with multiple layers. The point with wearing an A-line petticoat isn't to dramatically change the natural silhouette of the article of clothing you're wearing but to both smooth the lines and give the skirt/dress the right structure to lie in place.

These petticoats can be worn with many different styles, ranging from the early-20th century on towards the latter half. They're just so versatile.

Layered Petticoats

When you think of petticoats, you probably envision the layered ones. Layered petticoats are full of ruffles and gathers, made out of gauzy fabrics like crinoline, organdy, and tulle. They bring the ultimate amount of volume to a simple skirt or dress and were vital to creating the huge formal wear dresses that were popular with young and mature women during the 1950s.

Hoop Petticoats

Hoop petticoats are interesting because they're kind of the squares of the petticoat world. Hoops - bands of boning or stiff material sewed around the skirt - can be added to just about any petticoat style. Instead of creating a playful volume that springs and moves underneath the skirt like with layered petticoats, hoop petticoats create a static circular shape. Typically, these petticoats are used for simple skirts and dresses that need the right 'dress form' to lay on.

Is There a Difference Between Slips and Petticoats?

Although slips can sometimes be referred to as half-petticoats, there is a functional difference between the two. People wear slips specifically to keep a barrier between the clothes and the undergarments. They're normally made out of a slinky fabric like satin, silk, or chemise, and they usually rest against the curves of the body. Meanwhile, petticoats were used to restructure a garment's shape, usually with the intention of making things bigger.

How to Pick out the Perfect Petticoat

Picking out the right petticoat for your vintage outfit depends on a couple of things:

  • Which decade are you replicating? Certain petticoats were more popular during each decade (take the '50s and layered petticoats, for example), and matching the right petticoats to your period outfit will help create an authentic look.
  • What's the shape of the skirt/dress? When you put the skirt or dress on, look at yourself in the mirror and see how the skirt falls. If there's a ton of extra fabric, but no stitching or pleating to help with its structure, it might need a small petticoat.
  • Is it formal wear? Usually, vintage formal wear that requires a petticoat needs either volume or structure. You wouldn't wear a petticoat with a tight-fitting dress from the mid-century, but you would wear one with the big, ruffled cupcake dresses from the 1950s.
  • How voluminous are you comfortable with? There's no wrong way to pair petticoats with vintage skirts and dresses; rather, it's about what you feel most comfortable wearing. If large petticoats get tangled in your legs, then stick to a lighter cotton petticoat instead.

Prance Around in the Prettiest Vintage Petticoats

Experimenting with vintage styles can feel like playing dress up, and once you get started, you can't stop adding new pieces and layers to your favorite outfits to create a complete look. If you haven't jumped on the petticoat wagon yet, you should totally give it a try. You'll be amazed at how changing something as silly as your undergarments can give your outfit the extra jeuje it needs.

Petticoat Styles to Master Your Vintage Look