NY Times Magazine 1954

NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE

This nostalgic article, contributed by "Voluminous", appeared in 1954


PETTICOAT LOOK

The petticoat industry balloons, as do ladies from the waist down.

by Elizabeth Hawes

 

"What do you think about petticoats?" The gentleman's eyes gleamed. "I like the rustle!"

"I have on three," a woman said proudly.

"Big petticoats make women look like lamps," a man declared bluntly.

"Those petticoats," a very smoothly garbed woman remarked, running her hand over her dress where it clung to her hip, "are wonderful for women who are too fat or too thin."

If one wants to start a controversial conversation, introduce the subject of petticoats into any mixed gathering. There is, however, no disagreement among those who weave the goods, turn them into petticoats, and sell the garments. Two years ago petticoats made up only 12 percent of the undergarments sold in 7,000 department stores. This year petticoat sales account for half the lingerie sales.

How did this happen? many will claim the honor, but actually it came about because a large number of women in the U.S. who took up full skirts after World War II refused to follow the dictates of dear old fashion and return to the slim look.

That a great many females find a fitted waist and full skirt pleasing is not strange. This silhouette best displays the attributes of the female form as contrasted with the comparatively flat male figure. It has been standard practice for women of the Western world to point out these differences in their dress for centuries.

In the sixteenth century, when the first Queen Elizabeth came to power, the farthingale was imported to England from Spain. This was the original hoop skirt, and all "serious students of dress' believe that women wore it to enhance their size and importance. Perhaps today the same thing is true of the modern crinoline, but this writer doubts it. She believes that happily, several years ago, a harassed manufacturer suddenly got the idea of putting a stiff petticoat under a scanty skirt so it would have a really full look despite the poverty of goods. What with the avid assistance of the undergarment departments in promoting this invaluable (to undergarment purveyors) idea, and the fact that the ballet look was well established for the young, petticoats soared--and billowed.

Fashion experts may quarrel with this explanation of the current trend of petticoats. But the price of goods has more to do with the cut of clothes than fashion dictators care to admit.

To be sure, if American women had not felt like wearing petticoats, the brave attempt to save goods in dresses and improve the undergarment industry by promoting petticoats would have failed. The success of a fashion in the U.S.A. depends in the final analysis on whether enough women want it so it is economically desirable to manufacture it in large volume.

When it became apparent to buyers that a very large number of women wanted these adjuncts in their wardrobes, special goods were woven. Many undergarment manufacturers have now given up making anything but petticoats. These manufacturers are now in a cold sweat, wondering how long the rage for petticoats will last. The prospects depend on why women go for them. Is it for a good sound reason in their own opinions, or is wearing petticoats just a whim?

Petticoats in their current form, trice-ruffled or worn in triplicate, have been revived from a day when women didn't rush around in public conveyances and go out of their homes to do paid jobs. When women became "emancipated" they gave up wearing voluminous petticoats. This does not prove, however, that the American female, by taking to petticoats, is displaying any signs of renouncing the freedom her mother and grandmother made such a row about obtaining. On the contrary. The majority of petticoat wearers have a sound personal reason for wearing the garments. They assert, rightly, that petticoats create the illusion of a small waist. If the waist is already small, it becomes miniute. That bouffant petticoats make a female wide around the hips doesn't concern her today if she chooses to wear them. Everyone in a bouffant petticoat has moire or less the same silhouette below the waist.

To get the small-waisted look the girls tried cinching in their waist with corsets, but that was uncomfortable. Hips have been padded, but the result with a tight skirt is grotesque. the most sensible, comfortable and even most economical way to appear to have a small waist today is to stick out your skirt with petticoats. To be sure, a skirt properly cut with enough goods in it would create the same effect, but then one would have to pay more for each dress and one would have no choice as the whether or not it stuck out.

Petticoats exist now chiefly the disguise the figure. "You have to face the fact that you better never leave off your petticoated look or those who get used to you in it will suddenly receive a terrible shock, as if you'd left off your lipstick," says one wearer. the young ladies who park their crinoline petticoats in the ladies' room during working hours must feel positively nude without them and the differences in their shapes must sometimes be startlingly apparent to their fellow workers.

Innocent bystanders, as well as wearers, have to put up with a good deal from petticoats. It can be quite funny to watch a petticoated bus traveler as she sits attempting with one hand to hold down her crinoline so she can feel herself a lady, while with the other hand she is endeavoring to tuck up her petticoats so they won't sweep the floor. The remote, pleased look she puts on her face in an attempt to cover her nervous confusion may come to be known as having a Petticoat Face is this goes on long enough.

 

There are ladies who, when asked why they wear petticoats, say immediately and simply, "I wear petticoats because they work." They laugh as they say it, leaving no questions on whom they find their petticoats work.

These ladies are the true descendents of those who in previous centuries were known as "Petticoats," a term demoting the mysteriously attractive female sex. "Petticoats" made a real art of tilting their hoops or raising their skirts to show a bit of ankle, or, by the time the Flora Dora girls came along, a good bit of leg surrounded buy much frou-frou.

In our day such ladies as are worthy of being called True Petticoats realize that, whether it is part of the male racial consciousness or just that fathers have told their sons about it, what the men from 20 up who are sincerely pleased by petticoats really like about them is the sound they make: "like wind in the pines" -- "that starchy sound" -- "the rustle" -- "the whisper of petticoats." never mind what a petticoat does to a girl's figure, say male petticoat admirers.

In addition to the Practical Petticoaters and the true Petticoaters, there are the Fashionable Petticoaters. But the number of females who say they are wearing petticoats because petticoats are being worn is amazingly small. Most American women now feel free to decide whether what is decreed fashionable has any useful purpose for them before they take to it.


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