The practice of wearing petticoats as undergarments was well established by 1585. Petticoats were worn throughout history by women who wanted to have the currently fashionable shape created by their clothing. The petticoat(s), if sufficiently full or stiff, would hold the overskirt out in a pleasingly domed shape and give the impression of a smaller waist than the wearer actually had. It would also complement the desired large bust.
Elaborately decorated petticoats were worn under open-fronted gowns and looped overskirts from the mid-sixteenth century. Eighteenth century petticoats of wool or silk were often quilted for additional warmth and were worn with matching short gowns or jackets, which could be fashioned like a man's jacket with military details and trimmings. These ankle-length petticoats remained a rural fashion, especially in the UK, into the nineteenth century and are a part of Welsh national dress.
Elaborate, lacy petticoats were worn with elegant silk dresses in the eighteenth century in much of Europe and America, sometimes supported by whalebone frames. The Laurel and Hardy film adaptation of Auber's comic opera Fra Diavolo offers a glimpse of the intricate petticoats, corsets, and other underwear worn in the eighteenth century, especially in a scene where actress Thelma Todd prepares for bed, assisted by a maid. Colored pictures, called "fashion plates," were used to advertise the popular dresses and lingerie of the eighteenth century, a practice that continued through the nineteenth century until the introduction of photography around 1840.
In the early nineteenth century, dresses became narrower and simpler with much less lingerie. Then, as the waltz became popular in the 1820s, full-skirted gowns with petticoats were revived in Europe and the United States. By the mid nineteenth century, petticoats were worn over hoops, which were placed over other underwear, including a corset cover, a corset, and drawers. The popular novel Gone with the Wind provides considerable, detailed descriptions of these fashions. One scene in the 1939 film adaptation with actress Vivian Leigh gives a good idea of the layers of petticoats and underwear that were worn in the 1860s.
The sheer weight of the clothing, along with the tightness of the corsets, sometimes caused women to faint. The voluminous, layered Victorian petticoats were not worn to hide the legs, as twentieth century commentators later claimed; they actually enhanced the stylish figure in the centuries before female attractiveness was defined in large part by how much naked leg was revealed, as has been the case since 1960.
The use of multiple petticoats continued to be popular until the 1870s, when the bustle was introduced, resulting in a return of narrower skirts. Some full-skirted gowns with petticoats were revived in the 1890s into the early twentieth century, but most women continued to wear relatively narrow skirts. The "Gibson Girl" look with white blouses and long, narrow skirts was very popular at the turn-of-the-century.
For the first two decades of the twentieth century, multiple petticoats fell out of fashion; narrow, sometimes tight, skirts became more common. Then, in the late 1920s, chiffon dresses with several sheer petticoats became fashionable. With the Great Depression in the 1930s, narrow skirts returned and petticoats again were unpopular until the end of the decade when revived for some evening, prom, and wedding gowns. World War II, with its rationing and general shortage of materials, brought an end to petticoats.
Petticoats were revived by Christian Dior in his full-skirted New Look of 1947 and tiered, ruffled, stiffened petticoats remained extremely popular during the 1950s, especially with teenage girls. Most of the petticoats were netlike crinoline, sometimes made of horsehair. Increasingly, nylon chiffon, taffeta, and organdy were used in petticoats. Many department stores carried an extensive variety of styles and colors of petticoats until the early 1960s. They were also available through the famous Sears and J.C. Penney catalogues. Typically, at least three single petticoats were worn, until manufacturers began making double and triple layer petticoats. A narrow slip was usually worn under the petticoats, especially the crinoline type, because they tended to be "scratchy".
Famed designer Edith Head designed a number of gowns and dresses, supported by multiple layers of petticoats, for actresses such as Grace Kelly and Doris Day, who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock films in the 1950s. Dinah Shore frequently wore dresses with petticoats on her NBC television shows Actress Connie Stevens, who appeared in television series and movies, said she wore petticoats as long as possible because she had wide hips. Other entertainers who often wore petticoats were Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, and Patti Page.
By the middle of the 20th century, the full petticoat was somewhat rare, having been commonly replaced by simple, ungathered underskirts/waist slips (UK) or half slips (US). However, petticoats were still worn for proms and weddings.
Ruffled white or unbleached cotton petticoats were a brief fashion under Prairie skirts in the 1970s, and remain a component of Western wear. Short, full petticoats in the 1950s style are also commonly worn by squaredancers.
There was a major attempt to revive separate petticoats in 1987. However, by that time, most women who wanted very full skirts for proms, parties, or weddings bought dresses or skirts with attached crinoline petticoats.
Petticoats are also making a comeback due to recent trends towards lavish weddings and grandiose bridal attire. Petticoats are commonly worn under bridal gowns with full skirts as a means of maintaining the gown's intended silhouette.
Also, people who dress in period costumes have begun wearing petticoats for a more authentic look. A number of websites offer a great variety of petticoats for sale, while other websites show historic and modern photographs of petticoats, often worn by models.
The everyday use of petticoats in the 1950s and early 1960s appears to have passed. Most women today dress more simply and practically. Even dresses and skirts are not as popular as they once were, with many women regularly wearing jeans and shirts or pantsuits. However, there are women (and cross-dressing men) who still like the look of a dress or skirt with petticoats, as well as the use of corsets, girdles, or garter belts with nylon stockings instead of pantyhose. Comedian Amy Sedaris has appeared on television wearing a 1950s gown with multiple petticoats.
A petticoat is the main undergarment worn with a sari. Sari petticoats usually match the color of the sari and are made of satin or cotton. , A notable difference between the western petticoat and sari petticoat is that the sari petticoat is rarely shorter than ankle length.