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Everything I Know About…. 16th Century Support Skirts

This is an excerpt from a research paper I did a while back. The paper itself is 40 pages and covers 4 centuries of support skirts and corsetry. I figure it’s more digestible in smaller chunks. Please note: my regularly scheduled writing style has been suspended in favor of something more palatable to the hardcore academia types. Special thanks go to Stephanie for her proof-reading skills.

And now for Everything I Know About 16th Century Support Skirts…

For most of western history, clothing wrapped the body without altering its shape. From the draped garments of classical Greece and Rome, to the tunics of the dark ages and the flowing lines of the medieval period, clothing obscured, protected, and occasionally followed the natural lines of the body. Five and a half centuries ago, the fundamental relationship between western people and their clothing changed. Where the body had previously determined the shape of clothing, foundation garments were introduced to reshape the body. In women’s dress particularly this gave rise to a variety of changing silhouettes, and a repeating cycle of exaggerated or collapsed skirts and bosoms.

Fig. 1. Hooped skirts and flattened torso profiles, in fifteenth century art. “Banquet de Herodes”, Retable de san Juan, c.1470, Pere Garcia de Benvarre Museu National d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, MNAC/MAC 64060

The first signs of a truly artificial silhouette were seen in Spain and Italy in the late fifteenth century. As the renaissance progressed, women’s gowns became more and more accurately fitted to the torso. Contemporary art shows that the skirts were cut separately and pleated into the body of the gown, a first step towards creating a truly fitted torso. In Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh posits that creation of the artificial silhouette was fueled by the growing silk industry in Italy and Spain. (17) Intricately patterns worked in silk show best in straight-forward applications, and the stiffness inherent in these new silk fabrics did not lend itself to the flowing lines of medieval dress. Two surviving paintings of Salome with the head of John the Baptist, one from St. John’s Retable held at the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, another from c1470 by Juan Flamenco housed at the Museo Del Prado in Madrid, both show Salome and her ladies-in-waiting wearing contemporary, fashionable clothing with stiffened hoops in decorative casings clearly visible on their skirts, and torsos with a much straighter line than previously seen. (Waugh, Title Face; Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 124) Waugh summarized the importance of the painting in Barcelona quite simply: “A spanish medieval painting showing the ladies wearing stiff bodices and artificially shaped skirts: the beginning of the ‘boned body’ and the ‘farthingale’.” (Title Face) These “vertugadas” gave the skirt the shape of a narrow bell. A contemporary account by Mss. Fray Fernando of Talavera notes that the hips were padded out with wool. (Waugh, 23) Janet Arnold provides more information about the earliest incarnation of the support skirt that comes to be known as the “farthingale”:

Farthingales, the stiffened underskirts which supported women’s kirtles and petticoats to achieve the fashionable line, appear to have first been seen in the 1460s or 1470s. Palencia, a courtier, writes that it was with the intention of concealing the results of an indiscretion that Juana of Portugal, Queen of Castile, adopted the fashion, and her ladies followed suit. Juana died in 1475 and Ruth Matilda Anderson notes in Hispanic Costume 1480-1530 that she has not found any hooped skirts in the Queen’s inventory, but that when the Portuguese Princess Isabel received the Burgundian ambassadors in 1473, she wore a crimson velvet gown with green hoops. Isabel brought five ‘vertugadas’, each with fourteen hoops, from Portugal when she came to Spain on her marriage. (“Wardrobe”, 194-195)

These styles reached into northern Europe in the very early sixteenth century, although they were neither immediately nor universally accepted. Generally, Catherine of Aragon is credited with introducing the Spanish farthingale to England, although it does not appear to have been generally accepted until the 1540s. (Waugh, 17; Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies, 21) Waugh writes that the French were first introduced to artificially stiffened bodies by their exposure to the Italian styles during the French-Italian wars of Charles XI and Louis XII. (17)
By 1550s, the full length portraits from Spain, England and France often show the characteristic cone shape of the Spanish farthingale. In this early period, the skirts fall in a diagonal line over the farthingale, without any apparent padding at the hips. Before the 1550s ended, padding was again visible at the top of the skirts. According to wardrobe warrants from the 1550s and later, this was accomplished with “rolles of cotten” added below the pleats of the skirts, possibly “coverid with fustian”. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 185) Additionally, the pleats themselves were sometimes stiffened with buckram, cotton wool, or wadding, as seen in this warrant to Walter Fyshe: “Item form making a Gowne of blak vellat with a trayne of the french fation garded with crymsen vellat enbrauderid with pearle lyned with crymsen sarceonett and buckram in the pleytes” (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 185) While the date of this warrant is not given, Walter Fyshe was employed as Elizabeth’s tailor between 1557 and 1582, so it was presumably issued between those dates.
From the rise of the farthingale in England until the 1580s, various substances were used to stiffen it to bear out the heavy skirts of the kirtles and gowns worn over. Initially, in Spain, historians believe that saplings and the trimmings of coppiced trees were used. (Waugh, 22) In England, farthingales were stiffened with rope or possibly wadded strips of cloth until the 1560s, and with “bent ropes” or reed-like grasses after this. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 195) There are numerous warrants for the alteration of Spanish farthingales, instructing the tailor to enlarge them with extra back panels, or to make them lighter, stiffer, or more flexible. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 198) The wardrobe warrants of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was raised and educated in France, list whalebone being used in her farthingales from 1562. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 189)

Elizabeth Will Rogers 1589 British Library
Fig. 2. Farthingales increase in size after the introduction of whalebone into England. “Elizabeth I”, 1589. Engraving by Wil Rogers. British Library.

This innovation did not reach England, however, until the 1580s. Wardrobe warrants for the use of whalebone in farthingales correspond with the appearance of farthingales of extreme circumference, or “great farthingales”. In contemporary engravings of both English and French ladies of the 1580s, including those of Elizabeth and her ladies-in-waiting, the farthingale suddenly swelled from slightly more than shoulder width to the proportion of the wearer’s outstretched arms. This fashion does not appear to have spread outside of England and France.
The only surviving indication of how the Spanish farthingale and its direct descendants were made, dates from Juan de Alcega’s Libro del Geometria, Practica y Traca from 1589. The diagram and instructions therein show that the farthingale was made up of a front and back piece, each cut on the fold, with two gores added into each side seam. The gores were positioned so that no seam ever matched two bias edges, and this construction prevented the skirt from stretching over time. No indication is given in the pattern of where, or how many, rungs of stiffening were to be added to the skirt or how the stiffening was to be applied. Based on the length of the skirt compared to the average height of a woman in the sixteenth century, Janet Arnold calculated that the farthingale would have been constructed with six tucks to hold bents or ropes. (“1560-1620, 7) The fashion for the great farthingale may explain Alcega’s rather terse comment on the size of the farthingale he presented, “The farthingale is 1 1/2 ells long and a little more than 13 hand-spans (palmos) [117”] wide, which seems to me to be sufficient for this farthingale…” (Alcega, 49; Arnold, “1560-1620”, 7) After the 1580s, the Spanish style farthingale was gradually replaced by the French farthingale, a large roll, perhaps the evolution of the roll that had previously supported the skirts. Arnold explains,

No french farthingales appear to have survived either but a contemporary engraving shows the ‘Hausse-cul: a french vardingale or (more properly) the kind of roll used by such women, as weare (or are to weare) no Vardingales’ as described by Randle Cotgrave in his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues printed in 1611. Made of fustian or linen, padded with cotton wool with extra stiffening of bents, wire or whalebone, they were also described as ‘bum rowls’ by Ben Johnson in The Poetaster.” (“1560-1620”, 10)

The French farthingale was briefly replaced by the wheel farthingale, a lighter and relatively flat support, that carried the skirts straight out from the bottom if the bodice in the 1590s and earliest part of the 1600s. (Waugh, 22) Both Arnold and Waugh have suggested that the odd short skirts seen in a French watercolor of a Ballet, in the collection of the Bibliothèque National in Paris, are representations of the wheel farthingale without a covering. The players wearing these skirts, Les Esperducattes, are “those who are difficult to deceive”, and Arnold suggests that they wear the uncovered farthingale to “mock the deception practiced by women.” (Arnold, “1560-1620”, 10) The different silhouettes of the later Elizabethan period can be compared in three versions of The Family of Henry VIII Accompanied by Peace, Plenty and Mars. The two paintings and one engraving all show the same composition of the family group, and only Elizabeth’s clothing is updated to reflect current fashions. In the first version, by Lucas de Heere in the late 1570s, shows the smooth, conical silhouette of the Spanish farthingale worn alone or with very modest padding added below the skirt pleats. The second, by an unknown artist in the early 1590s, shows a large, distinct bell shape to the skirts, most likely achieved by wearing a large roll at the hips to bear the skirts out at the top, in conjunction with a long farthingale beneath to bear out the skirts at the hem. The final version, an engraving by Will Rogers in the mid 1590s, shows the table-like profile given by the flat wheel farthingale. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 36-37)

Alcega, Juan de. Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589. 1979. Trans. Cecelia Bainton and Jean Pain. New York: Costume & Fashion Press, 1999.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560 – 1620. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1985.

Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: W. S. Maney & Son Ltd, 1988.

Mikhaila, Ninya, and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth Century Dress. London: B T Batsford, 2006.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954. New York: Theater Arts Books, 2000.


  1. […] has a great History of Farthingales up on her website, and Missa has an interesting article about Support Skirts at Sempstress. Both of these webpages go into detail about the history of the farthingale, so I don’t think […]

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