Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Horror of Petticoat Breeches

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Petticoatbreeches1663 Susan reports:
Loretta, you know I like a thrill or two myself –– but I also never tire of the endless back-and-forth swings of fashion. One generation of stylish gentlemen searches for new ways to clothe their nether-parts in the most revealing way possible (ah, what Brummel would have given for an ounce of Lycra!), while another decides the only way to strut their stuff is to hide it all in acres of fabric.

I’m not thinking the voluminous jeans of recent hip-hop style, either. As has often been the case, London gentlemen in the 1660s looked to Paris for fashion guidance as dictated by the French and that master of conspicuous consumption, King Louis XIV (there he is to the left.) Blame Louis, then, for “petticoat breeches”: knee-length garments with loose legs cut as full as a lady’s petticoats, and further trimmed with loops and bows of silk ribbon. (One surviving pair is decorated with over two hundred yards' worth.) Add a short doublet, beribboned periwig, sagging stockings, and floppy, lace-trimmed boots or shoes, and you've got quite A Look.

The legs of petticoat breeches were cut so wide that diarist Samuel Pepys describes how a friend of his “told of his mistake thePetticoatbreecheshabitofaman other day to put both his legs through one of the knees of his breeches, and went so all day.”

There’s much more in Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art & Literature in Stuart England, by my absolute favorite costume historian/writer Aileen Ribeiro. As is always the case, the older generation in the 1660s fussed over the fashions worn by the young folk. The students at Oxford liked to “swash it in apparell”, leaving their elders to lament that it was “a strange effeminate age when men strive to imitate women…viz., long periwigs, patches on their faces, short wide breeches like petticotes, bedecked with ribbons of all colours.” Doesn't this caricature from 1663 say it all?

7 comments:

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Love the caricature.
Those loops of ribbon are just--well, a bit over the top. But fun, nonetheless.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I always imagine how those endless loops of ribbon must have fluttered on a breezy day. There's one famous pair of breeches in an English collection that are estimated to have over two hundred yards of ribbon decoration! For more info plus photos, please check out Aileen Ribieiro's wonderful "Fashion and Fiction", the ultimate book on 17th century English fashion.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

OK, so I just realized I totally repeated my own blog in the last comment. Duh. You can see what happens to writers' brains when in the home-stretch of a manuscript!

Margaret Evans Porter said...

That's ok! I have the Ribeiro book, it's gorgeous.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I agree, Margaret. I have all of Ribeiro's books on historical dress, too. Not only does come up with unfamiliar images, beautifully reproduced, but she puts the clothes into a thoughtful historical context. Her books make me THINK! :)

Lauren said...

Just saw this link on your twitter feed. I HAVE to get a copy of Fashion and Fiction. I studied the Restoration in graduate school and I just absolutely adore the aesthetic of that time period.

Charles said...

In The American Mercury, May 1928, Frances Anne Allen spoke of women who are "DRUNK WITH SUCCESS OVER SHINING SARTORIALLY WITHOUT MALE COMPETITION" and in order to have a monopoly on skirt garments "PRONOUNCED THEM SISSIFIED, AND PROMPTLY KILLED THE GENTLEMEN’S STRUGGLE TOWARD A RAY OF LIGHT.” "The horror of petticoat breeches" interpreted means "The horror of men having equal rights of use of clothes for self expression." Women rave about skirts being badges of servitude, but let a man propose to wear one, now they're enraged sow bears with cubs.

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