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What Is a Farthingale?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 July 2014
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A farthingale is a device that is used to add structure and shape to a skirt. The farthingale was popular in European fashion in the 15th and 16th centuries, and was responsible for the silhouette people associate with the Tudor period in England. Numerous examples can be seen in works of art from this period in European history, and costumers around the world have produced a number of reproductions for use in plays, historical reenactments, and other events.

This garment originated in Spain, where it was known as the verdugados. The Spanish farthingale was originally made with reeds which were formed into hoops sewn into outer garments, making the structure clearly visible. Over time, the hoops began to be worn on an undergarment, leaving the outer skirt smooth and creating a distinctive cone shaped silhouette. The style traveled to France, and later to England with Catherine of Aragon.

The English expanded upon the original design, creating a style known as the English or great farthingale. This garment, intended to be worn under a gown, created a distinctive sloped shelf shape which was high in back and low in the front, allowing the skirts to fall straight down from the shelf to the floor. The shape accentuated narrow waists and widened the appearance of the hips considerably. The famous Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I painted in the late 1500s by Marcus Gheerraerts shows a classic example of the English farthingale.

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The farthingale was usually worn with a bumroll which was designed to push up and support the skirts in the back so that they would not sag. All told, undergarments worn by women of the upper classes during this period in history were quite complex, and often very heavy. The hooped skirt itself could be extremely heavy with the weight of whalebone or wood hoops, and once heavy outer skirts made with materials like brocade were draped over the supporting undergarments, women could find themselves loaded with heavy garments.

Moving with the farthingale in place required some practice. Especially ornate gowns could make navigating streets and buildings challenging. These garments were not practical for working women, as it is not possible to comfortably wear this stiffened and wide undergarment while cooking, cleaning, and engaging in similar tasks. For women of the upper classes, however, creating gowns which were as wide as possible became a form of extreme fashion statement.

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Discuss this Article

geekish
Post 7

Farthingales look difficult to get used to, but I am sure they are kind of like high heels. The more and more you walk in high heels, the easier and sometimes the more comfortable they become. Like any new article of clothing, you have to kind of "break it in", wearing it a few times, and then it usually gets more comfortable and easier to move around in.

I really didn't think about how actors/actresses not only have to learn their lines/character for a movie or play, but they also have to learn the culture of the day and age they are playing in, and dress and speak and do everything else accordingly. This seems like it would be difficult, but fun and educational at the same time.

I have not taken an acting class yet, mostly because I do not enjoy speaking in front of many people. I wish I would have looked at the other aspects as well, because it seems acting can be quite a learning experience, especially in history. You not only get to act a certain way, depending on the times, but also wear certain clothing and speak a certain way too.

snickerish
Post 6

I think we, as women, should wear what we feel good in, not what society tells you you should feel good in.

If you like wearing clothes from ten years ago, wear them. If you like clothes from a century ago, wear those. If you like a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, wear a little bit of everything. If you like what is new right now, then wear that.

You really have to be brave to wear what you want, when you want to wear it.

This being said, if you like to wear farthingales under your dresses or skirts, go for it. Wear what makes you happy, as long as it is not overly offensive, like wearing next to nothing. Other than wearing nothing or next to nothing, I say the sky is the limit.

I think it is time some clothing designers flared up something new with an old twist, or vice- versa. I think also it is time we wear what we want to, not what society wants us to wear. Sometimes you start a trend by wearing something that you like that is different from what people are used to.

tolleranza
Post 5

I love dressing up, but have not dressed up to the extent of wearing a farthingale, or something like it even. It does look like something that would be difficult and uncomfortable to wear, but I would like to try a farthingale at least once.

I like the fact that the farthingale has different shapes and sizes to choose from, so one can choose something less dramatic and less over-the-top than the English-style farthingales when first starting out. I also like that it seems to make most people's waste look small, even though in reality one's waste may not be on the small side, like mine.

I also kind of think it is neat that back then the fashion of the farthingale was the bigger the better, whereas now most fashion is the smaller/the tighter the better. I have pretty muscular/big thighs, so I do not like the trend of skinny jeans, this is just not trendy for me, in my opinion.

It seems like today it is more fashionable sometimes to look less womanly or voluptuous, which is kind of sad and unfortunate. We should love ourselves for who we are inside and out.

BabaB
Post 4

Wearing uncomfortable farthingdales and other extreme fashions from days past was the price one paid for being part of a royal family or part of a very wealthy family. Since they usually didn't do any work, they were free to prance around in these heavy, cumbersome dresses.

I just can't imagine all the trouble they must have gone to when putting all the layers on. And then having to move around - I don't know how they ever sat down and got up again.

Some modern brides wear hoops with their wedding gown, which may not be all that comfortable. But this is for only one day, not regularly like they wore the farthingale styles.

myharley
Post 3

I sure am glad I live in an age when we don't have to wear farthingales. I think this sounds almost as uncomfortable as wearing a corset.

At times it can be fun to think about what it would be like to live during the Victorian era, and wear Victorian fashion, but I can't imagine what it would be like to wear those clothes every day.

I realize they didn't really know anything else, but I always like to dress for comfort. The downside of this is that I tend to look kind of sloppy and this would not have been acceptable during that time period.

They would probably not even be able to imagine what we wear for fashion statements today.

Dressing up once in awhile for the proper occasion is OK, but to wear a farthingale under my skirt or dress would be taking it too far.

blackDagger
Post 2

@Domido - Plus, when a lady tries to sit in a farthingale, she must know how to do it properly!

I, too, have had occasion to wear these kinds of skirts for shows! I managed to embarrass myself pretty badly, as well.

You see, at our first rehearsal with farthingales, I had been up on my feet all day long, in very uncomfortable shoes. During a break, I wanted nothing more than to fall out on a couch somewhere, as we ladies of the modern age feel we have every right to do whenever we so choose.

Little did I know that we hadn’t quite gotten to the fine art of sitting in a farthingale, which we were to be taught specifically at a later rehearsal. As soon as I tried this little endeavor, my farthingale flew up over my head, and showed everyone what I had on beneath it (which wasn’t much)!

I didn’t realize I would need to either take it off to sit or have someone help me lift the back modestly.

Since we were a close company of actors, it was pretty funny and not overwhelmingly mortifying, but the incident has brought many a chuckle over the years.

Domido
Post 1

Having been a performer for many years, I had many occasions to actually wear a farthingale. I must say, that they are incredibly uncomfortable after being spoiled with the style of clothes that women generally wear today!

I imagine that people of today have no clue that women used to wear some of the most hindering apparatuses for style and fashion, and also for tradition. We do see some of this today, but not nearly to the elaborate extent that was in generations past.

Because we were so used to wearing far less restrictive, and much smaller clothing, we often would rehearse in our farthingale skirts to get used to how we needed to move in them from nearly the beginning of the process.

Otherwise, we would have all been running all over each other's skirts constantly!

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