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What is a Petticoat Mirror?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A petticoat mirror is a low mirror mounted on a hall console or table. At first glance, a petticoat mirror can be hard to spot, as it is typically close to the floor, but petticoat mirrors actually serve a number of important design functions. These mirrors are most commonly seen in formal hall furniture, especially that designed for Southern homes.

According to legend, the petticoat mirror is named for the fact that women would use the mirror to check their petticoats and hemlines before leaving the house. Alas, this explanation is probably not correct, as anyone who has attempted to check a hemline in a petticoat mirror can attest. It is often difficult to see a petticoat mirror when standing directly in front of it, due to its positioning, as it is typically mounted below a table, drawer unit, or shelf, and petticoat mirrors typically end short of the floor, which would make it hard to see the bottom of the hemline in a set of full skirts.

More probably, the petticoat mirror was devised for hall consoles which stood at the top of stairways. People in neighboring rooms could see the mirror from their rooms, easily identifying people as they walked up or down the stairs. Essentially, a petticoat mirror was a way to keep an eye on things without being overt about it.

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Petticoat mirrors can also make a hallway or entry feel larger, as they reflect the patterns of the floor or walls to create an extended look. Especially when two petticoat mirrors are paired at angles which complement each other, they can create an endless hallway effect. Furthermore, in the era when petticoats were commonly worn, petticoat mirrors would have reflected the often feeble gas and candle lighting, making rooms seem brighter at night.

Many tours of Southern plantations include a stop by the “petticoat mirror,” and the apocryphal story about checking petticoats is usually trotted out. In fact, most Southern women who wore full and complex skirts could count on the assistance of friends and servants to ensure that their hemlines were neat and orderly before leaving the home. Hemlines would have been far more likely to be disarrayed during travel or when using the restroom, in which case a helpful friend or polite gentleman would undoubtedly mention the situation.

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