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 The Spanish farthingale was originally made with reeds which were formed into hoops sewn into outer garments, making the structure clearly visible.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.
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.