Late 18th Century Convertible Petticoats – A Tutorial

Hi!!

Guys, I did a thing. And I think it’s a pretty cool thing.

I’ve been dragging my feet with my Charlotte Corday costume for months now, but I finally got around to finishing up some of the underthings! And, in the course of my research, I found a historically-accurate way to make a petticoat that is convertible between the late 1790s butt-focused silhouette of Corday and the shape needed for 1770s pocket hoops for a robe a la française!

I haven’t seen anyone use this style, so I thought I’d go through my process in case anyone wanted to try!


It started with this photo from the Met Museum online collection.

Holy Crap Petticoat 1770s

It’s the underskirt from a 1770s robe a la francaise, but what really struck me is how the hem is kept level with a drawstring instead of difficult pleating.

the dress
the dress

Basically, to make sure the fabric hangs evenly over the wide pocket hoops, the creator of this underskirt used a drawstring to let the edge of the fabric sit evenly around the hoop’s top, therefore letting the fabric fall the same distance to the ground (instead of the additional distance out over the hoops). Sorry if that still didn’t make any sense.

I really liked this idea, because it avoids the math involved in getting the hem to sit evenly with pleats. Because the actual waistline closes at the sides with a hook and eye in the picture, it has the same basic build as other 18th century petticoats. (Koska the Cat has a useful tutorial for traditional petticoats.) Originally, I pinned it to use later if I ever made a 1770s dress — but then I started thinking about how that concept could be used to convert a petticoat between decades.

By rotating the drawstring portions to the front and back, instead of the sides for the pocket hoops, one of the sections could be loosened to fit over a bum roll and the other could be tightened to match the waistline. So no awkward pleating in the back for the 1790s either. 

In my version, the waistline is made by two lengths of cotton ribbon, and the skirt is all one piece. It has two pleated sections and two drawstring sections. Scroll to the bottom to see my proof-of-concept pictures if you need a visual 🙂


Sewing the Petticoat

I started with a 34″ by 120″ piece of cotton bleached muslin and sewed it into a tube with a french seam. Obviously the french seam is just for vanity. My petticoat is about 34″ long (it loses about 2″ to the hems), so adjust the size accordingly for yours.

I divided the skirt into 4 sections: the front, left, back, and right. I marked the middle of the left and right sections too (points A from now on). See the diagram below: (Note: the diagram is made assuming a 1770s petticoat styling, so the front and back become the sides and vice versa for the 1790s.)

diagram - 18th century convertible petticoat

This is where it gets a little tricky. Mark 1″ down from the top edge at each point A and iron on a little piece of interfacing right below that line. Then hand-sew two eyelets side-by-side, using the interfacing as stabilizer. Thread one ~20″ long piece of cotton upholstery cording through each eyelet.

eyelets - 18th century convertible petticoat
the eyelets from the inside, so you can see how the interfacing works
and from the outside
and from the outside

Now fold a 1/2″ hem down across the whole top edge and sew it carefully, threading the cords into the currently-being-made casing. Basically, it ends up that the eyelets end up on the outside of the casing and you don’t have to deal with trying to thread a cord partially through a thin casing.

finished eyelets - 18th century convertible petticoat

The cord should reach a little past the B and C points. Sew across the casing at the B and C points to keep the cord in place and make it into a drawstring.

Then you’re going to pleat the top edge of the front and back sections. I did little 3/8″ pleats, but really anything works, as long as each section ends up about 1/4 of your waist measurement, or a little less.

Measure out two pieces of 1/2″ cotton ribbon, each 1/2 your waist measurement plus about two or three feet. Center one piece on each pleated section and sew it down, only over the pleats, not the drawstring. The extra length makes the ties.

pleats - 18th century convertible petticoat

Now hem the bottom edge, add any embellishments you want, and relish in your convertible petticoat!!


Wearing the Petticoat

Like I mentioned earlier, the drawstring sections exist to keep the hemline level when worn over various 18th century undergarments.

finished petticoat - 18th century convertible petticoat

The first step is deciding whether you want the wide hips of the 1770s (drawstrings loose over pocket hoops at the sides) or the huge butt of the 1790s (one drawstring tightened to waist length in the front, one loosened over the bumroll at the back).

The petticoat goes on basically like a regular 18th-century petticoat. The ribbon ties can either be tied to each other like in the picture, though it’s not historically accurate, or the back ties can be wrapped around the body and tied in the front (and vice versa) for the 1770s (and turned 90° for 1790s).

Not having pocket hoops, I pinned two rectangular pillows to Pinhead’s hips for my proof-of-concept pics. They were a bit too wide, but it actually worked remarkably well!

1770s version - 18th century convertible petticoat
look at that even hem!

And for the 1790s I styled it with my bum pad.

1790s - 18th century convertible petticoat

And from the back and sides:


I feel like making these petticoats (I made two) really got me back on board with my Corday project. I’m now looking forward to getting a shift made, reluctantly realizing I’ll have to bind my stays at some point, and wishing I could just start the gown already.

Anyway, I hope this tutorial made sense! I really think this version of the petticoat opens up needed possibilities to costumers, especially broke ones like me who can’t really afford to remake everything for different silhouettes.

I had a lot of fun making this petticoat and tutorial! I hope you had fun reading it, and might even consider making one of your own. If you have any questions, please ask!

Thanks for reading, as always. Please like, comment, and follow if you enjoyed this post!

You’re the best

Samantha 🙂


7 thoughts on “Late 18th Century Convertible Petticoats – A Tutorial

  1. This is brilliant! I will be making a new petticoat to fit over my panniers soon and this is a strong contender. Do you find that it is covering the boning lines in your pocket panniers nicely? That is the main thing I am trying to address.

    Like

    1. I think it whether it covers the boning lines well will have a lot to do with how full the skirt is and how many skirts you make. I think I or two fuller petticoats would be fine 🙂

      Like

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