Though farthingales were rarely seen, they were the item most responsible for the various distinctive shapes of women's skirts in the sixteenth century and beyond. A farthingale was a series of stiff hoops, usually made of wood or wicker, sewn into a fabric under-skirt. It was anchored to the waist with ties and worn beneath a skirt to give the outer skirt a distinct shape.
The first farthingales were worn in Spain in about 1470 and were called vertugados. They had a small hoop just below the waist, with ever larger hoops further down the skirt. These hoops gave the skirt a perfect cone shape and allowed the outer skirt to drape in a smooth manner. As these farthingales became popular in France and England they became known as the Spanish farthingale. Many women in France and England wore two skirts over their farthingale, with the outermost skirt parted in front to reveal the contrasting middle skirt.
Later in the sixteenth century women began to experiment with widening the tops of their skirt profile. At first they added a padded roll around their waist, but later they adjusted the shape of the farthingale. One type of farthingale, called a French, wheel, or drum farthingale, used a series of identically round interior hoops. These gave the farthingale a cylindrical or drum shape. The outer skirt fit closely at the waist and then spread out over the farthingale in a cascade of folds. Finally, a bell farthingale used a combination of padding and hoops to give the skirts a large bell-shaped profile.
Though farthingales faded from widespread use by about the mid-seventeenth century, other forms of structures to give shape to skirts evolved over time including panniers, crinolines, and bustles.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.