Skirt were a simple length of fabric wrapped around the lower part of the body. They were visible and would not normally have had a waistband of a different material such as are found on some underskirts.
The term petticoat is now used for a skirt-like garment worn beneath a dress but the origin of the term petticoat as a woman’s garment seems to be based on the fashion in the 17th century where a full length item of costume, then known as a coat, was worn under a gown. The lower part of the gown was opened at the front during the 18th century to expose the lower part of the coat (the petticoat).
The Welsh word ‘pais’ is often used for the visible skirt / petticoat worn with a gown, bedgown or bodice, but it has also been used for ‘coat’ and ‘chemise’.
Distinguishing between a skirt and underskirt
In general, underskirts are of a lighter material, both in colour and weight, and sometimes have a waistband of a different material (for example, calico or checked cotton), but it is possible that skirts also had waistbands of a different material. Illustrations are of no help in determining the difference because the top of the skirt is normally hidden beneath other garments and the underskirt is normally completely hidden. It is also possible that more bright-coloured underskirts have survived than plain ones because they were considered unusual enough to keep.
Structure of the skirt
Skirts were normally full length, from waist to ankle but some surviving examples are shorter, possibly because they were cut-down to be worn by young women during the 20th century.
Skirts sometimes have tucks sewn in to enable them to be lengthened, or because they have been shortened, depending on the height of the wearer.
The hems are sometimes deep and have braid sewn along the edge to reduce wear from rubbing on the ground.
Skirts were often bright striped fabrics, normally with the stripes hanging vertically. If a gown was worn, the skirt was often of exactly the same fabric. They were very rarely of plain red, crimson or scarlet except during the later part of the 20th century.