A Mille Feuille is a french pastry that literally translates to “a thousand layers” or “a thousand leaves” – and that’s the secret to the gorgeously full skirts you see some of your favorite vintage ladies sporting: layers upon layers. As I’m sure most of you have noticed by now, I am in love with petticoats. They come with many names – petticoat, crinoline, underskirt – but service a universal function, which is to give the skirt of a dress fullness and shape. Given that I own my fair share of crinolines, several lovely readers asked if I might do a crinoline review to give some advice on the kinds of things I look for in my underpinnings.
An amazing look starts with an amazing foundation. Most dresses in the 1950’s didn’t come with a built in underskirt to give it fullness – owning a single petticoat would service most if not all of your dresses (and make them far easier to store). Thus, I have always invested in my undergarments. Not only do I believe that life is too short for ugly underwear, but the right petticoat can make achieving a certain shape effortless, particularly the full skirted look that I obsessively try to make fuller and poofier with each passing year…
For me, a crinoline does many things: Firstly, it provides the iconic 1950’s shape most of us vintage-loving ladies crave. Secondly, by filling out the skirt, it makes your waist look even smaller by comparison (and who doesn’t want their waist to look smaller?) And finally, I find that full skirts simply look more expensive. Put a crinoline under a $25 dollar dress and presto! Instantly it looks more luxurious, as though it were made of layers and layers of fabric.
If we’re being honest here, I don’t have one crinoline that services all my underskirt needs – I like having a variety that can suit my dress du jur or my mood. Truth be told, I have a crinoline closet (you can almost hear the POOF! when you open the door). But, each one does follow certain rules of my own making. There are a few personal preferences I have when it comes to petticoats – and tend to buy them based on softness, fullness, length, and a certain je ne said qoi. When putting this post together, I realized there are a few petticoats I find myself reaching for on a daily basis, due to a few key characteristics.
What to Look For
- Quality: There are a lot of petticoats floating around out there, but for something you plan to wear every day, I personally believe it’s worth an investment. There are numerous offshore companies who make them very cheaply, but in my experience you really do get what you pay for. Materials make a huge difference. Given I plan to run around in them all day, I absolutely can’t stand when a petticoat is too scratchy. I always look for a chiffon or nylon based petticoat, which means whether I’m sitting or standing, I’ll always be comfortable. Plus, a polyester petticoat isn’t going to breathe, which makes hot days all the more unbearable.
- Length: When deciding on what length of crinoline to buy, the first step is to decide whether you want your petticoat to peek out below your skirt, or be hidden underneath. Next, measure the skirt length of your favorite dresses from waist to hem. Crinolines come in a wide range of standard lengths. If you have skirts of varying hemlines, you may want to invest in a few that meet your basic hem length requirements. I prefer a petticoat to meet the hem of my dress, but not stick out. For this reason, I have an arsenal of crinolines of various lengths to tuck just below a range of skirt lengths.
- Degree of Fullness: Crinolines come in pretty much every level of poof you can imagine – and you can layer those bad boys up to the sky. The fullness of your crinoline really comes down to personal preference. And I find it also depends on the event. I have a few “every day” crinolines that give a bit of oomph but don’t threaten to knock beakers off of lab benches. And for nights out, I’m usually a two-crinoline minimum kind of gal.
- Color: I like to have a range of color options in my petticoat. If an errant wind blows your way or you find yourself in a moment that calls for twirling, why not have your petticoat flash a complimentary color? If you’re just starting to build your crinoline collection, I would go with a basic white/cream and a basic black. But, don’t be afraid to build in some fun colors – red, blue, pink, yellow – they really can add a bit of extra pizzazz to your look.
- Je ne Sais Qoi: Let’s face it, sometimes a crinoline just speaks to you. But there are a few other things that I personally find make all the difference:
The waist portion of the petticoat – I always look for crinolines that don’t rely on a lot of ruching at the waist, as several brands are quite bulky at the waistband and will show through your dress. I prefer when the fullness of the skirt starts lower down on my hips. You’ll find this to make a huge difference, especially when you have a dress with a very cinched waist.
It’s also important to me that the edge of the petticoat not end abruptly – you may notice a lot of square-dance style petticoats have a prominent ruffle at the edge of the hem, which often gives a dress triangular shape. If the petticoat doesn’t end exactly where you want it to, you’re often left with fullness that abruptly stops, leaving a dress to hang oddly off the end of it. If I’m going for full, I want fullness for the entirety of my skirt. Because it’s often difficult to have petticoats to match every length of skirt you own, having one that tapers at the edge rather than ends abruptly will usually solve this issue.
My Personal Favorites
1 True Vintage: Simply to make my heart happy, you can’t beat a true vintage petticoat. Like all vintage, I love the history behind them. The prior dance floors they twirled around in. The whisper of excitement they gave all of the women before me, as they slipped them on before a big occasion. I have a few vintage crinolines, and each one holds a special place in my closet.
Vintage petticoats can vary in price, but a decent one from the 1950’s can range from $30-$100, depending on the seller and the label. My two favorites are a fuchsia knee length number, purchased from Mercedes Bien Vintage on a particularly serendipitous trip to DC. The second, a cream lace tea-length beauty I thrifted in LA that suits my more sheer dresses perfectly. The lace winks out from beneath the skirt, as if she has a secret. Vintage crinolines will generally be older and thus more delicate, and often made out of true tulle, as opposed to synthetics like many modern petticoats.
2 Malco Modes: Despite the numerous crinolines that have swished and swirled their way through my life, two of my all time favorites have come from Malco Modes. They strike a good balance of being affordable, great quality, and withstand the test of time (trust me, I put my underskirts through the ringer). They have the added bonus of being made in the USA, which really put the icing on the crinoline cake. I love when companies don’t compromise on ethics to get their prices lower.
My first favorite in the Malco Modes family is the Zooey. This is the crinoline I find myself reaching for on a daily basis for work. I think I love this one as an everyday petticoat, because it’s 100% nylon and therefore soft against my skin. It’s also not intimidatingly full – this was one of the first crinolines I ever owned and I felt it eased me beautifully into full skirts without feeling as though I were wearing a costume. I now have it in several colors and love layering them up. The Zooey retails for $39.99 USD and is 22″ length (I own the size medium, which suits 25-46″ waist), which is perfect for my knee length and above skirts.
My second favorite from the Malco Modes family is the Melonie – a two-layer, five-tiered, tea-length crinoline, with satin binding on each tier. I love that the true fullness of the skirt starts several inches from my waist, and that while the top layer is a nylon net for fullness and shape, the bottom layer is a nylon organza so I don’t go mad from the scratchiness. This one is also really affordable at $39.99 USD and is about 27″ waist to hem (for the size small), which suits my favorite tea length dresses perfectly.
3 Vivien of Holloway: Hands down my favorite crinoline comes from Vivien of Holloway. These are definitely on the pricier side, but I find their quality, softness, and fullness is unparalleled. Their crinolines are made entirely out of chiffon, which feels like you’re wearing a hug. This is definitely my fullest petticoat and garners more than her fair share of stares. When I really want my dresses to reach their full poof potential, I always reach for my Vivien of Holloway. She runs 26-27″ waist to hem and retails for £59.00 (~$79 USD), and in my opinion is worth every penny! If you find this is outside of the budget, the Jennifer looks to be a pretty comparable alternative. Though I haven’t tried it personally, I know several bloggers who have who rave about them.
4 Wishlist: Despite the fact that I already have a pretty impressive collection, a gal can never have enough underskirts! (cause what’s the point of a crinoline closet, if I’m not packing it to capacity?) I’m always on the lookout for gaps in the Crinoline Closet, and have a few new cuties that I have my eye on. The first is the Cosette, which is a below-the-knee version of the Zooey – when I don’t want the fullness of my Melonie or Vivien but still want a bit of shape in my tea length dresses. The Cosette is $44.99 and 30″ waist to hem in length. As with most Malco Modes, it also has an adjustable waist so I can bring it up or down an inch if I need to.
I’m also saving my pennies for a red version of my favorite Vivien of Holloway Crinoline – these are just unparalleled in terms of quality, and I love the thought of a bit of red peaking out from a few of my dresses. Though it obviously is utilitarian in terms of giving skirts the fullness I crave, they’re also an accessory that can add a splash of color as you swish through doorways. As with my first one, this crinoline runs 26-27″ waist to hem and retails for £59.00 (~$79 USD).
Finally, I’ve been eyeing up these amazing hand made petticoats for several months. I had the chance to try one on when I visited my friend Amanda in San Diego. They were as light as a feather, but held their shape beautifully. At $20-$40, they are so reasonably priced, and I love how customizable they are. They come in a rainbow of colors, in varying lengths and degree of fullness – she’ll even add satin binding to the hem! To fill a gap in my wardrobe, I would probably go for a 25″ length, 2 layers and 2 tiers. If any of you drool over the selection at Butch Wax Vintage, these are the crinolines she uses to get the amazing volume in her skirts. No brainer. Must. Have.
True Poof Potential
The best way to decide on what petticoat works for you is to see them in action! Thinking about quality, length, fullness, and color, I’ve put each of my favorites to the test, on their own and some in combo, so you can see for yourself the degree of fullness and the kind of shape that works best for you.
Malco Modes Zooey
Malco Modes Melonie
Vivien of Holloway Cream
My Personal Favorite
I‘ve found the mix that works best for me, which is a potent cocktail of the Malco Modes Melonie layered over the Vivien of Holloway, for a super full shape that’s full of sass. Trust me, you’ll know when I’m entering a room (it may also be the sounds of breaking glass from all of the things I knock off of tables in my frothy wake that alerts you to my presence, but that’s neither here nor there).
Now that I’ve amassed quite the crinoline collection, I’m a big fan of looking after them. I either hang them using padded skirt hangers or stack them on my dress form when not in use. For washing, I find that a quick soak in Retro Clean, followed by a hand wash in a gentle detergent works well (particularly in the waistband, which has the most contact with your skin and can get a bit dingy). Then, my favorite trick is to dry them on an umbrella! Dries them quickly overnight and keeps their shape beautifully.
When it comes to petticoats, it’s all about personal preference. Sometimes it can even be all about what mood I’m in on a particular morning. I will say that I’ve gotten to a point in my crinoline journey where I feel a bit naked without one. If you’ve never bought a crinoline before, I would say start with a less full option and work your way up. And don’t be afraid to play around and layer those bad boys up! More is more in my opinion…
As Mr. Dressed said to me once, squinting from his perch on our bed while I was getting ready. He said, his voice fraught with confusion, “So…what do other ladies DO when they don’t have one of those poofy underskirt thingys? I mean, don’t they want to be awesome?”
From the mouths of husbands….
Dress: Retrospec’d, sold out (similar here & here)
Necklace: Modcloth (similar)
Shrug: Unique Vintage (similar here & here)
Bag: Vintage (similar here & here)
Shoes: Miss L Fire via Modcloth (similar here, here & here)