The Development and Use
Of the Farthingale
In the Middle Ages

cover picture

Written by

Baron Angus Campbell of Argyl (Angus

Tailor), COM, SC

Shire of Silver Rylle, East Kingdom

Mundanely known as

Christopher A. Thompson

Introduction

During the end of the High Middle Ages the fashions for women were changing.  Dresses that were once allowed to hang free were to become shaped and even increased in size.  This style was accomplished by the use of the Farthingale.  The outer dress laid on top of the Farthingale, which kept the dress stretched out and smooth.  Some styles allowed the front of the overdress to stay open and show off the under dress. The Farthingale is also known by many different names including: verdugadas, vertugale, and the verdingale, which comes from the Spanish word ‘verdugos’ meaning “smooth twigs put out by a tree that has been cut or pruned” (Quoted from Anderson pg. 208).  The Farthingale itself was a cone shaped garment that had stiffening hoops, called Aros, going down it, each Aro increasing in size.  Another version was also a barrel shaped garment that had a boned wheel around the waist with the stiffening rings not changing in diameter as the skirt fell. This was the French Farthingale.  The stiffening rings were used to hold the over dress in the cone or barrel shape.  A form of the Farthingale can still be seen today.  The modern equivalent is the crinoline or the hoop skirt.

History

The concept for the Farthingale was first seen during the late 1400’s AD.  The dresses that had the stiffening rings were worn as the outer layer of clothing.  The earliest painting of this style of dress was done in 1470 AD by Pedro Garcia de Figure 1Benabarre (fig. 1).  The earliest mention of the Farthingale is from some writings about Juana of Portugal, Queen of Castile.  A courtier-historian by the name of Palencia wrote about the dress, saying that the Queen wore the large dress to hide the fact that she was pregnant.  There is, however, no proof to this claim.  The Queen’s ladies followed her example of dress.  The new fashion spread quickly though the courts of Castile and Aragon (Boucher pg. 205).  Queen Isabel de Portugal wore this early form of the Farthingale, the brial, on many occasions.  In 1473 AD, when she was still just a princess, she wore it to greet ambassadors from Burgundy.  As much as the Queen liked the stiffened hooped dress, Isabel’s confessor, Talavera, did not like this style of clothing.  He, like the courtier-historian from the days of Queen Juana of Portugal, believed that the dress was being worn to conceal pregnancies (Anderson pg. 208).

In Waugh’s book Corsets and Crinolines a copy of Fray Fernando of Talavera’s thoughts (1477 AD) about the new dress and what women should be like is as follows (pg. 23):

There is another dress which is very ugly, for it makes women appear very fat and as wide as tongues.  It is true that by nature women should be short, with slender or narrow shoulders, breasts and back, and small heads, and that their faces should be thin and small… and also that they should be wide and big round the back and belly and the hips so that they can have space for children they conceive and carry for nine months….  But although this is true, the aforesaid dress greatly exceeds and more than greatly exceeds, the natural proportions, and instead of making woman beautiful and well-proportioned, makes them ugly, monstrous and deformed until they cease to look like women and look like bells….  Finally, such dress is very deceitful and very ugly.  It is in truth great deceit in a woman who is slender, hipless, and very thin, to give herself hips and a shape with cloth and wool; if carried out in moderation it might be overlooked and at most would be a venial sin.  But done in such a way, without moderation and with exaggeration, it is undoubtedly a deception and a lie of great guilt and consequently a great sin….  Thus it is a sin when women who are small of stature wear chopines to feign a height they do not possess, especially as Our Lord has willed it that women are usually short of body and smaller then men, since they have to be ruled by them as their superiors, or when they with rags, wool, petticoats or hoops, affect a width which they do not possess.  There is no doubt that deception and lies are a moral sin when carried out in the above evil and sinful manner; thus the padded hips and hoop skirts are very harmful and very wicked garments; with reason they have been forbidden under pain of excommunication.

This style of dress did not just stay the fashion of Spain.  When it was introduced to Italy in 1498, it created scandal.  This form of dress was banned in several towns and then eventualy it was abandoned a together (Boucher Pg. 205).  In 1501 AD Katherine of Aragon introduced it it England (Norris pg. 199). 

In the year 1545 AD the English Royal Wardrobe Accounts recorded that Elizabeth (then only a Princess) ordered a verdingale from the tailor Walter Fyshe.  The typical cone shaped Spanish Farthingale is first seen in 1556 AD in an engraving of a French Woman (fig. 2).

Throughout the 1500’s AD the Farthingale went through many changes.  The basic shape stayed the same but the size Figure 2 increased and decreased.  This led to the garment being altered many times.  Extra panels were added to increase the size and then later on taken out to make it smaller again.  Ropes were added to make the Farthingale more ridged.  The ropes were then removed because of the weight.  Queen Elizabeth had her Farthingales in for repair on many occasions (Arnold pg.195). 

The first big change in the design of the Farthingale happened in France, in the late 1500’s AD. The changed garment was called a Half Farthingale.  This style filled out the sides and back of the dress but left the front loose to hang flat. A Half Farthingale was sent to Queen Elizabeth in 1577 AD by Amyas Paulet.  The tailor Sibthorpe did some altering of a Half Farthingale in 1580 AD (Arnold pg.198).

The cone shaped Farthingale did not cease to be used.  On the contrary the diameter of the garment increased.  Soon it was referred to as the ‘greate verthingale’.  These Farthingales were very large and even made fun of, such as a poem by Heywood in 1560 AD quoted in The History of Underclothes (pg. 51):

Alas, poor verdingales must lie in the streete,
To house them no doore in the citee made meete,
Syns at our narrow doores they in can win,
Send them to Oxforde, at Brodegates to get in.

There were only three years, 1582 AD to 1585 AD, in which the Great Farthingales were being made for Queen Elizabeth.  The Half Farthingale was then worn until about 1590 AD (Arnold pg.199).

The last style of the Farthingale before 1600AD is the Drum-shaped Farthingale. This is the French Farthingale, first seen atFigure 4 the Court of Henry III.  It is sometimes refereed to as the Wheel Farthingale.  This type of Farthingale looks nothing like the dress seen in the late 1400’s AD, nor does it have the typical cone shape of the Spanish Farthingale.  The Wheel Farthingale was a round boned frame that hung from Figure 3the waist with a crescent shaped bolster (known as the bum-roll) to help support the frame.  Over this frame was put two or three large petticoats and then the overdress.  The top part of the overdress had large soft pleats in it, which gave the general look of a wheel (Norris pg. 618).  All of these skirts hung from the frame.  This gave the typical drum or wheel shape as seen in Fig. 3.  The lower class women wore a large bum-roll (Fig. 4) to imitate the fashion of the higher classes (Readers Digest pg. 230).

This was most definitely a dress for the upper class.  There was a customary way for a lady to hold herself when wearing the French Farthingale.  As seen in Fig. 3 a lady "was to rest the wrists upon the edge, one hand usually carring a handkerchief, the other perhaps a fan." (quoted Norris pg. 619)

Throughout the use of the Farthingale, in general, sitting was a difficult matter.  Chairs were not wide enough to allow a lady to sit down.  At a party that Queen Elizabeth held in May of 1559 AD, many of the Queen's ladies in waiting had to sit on the ground because of the lack of room at the table.  An observer of the feast wrote (quoted from Arnold pg. 195):

The supper hour having arrived… The Queen, having washed her hands, and being at table under her canopy, insisted on having M. de Mountmorency at her little table… At the large table all the rest of the French lords and gentlemen sat on one side, and on the other all the ladies, of whom there was no small number, and who required so much space on account of the farthingales they wore that there was not room for all; so part of the Privy Chamber ate on the ground on the rushes, being excellently served by lords and cavaliers, who gave them courage and company at their repast.

Because chairs were not easy for ladies to sit on cushions were used.  The skirts and farthingale were lifted over the pile of cushions and then the lady was free to sit down, encompassed by the skirts.

Materials and Construction

Once the Farthingale became the underskirt the material used in its construction was not ornately decorated.  However, there was still a choice of fabric.  Buckeram and Tuke were heavy materials, like canvas, used to make the cone of the garment. A lightweight wool, silk tufte taffata, or velvet were also used.  Queen Elizabeth wore silk Farthingales. Kersey, a type of wool, was used as a border for the bottom of the Farthingale. It was also used as the Ropes that held the Farthingale out in its cone shape.

The Ropes (also known as Bent Ropes or Bents) were what held the Farthingale out in its unique shape.  It is possible that the Ropes may have in fact been stiff ropes.  The Ropes were long pieces of material tightly twisted into ropes to form the hoops.  These Ropes were made from a material called Kersey.  A tailor in 1560 AD by the name of Walter Fyshe used “7 ½ yards of kersey” to make these ropes (Arnold pg. 195).  The very early Bent Ropes that were used were made from smooth branches or twigs that were pruned from trees. The Bent Rope was called an "Aro" (Yarwood pg. 18).  The Bent Ropes were replaced by the twisted fabric Ropes.  The Bent Ropes returned to use in 1565 AD but they were not made from branches.  These new Bent Ropes were made from reeds.  In 1580 AD the Bent was first used by a tailor named Sibthorpe (Arnold pg. 197).  The Bents were made of whalebone that came from the baleen whale.  The boning that was used came from the flexible part of the upper jaw; which was cut into the needed size and shape (Yarwood pg. 444).

To make clothes today we use patterns and directions.  This was also done in the Middle Ages.  In 1589 AD another tailor by the name of Juan de Alcega had a book printed entitled Libro de Geometria, Pratica y Traca, Tailor’s Pattern Book.  There is an illustration in the book that shows the fabric and pattern layout for the Spanish Farthingale (see Fig 5).  The directions for putting the Farthingale together are as follows (quoted from Arnold pg. 196):

To cut this silk farthingale one half of the material must be folded over the other half thus making a fold on one side: from the left side, the front [piece A] and then the back [piece B] of the farthingale are cut from a double layer; the rest of the silk should be spread out and double full width and then gores [cuchillos] cut with the widest part of one alongside the narrowest part of the other.  It should be noted that the front gores [A] go straight, and the back gores [B] with cross to straight edge, so that the sides will not be on the cross and will not drop.  The front of this farthingale has more at the hem than the back.  The silk left over may be used for a hem.  The length of the farthingale is a bara and a half [49 ½ inches] and the width round the bottom slightly more than thirteen handspans [palmos], which in my opinion is full enough for this farthingale; if more fullness is required it can be added to this pattern.

Figure 5a
Figure 5b

What happened to the Farthingale?

After 1600 AD the Farthingale started to go in and out of fashion.  During the Thirty Years War the Farthingale was only worn in Spain.  The other countries allowed dress to hang loose and free (Davenport pg.505).  When the Farthingale was worn it was only during formal occasions such as Court (Kšhler pg. 289).  In 1710 AD the Farthingale returned to use.   All women wore the Farthingale and those who did not have one were looked down on.  Finally the last time the Farthingale was in everyday fashion was in the middle to late 1800’s AD.  It was reintroduced as the Crinoline (Kšhler pg. 426).

Today the Farthingale is only worn for stage and screen and for Medieval/ Renaissance recreation.  The modern equivalent of the Farthingale, the hoop skirt and the crinoline, are also very rarely worn.  The crinoline is worn in Civil War reenactments.  When either the hoop skirt or crinoline are worn it is only on very formal occasions, such as weddings.

 

Bibliography

Works Sited

Alcega, Juan de, Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589 Facsimile, translation by Jean Pain & Cecilia         Bainton, Ruth Bean, Carlton, Bedford, England, 1979.

Anderson, Ruth Matilda, Hispanic Costume 1480-1530, The Hispanic Society of America, New           York, 1979.

Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, W S Maney & Sons Ltd., Great Britain,            1988.

Boucher, Francois, 20,000 Years of Fashion, Harry N Abrams, Inc., New York.

Cunnington, C. Willett and Phillis, The History of Underclothes, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1992.

Davenport, Millia, The Book of Costume, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1976.

Kšhler, Carl, A History of Costume, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1963.

Norris, Herbert, Tudor Costume and Fashion, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1997.

Reader’s Digest, Everyday Life Through the Ages, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited,    London, 1992.

Waugh, Norah, Corsets and Crinolines, Routledge/ Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1991.

Yarwood, Doreen, The Encyclopedia of World Costume, Bonanza Books, New York, 1986.

 

Works Consulted

Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 - 1620, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London, Great Britain, 1985.
 
Kelly, Francis M., A Short History of Costume and Armour, Arco Publishing Company, Inc.,    New York, 1972.

Tarrant, Naomi, The Development of Costume, Butler & Tanner Ltd., Great Britain, 1994.

Waugh, Norah, The Cut of Women's Clothes 1600 - 1930, Routledge/ Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1968.

Yarwood, Doreen, European Costume 4000 Years of Fashion, Bonanza Books, New York, 1982.

The Farthingale Page, http://www.dnaco.net/~aleed/corsets/farthingale/  visited 10/16/1998.

History of the Farthingale, http://www.dnaco.net/~aleed/corsets/farthingale/history.html  visited 10/31/1998.

Materials Needed for a Farthingale, http://www.dnaco.net/~aleed/corsets/farthingale/materials.html  visited 10/31/1998.

Making a Period Farthingale, http://www.dnaco.net/~aleed/corsets/farthingale/period.html  visited 10/31/1998.

 

Pictures

Cover page:      Norris, Herbert, Tudor Costume and Fashion.

Figure 1:           Boucher, Francois, 20,000 Years of Fashion.

Figure 2:           Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d.

Figure 3:           Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 - 1620.

Figure 4:           Norris, Herbert, Tudor Costume and Fashion.

Figure 5:           Alcega, Juan de, Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589 Facsimile.

email