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Your Petticoat

Would you style it as a chic skirt? Read the extraordinary story of this ordinary underskirt and decide for yourself.

More than a decade ago the phrase ‘petticoat rule’ was coined to denote governance by women in politics, domesticities or public life. In 1910, British novelist and playwright Baroness “Emmuska” Orczy authored a historic fiction by the name ‘Petticoat Government’. Back then the phrase probably had underpinning of feminism and power play attached to it and a stigma of gender discrimination. It was also considered derogatory by many.

Historically speaking, according to, the word ‘petycote’ was “probably derived from the Old French petite cote, “little coat”. And it “appeared in literature in the 15th century in reference to a kind of padded waistcoat, or undercoat, worn for warmth over the shirt by men.” No wonder then that men too in mid-seventeenth century Europe wore weird-looking petticoat breeches with frills peeping out for a while! Goes unsaid, this oddity went out of fashion pretty quickly.

And for women it came into existence at the end of the Middle Ages (mid-18th century) after farthingales and hoops (stiff and heavy structures used under Western-European women's clothing in the 16th-17th centuries to support billowy outer skirts and gowns) fell out of the fashion orbit. Soon the ‘petycote’ became a decorative underskirt (also called ‘jupe’). It gave warmth to the wearer and body to the then flouncy, front-open overgowns. By the 1900s, petticoat became functional innerwear that was meant to be hidden and not spoken of.

This is when British India saw it becoming a part of traditional Indian clothing (read: tucking itself under saris to denote modesty). From not knowing or caring about a petticoat’s existence, urban and semi-urban women in the early 1900s made it as feminine as possible, played with its styling, and gave it oodles of importance. Middle, lower-middle class and rural (regional and tribal) women still stuck on to their sari knotting and draping techniques, though. Thus, a petticoat slowly grew its immoveable roots deep into a sari’s identity and existence.

But apart from talking about banal petticoats on a lofty level, have you ever counted your petticoats silently sitting in your wardrobe? Are you particular about them? Do you share yours amongst saris? Some women who have ensemble-based occasional saris sets like to keep their petticoats exclusive, while women who regularly wear saris keep some dark, medium and light shades that are mixed-and-matched with various saris. And of late, contemporary styling of saris (say, khadi, linen, cotton and their blends) by elite or evolved urban women just ditch this underskirt altogether. More so when the trend has veered towards ancient, traditional, regional and even tribal draping which requires secure knotting at the waist while wearing saris. Probably it is the New-Age progressive way of wearing the Indian drape?

Cut to the majority: Most cannot think of wearing a sari without this hush-hush underskirt — Plain Jane, Miss Dainty, Ms Decorative, The Panelled and what have you. Although you may have created your own versions, technically, there are four basic variations of the underskirt that are worn famously with saris. They are:

1. A-Line: The most preferred and basic style. It is conical - narrow top is attached to a waist belt, either fastened with hooks or secured with a drawstring. It has six-eight segments that allow room for leg movement.

2. Mermaid: This is a snug fit silhouette that contours your body. It is also called fish-cut thanks to its narrow hip-hugging upper and gently-flared lower. It is mostly worn with lighter saris with tight draping.

3. Tiered: This shape is also called a layered style. It is flouncier than the others and has sections stacked one on top of the other. It has gathers, frills or is a play of ascending tubular circumferences.

4. Knitted: This is not a woven fabric but looped material (knitwear). A snug fit shaper that is body hugging. It has a percentage of synthetic material -- blend of polyamide or spandex (e.g. Lycra).

Here, I leave you with food for thought: How about knotting and draping a sari without a petticoat — while you are home doing mundane activities and chores during this #stayathome #corona19 #lockdown? And then how about styling your petticoat like a chic skirt— flaunt-worthy outerwear? With a comfy wrap-on top to pull you through a WFH day? Would it be too much or too bold to ask for?

©Sketch Sathya Bhavana Datta

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