The History of the Farthingale

One of the most prominent elements of 16th-century fashion for women is the farthingale. 

The farthingale is a type of underskirt that has stiff circular hoops sewn to it to make it rigid. These hoops increase in diameter from the waist down to the hem. It was usually anchored to the waist with ties. But as the garment became popular, women began to experiment with various forms of farthingales (which will be mentioned later).

a detail of St John Retable painting by Pedro Garcia de Bernavarre
Probably the earliest depiction of the Spanish “verdugado,” in a detail from a painting by Pedro Garcia de Bernavarre

This type of garment originated in Spain. The term “farthingale” is actually a corrupted Anglicized word of the Spanish name for the garment, verdugado. This hoopskirt was usually worn by women from the aristocracy or well-to-do women. Original Spanish farthingales were usually dark-colored, while farthingales in other countries (like England and France) were more elaborate and extravagant.

Catherine of Aragon, who would be the first wife of King Henry VIII, is said to have brought the farthingale from Spain to England when she came over to marry Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501. But there is little evidence that she continued to wear this type of hoop skirt as she adopted the English style of dress. She may not have been even the first to wear the farthingale. 

According to earliest sources, the first verdugados were worn around 1470. Joan of Portugal was the one who started to wear the verdugado, with hoops, when she was the queen of Castille (now part of Spain). She caused quite a stir as she reportedly wore dresses that showed too much cleavage. She was also known for her scandalous behavior. When Joan began to use farthingales, everyone else in the court followed suit. Rumors circulated that she started to use farthingales to disguise her pregnancy (she had two illegitimate children).

portrait of Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, wearing a Tudor gown showing the line of the Spanish farthingale

As farthingales became popular in England and France, they became known as “Spanish farthingale.” Many women in England and France wore double skirts over their farthingales, with the outermost skirt parted in front to display another skirt underneath.

Based on the artful depictions of the farthingale, the earliest Spanish farthingales show hoops prominently displayed just above the outer surface of the skirts, merely providing a distinct shape to them. Original farthingales in Spain were stiffened by esparto grass, the same grass used to make baskets and espadrille, a type of casual footwear. Later designs were stiffened with willow withers (flexible willow stems that are also known as “osiers” or “willow withies.” Whalebone, wood, and wire were later used from the 1580s onwards.

Later in the 16th century, women started experimenting with widening the tops of their skirts’ profile. At first, they started with adding padded around their waste, but later they adjusted the shape of their farthingales. 

farthingale reconstruction
A farthingale reconstruction

One type of farthingale, the French farthingale (also called a drum farthingale or wheel farthingale), consisted of a hoop or a series of identical hoops that gave the skirt a drum-like shape. The outer skirt fitted closely at the waist then spread out over the farthingale in a cascade of folds. Another type of farthingale is the bell farthingale, which consisted of a combination of hoops and paddings to give the skirt a bell-like shape.

There was also the Italian farthingale, a smaller and more delicate variant that was balanced equally at the hips and usually worn by itself as a skirt.

a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing a skirt with a farthingale underneath

The farthingale was most notably worn by Queen Elizabeth I of England and other women of high nobility. Farthingales persisted in most European courts until the mid-17th century. Although the farthingale was no longer in fashion from that point on, it paved the way for later forms of structure to give the skirts a distinct shape. They include panniers, crinolines, and bustles.