An arctic goose down padded petticoat

Produced as part of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Ran from 16 April 2016 to 12 March 2017

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This petticoat, which was made by Booth & Fox in about 1860, is padded with Arctic goose down and would have provided a layer of comfort and warmth, keeping the wearer cosy.

Keeping the wearer warm has always been one of underwear’s roles, but it was particularly so in past centuries. Such protection would have been very welcome in the 19th century, when public transport was unheated and homes were often draughty with no central heating. The petticoat, which is lined with plain red cotton and made up of five gored panels, is wadded with goose feathers in wide horizontal bands. This gives the appearance of quilting and provides body to the structure, as well as holding thermal qualities comparable to a duvet.

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Petticoat, Booth & Fox, about 1860, Britain, London, and Ireland, Cork. Given by Mrs I. Gadsby-Toni. Museum no. T.212-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Booth & Fox, who were based in Cork in the Republic of Ireland, sold a wide range of down-filled products including quilts, dressing gowns and mantles. In an advertisement placed in the Coleraine Chronicle on 16 September 1865, the company stated that their garments ‘are as warm as several folds of flannel, but half the weight of one’. This advertisement, and the petticoat’s own label, emphasise a further practical benefit of the design: the colours, and so dyes, used are described as fast, meaning that they would not bleed during washing. The label instructions continue ‘Wash with down in. Shake when drying’, both simplifying the process and hopefully ensuring the continuing soft plumpness of the structure. This label is an unusually early example of washing instructions being stitched to a garment.

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Petticoat (detail), Booth & Fox, about 1860, Britain, London, and Ireland, Cork. Given by Mrs I. Gadsby-Toni. Museum no. T.212-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While the petticoat in the V&A's collection is filled with Arctic goose down, in an article on 1st May 1862 the Cork Examiner listed the many other kinds of feathers used by the company, including Russian geese and ptarmigan, German white poultry, English poultry and duck, gannet from the North of Scotland, eider down and Irish goose down. Booth & Fox were also a large and stable employer in Cork. In the same article, the newspaper reported that ‘the number of women employed by the Messrs. Booth and Fox in the manufacture of quilts alone, through the winter, [is] about 40.’

The petticoat is decorated with a conical ‘paisley’ print, interspersed with flowers. The pattern and base red remain bright, the greens, yellows and blues building on the cheering character of the design. In the early 1860s, the ideal fashionable silhouette for a woman featured a moderately high waist, and an exaggerated, voluminous skirt. To achieve the desired level of volume, a smartly dressed woman would need to wear several petticoats. This petticoat would boost the shape of the skirt, whilst still remaining very light to wear.