A Short History of Petticoat Discipline

When petticoat discipline was first employed we will never know. A study of social history shows that it was discussed in family magazines and newspapers during Victorian and Edwardian times, and the beautifully decorated and belaced girls' fashions of the times would no doubt have made them especially effective at subduing the high spirits of boys who required firm discipline. Certainly, as we can see from family photographs of the time, it was the fashion until the Great War to dress both little girls and little boys in virtually identical clothing; beribboned vests, petticoats, white lace dresses, and big bonnets, often until the age of five or six.

Some men who were brought up in these times, including former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Lord Stockton), recalled being dressed by their nannies in especially pretty and girlish clothing for some minor offence, and petticoat discipline is mentioned in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's excellent book 'The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny', published in 1972. (Incidentally, I strongly recommend this book to readers, as well as its companion volume, 'A History of the English Public School'). As Brenda Love writes:

'This ploy worked by humiliating and embarrassing the boy so much that he was careful not to engage in any kind of activity that would draw attention to himself, thus making him easier to control in public. The degree of modification in attire depended on the boy. For some, only a bow tie, short pants, or velvet fabric was sufficient, for others, lace, bows on the shoes, shaved legs, and girl's underwear was necessary'.

Lord Stockton in his dress

Lord Stockton - Photo courtesy of Princess Productions

Petticoat discipline for keeping boys in line is a broad term, which encompasses more than the wearing of petticoats and girls' dresses. Also very effective was dressing a boy in a sailor suit, or Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, with tight-fitting velvet pants, silk stockings, a blouse with a large lace collar, and girls' patent single strap shoes. Sometimes if in this kind of clothing, or if under full petticoating, the victim would have his hair curled as well.

Mrs Birch makes mention of this form of clothing in her excellent essay on the subject:

'Blue velvet shorts, a white shirt with ruffles adorning the front and sleeves, a big bow tied at the front, white stockings, black patent leather shoes and a blue velvet cap would make any self-respecting male squirm with embarrassment. If this attire didn't sufficiently humiliate the lad, more lace and ruffles would be added. But his feelings would not be spared. The male would be marched out to the giggles of family and friends. Such attire ensured a more subdued and respectful attitude'.

There are many cases given of males as old as 20 being kept, for discipline reasons, in Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, or frocks and petticoats, in the old publication 'London Life', the offices of which were largely destroyed during the blitz. It never recovered, and ceased publication during the war years. Also commonly described in its pages were cases of Scottish boys being made to wear a kilt without a sporran, or tartan skirts, which were much cheaper. Dressed like this, the boy could actually be taken outside, usually with a silk petticoat and pretty knickers on underneath the kilt, which made the boy much more careful of his clothing, and the punishment even more effective.

Other cases seemed to involve a desire on the part of the mother for a daughter, rather than a son. In these cases the boy would be kept in childish petticoats and frocks, as well as long white ruffled night gowns at bedtime, long after his peers had started wearing shirts and  trousers. His hair would be allowed to grow long, and the mother or governess would often tie a big bow in his curls. Of course the mother would notice that her son was much more docile and subdued dressed like this, and realise as a bonus the inestimable disciplinary value of petticoating.

Petticoat discipline      Petticoat discipline
Images from Éducation Anglaise (French c.1908) Courtesy of Petticoat Punishment Art

Petticoat discipline, however, was not confined to males who were still in the care of their parents or others. 'London Life', and the journals which followed, featured many cases of married men being petticoated by their wives to ensure that they remained submissive and obedient husbands, and attended to all the domestic duties about the house. Sometimes a man would be made to wear a frilled, full-length pinafore, much to the teasing amusement of any visitors, or in private, he might be fully petticoated and trained to do needlework and knitting, as well as all his household duties.

In the case of both boys and husbands, if stricter discipline were needed, then sometimes the they would be put into nappies (diapers) and baby clothes, and often made to use a dummy (pacifier) and generally behave like a baby. A dummy or pacifier would also be employed by lady school teachers to subdue talkative and troublesome boys in class. They might also be made to sit next to a girl on the girls' side of the classroom.

Several journals through the years printed 'petticoat' letters of an extremely high standard. I have already made mention of 'London Life'. Another - probably the best of all - was 'Justice Weekly', a Canadian paper published from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. In the 1970s, SRA Publications, who produced 'Search', 'Relate', and 'Accord' magazines, printed many wonderful letters on this fascinating subject, as did 'Madame', which is still being published today, although sadly it no longer seems very interested in the subject of petticoat discipline.

To quote Mrs Birch once again,

'Such treatment certainly led to [boys] being more demure and placid. After all, who is going to go running around the garden and climbing trees in a prissy frock and risk showing their knickers with layers of frilly lace at the rear! Sadly, such punishments have all but disappeared for troublesome males'

Newspapers and women's magazines still carried occasional mentions of petticoat discipline well into the 1960s, but the subject no longer seems to be discussed in these times of increasing delinquency and spiralling divorce rates.

As I have written, it is my aim to bring it back into domestic use, but I do need the help of our readers. If you would like to tell us of your own experiences, or send us any letters from the past concerned with petticoating, please do so.

Susan MacDonald

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