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Peplum has two distinct and almost wholly separate definitions. Its early origins are Greek, and it simply was the word for tunic. To this end, the numerous sword and sandal films are often called peplum films, or the whole genre is referred to as peplum.
The second definition, which is relatively unrelated to the first, does also describe clothing. The peplum, a term dating back to the 19th century, is a short overskirt that is usually attached to a fitted jacket. You can see early examples of this in old copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine in the 19th century that featured poems and especially discussion about fashion.
This early peplum was usually not attached to a jacket, but was merely an extra overskirt flounce sewn onto, and dropping from the waist. The modern version, as we now know it, became popular as a design in women’s suiting in the 1940s. Here it took on its most recognizable form. Suit jackets were often fitted at the waist, but fabric extended beyond the waist in an overskirt. A couple of different styles emerged.
Sometimes the peplum was deliberately flared, enhancing or suggesting greater curve to the hips. In other styles, it closely fit to the stomach and the hips, and left emphasis on the tight waist of the garment. You might typically see a flared peplum with a skirt that also flared, and more commonly saw the fitted version with skirts that were narrow or pencil skirts.
The fashion faded in the 1950s but came back with a vengeance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was part reactionary to the boxy menswear style jackets with large shoulder pads that proliferated during the mid 1980s. Most jackets with peplums in the late 1980s still had shoulder pads, but feminine curves were emphasized by a fitted waist and either a flounced or straight peplum, usually covering the hips and stomach.
In the 2000s, the peplum was reinvented. Instead of being a long overskirt, it became much more understated, usually only covering to mid stomach. Just about the only thing that has remained the same with the 2000s peplum is that extra fabric or the overskirt falls from a tight waist. Beyond that, it is much rarer to see a long one, though there is little doubt that at some point fashion will once more introduce the longer version.
When choosing a jacket or dress with a peplum, it can help to think about your body type. The fitted type is actually more figure flattering than one that is flared, since it tends to de-emphasize the hips. Many women with larger figures make the mistake of hiding their extra curves with extra fabric, which often makes the body look bulky. A fitted peplum with emphasis on the cinched waist doesn’t hide curves but instead accentuates them nicely. On the other hand, if you’d like to make the hips look a bit larger, the flared version may be the best choice, since it will suggest a more hourglass style figure.