Everything I Know About… 16th Century Corsetry

Yet another dry, dusty pile of academic writing… This time, the topic is the corsetry/torso support of the 16th century.  I find the full history of the artificial silhouette totally fascinating, and I’m geeked beyond belief on the actual genesis of the corset.  In the 16th century alone, a bunch of different devices are in play.  Corsets, obviously – who doesn’t know about the Pfaltzgrafin and Effigy corsets by now?  Wardrobe warrants also list stomachers (for Tudor gowns) made of pasteboard covered with tapheta – that’s certainly stiff enough to smooth the front of the torso into the signature tudor inverted, featureless cone.  By the end of the period, warrants talk about busks made of whalebone and wire, quilted with sarconet.  (How does that fit into a channel in a corset?!?  Or does the end of the era, with it’s open-fronted gowns, turn back to the same infrastructure used by the earlier tudor gowns with stiffened stomachers?  I have my theories, obviously….)

So here is…. Everything I know About 16th Century Corsetry, excerpted from a rather long paper I wrote for school. This segment directly follows the previous post, Everything I Know about 16th Century Support Skirts, for those keeping track.  Many thanks again to Stephanie for proofreading!

The genesis of the corset, meanwhile, is less clear. Waugh speaks to us of the “busc” originating in Italy, but no definition is given, nor is there an obvious translation from Italian. Waugh also speculates that the corset evolved from the masculine “cotte” or “gambeson”, a stiff torso garment worn by men in the later fifteenth century. (1719) The silhouette of the female torso in art undergoes a radical transformation from a compressed but natural line to a stiff, linear shape between the 1540s and the 1550s in England (earlier in southern countries). The earliest references to firm torso foundations are found in the 1570s. In 1575, William Whittel received a warrant for “a boxe to put a peire of bodies in”, which tells us both that the bodies were separate from skirts and that they required some form of protection. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 148) In 1577, the published diaries of Jérôme Lippomano, Venetian ambassador to France, report that,

French women have inconceivably narrow waists; they swell out their gowns from the waist downwards by whaleboned stuffs and vertugadins, which increases the elegance of their figures. Over the chemise they wear a corset or bodice, that they call a “corps pique” which makes their shape more delicate and slender. It is fastened behind which helps show off the form of the bust.’

massys old woman

Fig. 3. An accurate depiction of the effects of rigid bust support. “Old Woman”, 1515, Quentin Massys The National Portrait Gallery, London

Unfortunately, between 1500 and the 1570s, we are able to observe a change in the female silhouette in artwork but we have no substantiated evidence as to the cause of it. My belief is that the stiff central panel of the bodice from the south in the late fifteenth century, seen clearly in the Salome painting in Barcelona, came to be an element of the foundation garments. In the works of Leonardo DaVinci (“Grotesque Head”), Wenzel Hollar (“The Queen of Tunis”), and Quentin Massys (“Old Woman”), of which the later pieces appear to have been strongly inspired by the preceding pieces, we see a very realistic depiction of an aging bosom pushed up by a strict support.1 To me, this indicates that artists of this time period had a visual reference for the effects of a straight and highly stiffened body support on the female form. That no obviously stiffened panel or corset is evident in these works, nor any other artwork prior to the portrait of Elizabeth Vernon c. 1600, implies that the stiffening occurs beneath the outermost layer of clothing. Additionally, experience would indicate that the position of the bust and lack of defined cleavage seen in most paintings of the mid sixteenth century implies the existence of a corset that pushes the bosom inward against the ribcage and allows it to slip slightly downward, rather than supporting it from beneath. There is an intriguing warrant from 1576 for four stomachers of “paste bourde coverid with taphata”. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 148) We have strong evidence that stomachers were used below lacings to expand gowns for pregnancy (by a contemporary description of Jane Seymour as, “great with child, and shall be open-laced with stomacher by Corpus Christi Day at the farthest…”, and other similar comments). (Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies, 25) Perhaps stiffened stomachers, such as those in the warrant, were worn under the gown to provide a stiff line to the torso. Certainly, the taffeta covering would make these easy to slip between the gown and kirtle, or kirtle and bodice, while the pasteboard and wire construction would make them rigid, with no ability to arc under the bust to support it. One can only speculate, but it is an intriguing possibility which remains unexplored.

The bulk of our actual knowledge of corsets in the sixteenth century dates from the 1590s and later. Wardrobe warrants of this period are quite precise, and often specify linings, interlinings, and support structures within gowns. William Jones is entered into the warrants in 1590 and again in 1593 “for makinge a paire of frenche bodies of Carnacion Taffata Lyned with fustian stiched alover withe whales bone” and “makinge of a peticoate bodies of orrindge colour Taffata stiched with silver lace alover and bound with lace lined with Fustian and whales bone.” (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 189) Throughout the warrants listed in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, the terms “pair of bodies”, “french bodies”, “petticoat bodies” and “stays” are used, sometimes in combination, and in context often refer to a stiffened garment, separate from the gown or kirtle.2 As was the case with the farthingale, contemporary authors seem uncertain what to call the garment until its use became quite common. It is not until 1611 that we see the word “corset” defined in English, in Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, translated from the French as ‘a little body, also a paire of bodies (for a woman)’. (Arnold, “wardrobe”, 145)

Pfaltzgrafin corset black and white

Fig. 4. The pair of bodies worn by Pfaltzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg. 1598 Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

The first extant example of a pair of bodies known in history is a German set from 1598, worn by Pfaltzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg for her burial. It is examined in detail by Janet Arnold in Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560 – 1620 and shown with the dress under which it was worn (46, 112-113). It has also been redrawn and briefly discussed by Waugh (18) and Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies (22, 116-117). I will draw my commentary from the work of Arnold and Waugh, because Arnold’s work is most complete and both of these authors present an accurate redrawing of the Pfaltzgräfin corset. A second set of stays, found on the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, were recently uncovered, re-examined by Janet Arnold, and re-dated to approximately 1603. (Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies, 24, 116-119) Because the Effigy corset has only recently been dated to the Elizabethan era, there is not yet much published examining and discussing it. There are, however, some excellent analyses written by historical costumers which are available on the internet.

The Pfaltzgräfin corset is truly the basis for what we know of corset patterns and boning patterns in the sixteenth century. At first glance, the overall shape, is straight-forward. The front is cut on the fold with a stub for the shoulder strap, and there is also a small side-back piece, a straight back with half a shoulder strap, and a piece for the remaining strap. (Arnold, “1560-1620”, 112) Overall, it is very similar Arnold’s conjectured reconstruction of Eleanora of Toledo’s burial gown of 1562. (“1560-1620”, 104) However, there are two crucial pattern-making advancements between these two examples which are often overlooked in recreations of this Pfaltzgräfin corset. First, the shoulder strap is pieced together from three sections, each cut on a distinct and unique angle. It is the combination of these angles which allows the strap to lie smoothly over the curve of the shoulder.3 Second, there is a slight curve to the back piece where it joins the side back. This is the first indication of rudimentary waist shaping, and can be seen in corsets over the next several eras. Given its age, the Pfaltzgräfin corset shows the existence of a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge on the response of boning to the curves of the female torso. While all of the boning runs vertically on the figure, it is carefully cut and sewn below the breasts (following a line close to that of the underwire from a modern bra). As modern dress-makers are well aware, ending boning below the bust actually provides a smoother line to the torso and a better fit to the bust. When boning runs over the breasts, the weight of the bosom and the natural effects of gravity combine, and can often cause flexible bones to buckle under the breast, which in turn creates an unsightly crease and forces the neckline of the bodice away from the body. In this Pfaltzgräfin corset, however, the breasts are treated separately with a busk inserted from the bottom into a channel stitched off between the breasts, which ends at approximately the bust point.4 The busk is tall enough to force the breasts apart, but not so tall as to run over the bustline and force the corset away from the body at the neck. The only other boning in the corset is located at the center back, and is used to stiffen the closing edge to prevent its collapse when laced. The corset has both eyelets and points at the bottom, as well as a series of tabs that were most likely originally stiffened with a linen interlining. (Arnold, “1560-1620”, 112)

effigy corset

Fig. 5. The corset worn by the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603, Westminster Abbey, London

The Effigy corset, by contrast, shows the importance placed on structure over sensitivity to the form of a woman’s body. It is fully boned, and the boning is almost perfectly vertical along the body. A wider, stronger bone on either side of the front of the corset runs from approximately 1.5” in from center front down to the center front waist point, with a slight angle. The corset laces up the center front, and that edge has a slight inward arc visible in photographs taken when the corset was first uncovered and laid flat in the 1930s. (Waugh, 52) This inward arc would have helped to support the breasts. The neckline of the corset angles down toward the center. The straps extend from the back piece at an angle, sit wide over the shoulders and chest, and tie into the front. The two front pieces and the back piece were all fully boned (excluding the straps) from near the top all the way into the tabs at the waist. Once the pieces were boned, they were joined at the side back with a slightly curved seam. In the front, this corset is very similar to the only surviving portrait of the period which shows a corset, that of Elizabeth Vernon, c. 1600, which portrays a pink, front-lacing corset under an open jacket. Modern recreations of this corset have proven that it creates the rigid silhouette required for costumes of the later Elizabethan period. The angled cut of the straps and high, boned back also serve as a firm base for pinning in standing ruffs and their wire under-props; the low, angled front and slightly curved front seam provide sufficient support for the bosom while still allowing the low necklines of the period. (McGann; Leed)

Elizabeth Vernon

Fig. 6. “Elizabeth Vernon, Countess Southampton”, c.1600. Artist Unknown. Boughton House, Northants.

The Effigy corset does not have a channel or other accommodation for a busk, which is an unusual omission since it comes from a period known for busks which were so long and rigid that they could be used as a support for lifts in court dances, as evidenced in the painting Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, housed in Penshurst Place, Kent. No concrete evidence exists as to the placement of the busk, although we know from contemporary accounts that it was in use. Three accounts exist which hint that the busk may have moved outside of the corset, becoming an independent wardrobe accessory. The first clue comes from Arnold’s account of the statements of a fourteen year old English girl,

…it shall have a Frenche body, not of whalebone, for that is not stiff enough, but of horne for that will hold it out, it shall come, to keep in my belly… My lad I will have a Busk of Whalebone, it shall be tyed with two silke Points, and I will have a drawn wrought stomacher imbroidered with gold, finer than thine. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 147)

Without exception, the busk in a corset represents the strongest, most rigid element of support. It must be so, in order to perform its function to keep the front of the corset absolutely smooth. While a fourteen year old girl, who incidentally was said to have been possessed by demons, is not, perhaps, the most reliable commentator on fashion and garment construction, her comments do indicate a general knowledge of the types of boning then in use for corsets, the elements of dress in general, and the means of attaching a busk. It is therefore significant that she mentions a busk made of a material that she has already rejected as not being stiff enough for her corset.

Queen Elizabeth dancing with Robert Dudley

Fig. 7. The busk used as a support for lifts in period dances. “Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester”, c. 1580, Penshurst Place, Kent

The second example of note comes from The French Garden by Peter Erondell, 1605. In a descriptive account of the fictional Lady Ri-Melaine dressing, the second item she calls for is her corset (“petycoate bodys”) and the ribbon, so that she can lace herself. This is followed by an undercoat and her petticoat. At that stage, her state of dress would be roughly equivalent to that shown in the Elizabeth Vernon painting. Her busk is the fourteenth thing she calls for in the account, and it is mentioned directly after her gown and farthingale. It is notable that at this late date, the farthingale in use would have been either the French or Wheel variety. Neither forepart nor formal underskirt is mentioned in the account, so it is entirely possible that the lady wore her farthingale directly beneath the overskirt of her gown, as seen in the Dutch caricature.

The final piece of evidence that the busk had changed its role in dress comes from the wardrobe warrants of Queen Elizabeth I. As early as 1586, these warrants point to the idea that busks had become more complicated than the solitary pieces of wood or whalebone they had once been. William Jones is entered for “xij Buskes of Whalesbone and wyer coverid with sarceonet quilted”. (Arnold, “Wardrobe”, 146) Perhaps in the later period, with its accompanying front closing corsets and extremely long bodice extensions, the busk moved outward to stiffen the bodice point and ensure the perfectly smooth line shown in portraits of the day. The quilted silk covering mentioned in the warrant would have prevented the hard outline of the busk from being seen through the stomacher of a gown, and the presence of both whalebone and metal for stiffening implies that the busk had become wide enough to require more than one line of bone. Whatever the case, women’s dress had certainly become a complicated arrangement of stiffened foundation and support structures, layered with the highly decorated outer garments for which the age is known.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560 – 1620. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1985.

Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: W. S. Maney & Son Ltd, 1988.

Leed, Drea. “The Effigy Corset: A New Look at Elizabethan Corsetry.” The Elizabethan Costuming Homepage 30 Dec 2008 .

McGann, Kass. “The Effigy Corset.” Reconstructing History 2004 30 Dec 2008 .

Mikhaila, Ninya, and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth Century Dress. London: B T Batsford, 2006.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954. New York: Theater Arts Books, 2000.

2 thoughts on “Everything I Know About… 16th Century Corsetry

  1. QEWUploaded, revisited, again. | A Gentlewoman's Blog says:

    […] Seems I am not alone, as Sempstress herself writes about what is known about 16th c. corsetry. My focus will end up a little different than hers. And […]

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