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Early Corsetry: Are we making too many assumptions?

I’ve been playing a lot with the Pfalzgrafin corset lately. One of the things I said in the original post was that this type of corset is rather uncomfortably on bodies that aren’t relatively straight, and is a total failure on more extreme hourglass shapes. But I wanted to make it work on Tyler, so I started thinking about two basic assumptions we make about corsetry: that the corset supports the bust, and that the corset has negative ease which allows it to reshape the body and make it smaller. What happens with the Pfalzgrafin block if we throw those assumptions out the window?

Before we begin, please note that if you are relatively straight in the body, congrats, this corset probably works for you as a full on, bust supporting, body-constricting corset. But what if you’re not? Is it possible to make this style of rigid center-front busk/boning combination work on a curvy body? Well, yes, I mean, I wouldn’t be writing this if the experiment flopped… Seriously, I have some pride.

Tyler in Pfalzgrafin mockup
For one thing, we can make it work on hourglass figures.

My little buckram mockup here gives the right silhouette for a late-Tudor/early-Elizabethan girl. As stated previously, I rather suspect the Pfalzgrafin’s drafting technique is older than its 1598 dating. I made the pattern by sizing her waist up, rather than down. (Ok, technically, I cheated and used Lizzle’s Pfalzgrafin draft based on her conic block.) The illusion of a smaller waist and longer torso works here because the completely smooth silhouette deprives the eye of the body landmarks it would normally use to gauge size, so you don’t really have to suf…

Missa, did you just say you sized the waist UP?!?

Yeppers. Geometrically, the only way to make the thing work on Tyler was to base it on the smooth line at center front and ignore the actual measure of the waist. That got me thinking… The original idea behind stiffening bodices and skirts was to show off expanses expensive fabrics smoothly and without seams. Reshaping the torso takes a fair knowledge of math and conics, and pattern-making had only just gotten into conics in skirts via the stick-a-triangle-in-the-seam method. But if all you really want is a smooth silhouette, all you really need is a stiff fabric and maybe a seam to help you waste less fabric. If you change visual proportions, rather than the actual body measurements, you can create the illusion of a long, slender torso even though you are technically making the torso larger.

a smoothly conical torso has been achieved
This version of a Pfalzgrafin style corset achieves a smoothly conical torso on Tyler.
backlit corset showing body inside
It works by providing a stiff shape that stands away from the body.

Now, any girl with a chest knows that it requires some form of support, or it will migrate in the general direction of gravity. Letting the corset stand stiffly away from the body like this really isn’t going to provide any. (If you really want to support the bust, you need to work from underneath it. The Effigy corset does this to some extend, victorian corsets do it to a larger extend, and the modern bra relies on it.)  If you’re working with bosoms that aren’t made of vinyl, you can provide some inward pressure on the breast to hold it closer to the ribcage, but the Pfalzgrafin corset has a rigid central busk. The design is good, and the boning and busk don’t run over the mound of the bust, but there’s no getting around that central busk if you’re a chesty girl…

Maybe we expect it to do something it wasn’t designed for. Other, simpler forms of bust support had been in use since at least ancient Rome. The strophium, or mamillare, was a band of cloth used to either flatten the bust to keep it out of the way, or support it for fashionable purposes. (Tortora and Eubank, 74, Boucher, 121, 122). Artwork in the later middle ages suggests that something artificial is being done to support the bust.

I did a little internet trolling, trying to find a quote I remember reading some years ago from a rather irate religious type in the 1300s or 1400s. He was off on a good rant, and recorded as saying something about how ‘women who bind their breasts with bands of linen in this life will have them bound with bands of hot iron in the next’. (That’s as close as I remember, and I’ve been trying to find the original quote and a date on it for years now. Does anyone else recognize it? If you do, would you mind dropping a line and letting me know that I’m not insane? Thanks! The only other thing I recall is that it might have been translated from spanish or german.)

Instead of my lost quote, I found Rosalie Gilbert’s marvelous page on Breast Coverings, which gives several sources of anecdotal evidence for breast binding. (For excellent pictures comparing the silhouettes from breast binding, the Effigy corset and a modern sports bra, you should take a look at Marie Chantal Cadieux’s excellent Florentine Gown diary. They’re about midway down the page.) For me, the most exciting thing in on the Breast Coverings page was the reference to an abstract by Beatrix Nutz entitled, “Bras in the 15th Century? A Preliminary Report.” I had to ask Google for the link to the full abstract, which makes an amazing statement about distinctly bra-like garments found in with 15th century garments and fitting 15th century construction techniques.

None of this provides some form of absolute, irrefutable proof, but it’s enough for me to believe I now know on good authority what I thought I knew in the first place. ;)

And that leaves us with the small issue of the great big horking space between the body and the corset in the backlit picture. It’s pretty clear that nothing is happening to reshape the waist (it’s actually larger now). Is there any evidence for a stiffened bodice/corset that did not compress the body?

That question brought to mind something I remembered reading on Anéa’s page about stays in renaissance Italy. In her discussion of the funerary dress of Eleanora De Toledo, she brings up the topic of stomach bands (fasce da stomaco) of wool worn inside the bodice for extra warmth. One of Eleanora’s was even lined with down, which would be quite toasty, but also need a titch of room. Conveniently, leaving the corset as a stiffened layer that floats away from the body would leave that room. This is an Italian example, and dress in the Italian states was significantly different than dress in northern Europe through much of the renaissance period. There is a possibility that the entire notion of raising the bust came northward from the Italies. From Corsets and Crinolines, we have this quote:

Instructions given by the King’s Highness to his trusty and well beloved servants, Francis Marsin, James Braybroke, and Hohn Stile, showing how they shall order themselves when they shall come to the presence of the old Queen of Naples and the young Queen her daughter…

16 Item, to mark her breasts and paps, whether they be big or small.

As to this article, the[y] said the Queen’s breasts be somewhat great and fully, and inasmuch as that they were trussed somewhat high, after the manner of the country, the which causeth her grace for to seem much fullyer and her neck to be shorter.

Quoted by G. G. Coultin, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. III (Waugh, 24)

Boys… So predictable at times.

Using the Pfalzgrafin block just to smooth the silhouette is enough to give us the classic “two cones” upright Tudor silhouette, as seen on Mary, Jane Seymour, and Elizabeth in this portrait:

painting of the family of Henry VII
The Family of Henry VIII c. 1545. Painted by an unknown artist. Oil on canvas. The Royal Collection. (Image taken from: groups/medwhitehall.jpg )

The only way to really tighten the Pfalzgrafin block at the waist would be to change the fundamental geometry of the wearer by, say, leaning backward slightly from the waist. I wonder if that ever became the mode….

a later portrait of the family of Henry VIII
The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession. c. 1572 Attrib. Lucas De Heere. National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. (Image taken from: File:Family_of_Henry_VIII,_an_Allegory_of_ the_Tudor_Succession.png)

I do love that renaissance way of responding to propaganda paintings with more propaganda paintings, don’t you? Check the Wikipedia page – the inscription on this thing is major harsh.

Notice the posture now shown for Elizabeth (and Mary, who was dead and presumably posed for by someone else), and compare it to the more natural upright posture of Peace and Plenty. Elizabeth and Mary’s torsos lean backward from the waist. It’s more obvious with the figure of Mary, as she’s wearing fewer layers and quite definitely depicted with a rigidly straight front. It causes the front of the body to fall into direct line with the farthingale. More importantly, this posture makes the center front of the body a straighter line, and moves the majority of the angle to be fit to the back of the body – conveniently, right where the seams are.

Is it possible for a human being to walk like this? It’s not even that difficult. If you knew me when I was still insane enough to wear noble costume in high summer in Wisconsin, you’ve probably seen me do it. You just lead with your hip bones. (Ideally, you also do a nice little roll-walk, which mostly happens from your knees down so your hips never move. If you keep your hips stable, your skirts don’t swing. If your skirts don’t swing, you glide rather than walking. I’ve no idea if that’s period, but it looks killer cool…)

I’ve blithered on for long enough…. My whole point was simply that we make a lot of assumptions about what a stiffened bodice or corset does, based on what stiffened bodices and corsets came to do. For the earliest surviving corset we have, the assumptions might not be valid. At least, under certain circumstances it seems to work better without those assumptions. I’m just sayin’….

Works Referenced

Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years of Fashion The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. Expanded Ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987. 121-122. Print.

“Breast Coverings A question of supporting the female form.” Rosalie’s Medieval Woman. Web. 6 Mar 2011. <>.

Nutz, Beatrix. “Bras in the 15th Century? A Preliminary Report.” NESAT. Northern European Symposium for Archeological Textiles, 2010. Web. 6 Mar 2011. <>.

Tortora, Phyllis G., and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume A History of Western Dress. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 2005. Print.

“TO STAY OR NOT TO STAY… .” Aneafiles. Web. 6 Mar 2011. <>.

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


  1. Laura
    Laura March 10, 2011

    Hey you! I am working on an Italian gown right now (Eleonora’s big white/silver one) and was looking for information on 16th century corsets and found this. As someone who has a difficult time having my waist/stomach compressed I find this to be fascinating. I think I am going to do a mock-up and see how this works in giving me the conical look I need for the gown. I had honestly never thought of binding AND corsetry together. But with my chest I need to add something in. I am rather excited about this idea!

  2. missa
    missa March 12, 2011

    Hey, Laura!
    Let me know how it works. I’ve not really tried this with humans, outside of the dreaded bra-with-corset trick. ;) (Although that was done with a really crap bodice that I’d interlined with plastic canvas, of all silly things. Total midnight special, right? I hadn’t thought about it until now, but that one only worked if it was only bending around one curve, hence the bra. It would go smoothly around the body if it wasn’tforced to support the bust. The second you tried that, though, it got some really ugly creases.)
    I can’t wait to see the new dress!

  3. Laura
    Laura March 12, 2011

    Artemesia of was telling me about how her mom taught her about breast binding by using strips of fabric, a la Ace bandages. I was thinking that binding would add a layer of heat to an already warm garment, but there are Ace bandages that have cooling stuff built into them, so that might work in regards to my over-heating problem. I will let you know how it goes.

    The gown is being detailed on a diary/blog here: It is still early on, so hopefully I won’t embarrass myself too much!

    How are you? Are you doing much costuming?

  4. *yawn* | Sempstress
    *yawn* | Sempstress March 14, 2011

    […] a busk a la the Pfalzgrafin corset is the right approach for a Tudor gown, but given the amount of negative space between Tyler’s body and bodice, it seemed wise.) The corset from the side. I haven't […]

  5. missa
    missa March 14, 2011

    Hey, neat! Love the diary! True story – I just bought a punch needle for exactly the same reason. :) Although, you know, it’s for a doll, so you are officially a million times more obsessively insane than I am. Teehee….
    Most of my period work is confined to dolls right now, but I’ve got 1776 coming up this spring and some commission work for my fav client after that. I’m on-again-off-again with the costume shop as a stitcher, and an assortment of other odd jobs. Some of them relate to costumes, or at least sewing, some not so much. But, you know, it’s work…. Work is good. :)
    What are you up to, other than Eleonora?

  6. Laura
    Laura March 14, 2011

    I am ok with being more insane. It proves I’m DEDICATED. Heh. Do you get to Bristol much anymore? We go once a year. I will also be at Costume Con in April in NJ and then Teslacon in Madison in Nov. And Convergence in July in MN. I am the Pres. of the Minnesota Society of Costumers, a chapter of the ICG (long story) so that also keeps me busy. We are doing an 18th century picnic in June – you should come! AS for actual costumes, our Wench Posse did Henry VIII and his wives in 2009, we did a Courtesan Invasion in 2010 (there is a picture on Realm of Venus of us) and this year we are being the Noble Court of Wenchlandia. I am Godiva Ghiardelli, the Countess of Cadbury. ;) I am also doing a Sound of Music outfit (I am Liesl) in curtain outfits, the White Queen from Alice a la Steampunk, a francaise that I am doing Stumpwork on, a Magenta from Rocky Horror, some pirate stuff, a German…. and that is just to July. We are doing holidays for Day of Wrong and I am the Valentine’s Day courtesan. Erin is Fishing Opener. Hee. Send me an e-mail and I’ll quit taking up space on your blog. :)

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