16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Research

The sixteenth-century Vasquine / Basquine: A corset, farthingale or Kirtle?

In her 2001 book The Corset: A Cultural History Valerie Steele claimed that vasquines and basquines were early types of corsets:

“The other precursor of the corset was the basquine or vasquine, a laced bodice to which was attached a hooped skirt or farthingale. The vasquine apparently originated in Spain in the early sixteenth century, and quickly spread to Italy and France.”[1]

But were they?

As many of you may already know, my book on early modern foundation garments, Shaping Femininity, is currently under contract with Bloomsbury (anticipated release is mid-2021). Although my book primarily analyses how bodies and farthingales shaped the lives of women in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, during my PhD I also began to examine the French context of these garments too.

Vasquine and basquine are not terms one comes across much in sixteenth-century English sources, and as a result I don’t really talk about these garments in my forthcoming book. However, they are very common in sixteenth-century French and Spanish sources, and so I thought that I would address the question of what they are (or at least what I think they are) here on my blog.

Basquińas and Vasquinas in Spain

Let’s start at the beginning – Spain.

In Spain the basquińa was, as Spanish fashion historians Carmen Bernis and Amalia Descalzo have outlined, a type of skirt.

“The basquińa was an overskirt that had neither openings nor a train. Judging by the patterns provided by Alcega, it was gathered or pleated at the waist and was fuller at the back than at the front. Some of the basquińas shown in Alecega’s book are paired with a sleevess low-necked bodice (cuerpo bajo).”[2]

In Alcega’s pattern book, published in 1580, the garment is spelt “Vasquina” and it appears that this was a common spelling variation. As you can see from the images below, taken from Alcega’s manual, the Vasquina could be a skirt or a skirt with an attached bodice.

vasquina
Pattern for a Vasquina of silk for a Woman, by Juan de Alcega (1580), from World Digital Library
vasquina with bodice
Vasquina of wilk with a low-cut bodice, by Juan de Alcega (1580), from World Digital Library.

So, in Spain it was type of skirt that was sometimes accompanied by a bodice called a cuerpo bajo. There is no indication that the bodice of this garment was stiffened with bents or whalebone, although by the end of the sixteenth century it certainly could have been.

What about France?

Vasquines and Basquines  in France

The term becomes a little more complicated when you look at the French sources, where, like in Spanish it was also spelt with an interchangeable v[asquine] or b[asquine]. Indeed, in contemporary French sources this garment is always mentioned alongside the farthingale so it would be tempting to think of this garment as a corset, another stiffened garment.

Take, for example, two published denunciations of fashionable dress from sixteenth-century France.

Besides the hilarious title of this work – The complaint of Mr Bum against the inventors of farthingales – the complaint mentions vasquines alongside farthingales, although it does not really describe what they are or what is so bad about them:

Mauldiectz soient ses beaux inventeurs
Ces Coyons ces passementeurs
De vertugalles and vasquines [3]
Execrable are these handsome inventors
That believe these lies
about farthingales & vasquines

The next is a French Catholic clerical remonstrance from 1563 called Le Blason des Basquines et vertvgalles that pleads with women to stop wearing these garments. The text begins by stating that “Vous dames et damoyselles, Qui demontrez qu’estes rebelles A Dieu, vostre Pere et Seigneur [You Ladies and girls who demonstrate rebellion against God, your Father and Lord]”, connecting the wearing of such items specifically with rebellion against God. It goes on to say:

Que vous seruent ces vertugalles,
Sinon engendrer des scandalles?
Quel bien apportent vos basquines
Fors de lubricité les signes?
Quel fruit vient de vos paremens? [4]
 What use are these farthingales,
If not to generate scandal?
What good are your basquines
Other than to indicate lust?
What fruit comes from your adorning trickery?

Again, no description of what basquines are, just that they were associated with farthingales and they were clearly provocative garments (in the eyes of this moralist anyway).

So, vasquines/basquines seem to have been garments that were commonly worn with farthingales. But this does not mean that they were a type of early corset.

In 1611 Randle Cotgrave’s French to English dictionary described these garments as:

“Basquine. A Vardingale of the old fashions; or a Spanish Vardingale; see Vasquine.”
“Vasquine: f. A kirtle or Petticoat,; also, a Spanish vardingale.”[5]

By the time that Cotgrave wrote his dictionary, these garments had been around for more than 50 years and so it’s meaning may have changed many times during that period. He also seems to reiterate the confusion of earlier descriptions that associate these garments with farthingales.

To me, it doesn’t make sense to me that French sources would refer to the Spanish farthingale (the only type known of at the time that the previously mentioned French denunciations were published) as both a vertugalle and a basquine.

So what was a vasquine or basquine? Was it a corset? A type of farthingale? A bodice?

It would appear that Cotgrave’s definition of this garment as a petticoat or kirtle is the most accurate, and this reflects the meaning of this garment in Spain.

Mary queen of scots vasquine kirtle
François Clouet, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), c. 1558-60, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, Royal Collection, RCIN 401229. In this portrait Mary likely wears a vasquine underneath her gown.

The records of Mary Queen of Scots shed more light.[6] The 1562 wardrobe of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been raised at the French court until her return to Scotland in 1560 and so dressed in French fashions, gives a clearer idea of what these garments were. Her inventory is recorded in French and it contains many vasquines, described as:

Les Vasquines de Toile Dor et Toitie Dargent
Vasquines of cloth or gold and cloth of silver.

Vne vafquine de toille dargent frisee bordée de passement d’argent
A vasquine of cloth of silver trimmed with curly silver lace

Vne vafquyne de fatin blanc auecq le corps
A vasquine of white satin with the bodice

Vne vafquyne de fatin noyer auecq le corps et les bourletz
A vasquine of black satin with the bodice and the rolls

Most importantly, in these accounts vasquines are mentioned separately to farthingales, so they are not the same garment. They are also mentioned as having “bodices” so they could not have been a corset in the true sense of the word.

This seems to be confirmed by the very source that Steele quoted as referring to a corset. François Rabelais wrote sometime before 1553 that:

Au dessus de la chemise vestoient la bella Vasquine de queleque beau camelot de soye: sus icelle vestoient la Verdugale de tafetas blanc, rouge, tanne, gris, &c.[7] Over the chemise is worn a beautiful vasquine of pure silk camlblet, and over this is worn a verdugale of white, red, tan, grey, etc.

The first garment any woman wore over her chemise before 1550 was a kirtle or petticoat, and then a farthingale could be placed over the top of this.

So, what were these garments? 

In summary: vasquines and basquines were not corsets, rather, they were a style of petticoat or kirtle of Spanish origin, that often consisted of a skirt with an attached bodice. It is possible that the bodices of these garments were stiffened with bents or whalebone, especially by the end of the sixteenth century. However, they were not corsets in the true sense of the term and so should not be labelled as such.

6ef067c748e00a31733b46e1067aad63
A Tudor Kirtle and petticoat pattern from the Tudor Tailor

References

All translations of French sources are my own.

[1] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 6.

[2] Carmen Bernis and Amalia Descalzo, ‘Spanish Female Dress in the Habsburg Period’, in Fashion at the Courts of Early Modern Europe, Vol. 1, edited by José Luis Colomer and Amalia Descalzo (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2014), p. 44.

[3] Anon., La complaincte de Monsieur le Cul contre les inventeurs des vertugalles (Francoys Girault, 1552), p. Aii (5).

[4] Anon, Le Blason des Basqvines et Vertugalles: Avec la belle remontrance qu’on faict quelques dames quand on leur a remonstré qu’il n’en failloit plus porter (Lyon: Benoist Rigaud, 1563), reprinted by A. Pinard (Paris: 1833), A iij r.

[5] http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/

[6] Joseph Robertson, Inventaires de la Royne Descosse, Douairiere de France: Catalogues of the Jewels, Dresses, Furniture, Books, and Paintings of Mary Queen of Scots 1556 – 1569 (Edinburgh: 1863), pp. 60-74

[7] François Rabelais, Oeuvres de Maître François Rabelais avec des remarques historiques et critiques de Mr. le Duchat. Nouvelle édition, ornée de figures de B. Picart, etc… augmentée de quantité de nouvelles remarques de M. le Duchat, de celles de l’édition angloise des Oeuvres de Rabelais, de ses lettres et de plusieurs pièces curieuses et intéressantes, Volume 1 (Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1741), p. 181

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