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17th century, Jacobean, Research, Stuart

Seventeenth-Century Waistcoats for Women: Jacobean Fashions

The waistcoat is by far one of the most common pieces of clothing I have come across in the records of seventeenth-century women. While women did wear gowns – that is a coordinating skirt and bodice – during this period, if we look across the social spectrum we can see that waistcoats and petticoats were by far the most common garments that were worn by women on a daily basis in seventeenth-century England. 

Many museums and scholars refer to these garments as “jackets”, presumably because the word waistcoat is commonly associated with male dress now. However, this is anachronistic. During the seventeenth century these garments were never called jackets. They were recorded in female wardrobe accounts as “wastcotes”, “wastcoates”, “waistcoates”, etc. They were commonly worn over the top of the petticoat and a pair of bodies, but I have also seen them listed in conjunction with gowns too. In essence, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a waistcoat was a type of informal front fastening jacket-bodice.

An Elizabethan woman selling hot codlings. Under her apron she wears a waistcoat that is open at the front showing her petticoat bodice. Source.

I have examined many common, middling, and aristocratic wardrobe inventories and bills in the last eight or so years since I began studying the dress of the seventeenth century, so I thought I would share some of the material I’ve come across relating to waistcoats and their changing silhouette and construction. I hope anyone who is interested in reconstructing seventeenth-century dress will find this useful. I’ve also included some handy resources for where to get patterns for these waistcoats below. 

I initially wrote this as one blog post. However, I soon realised that it would be too long to do the entire century in one go. So, I decided to break it up into 3 parts: Jacobean Era, Caroline and Interregnum Era and Restoration Era. This blog post pertains to the Jacobean Era.

 

Jacobean Era (1603-1625)

Waistcoats were worn by all social sorts in England by at least the middle of the sixteenth century.[1] The waistcoats of the Jacobean era changed little in design from those of the preceding Elizabethan period. They were generally fitted around the bust, waist and arms, with “skirts” that were looser over the hips. We have several surviving waistcoats from this period in British collections, all of which exemplify the different styles worn at the time. I will give an outline of the styles typically found during this period. 

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Jacobean Silk Waistcoats
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Embroidered Jacobean Waistcoat, c. 1610-20, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 179-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This example from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is dated between 1610-20 and is believed to have belonged to a member of the Isham family from Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. It contains narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings that cover where the sleeve is attached to rest of the garment, mirroring design elements seen in men and women’s doublets. Gores have been inserted into the skirts of the waistcoat to enlarge them so that they would sit perfectly over a farthingale roll. The front of the garment ties together with the silk ribbons attached to either side. The general cut of this example is typical of other surviving waistcoats from the 1610s (see list of other examples below). 

This garment would have been worn over a petticoat with an attached bodice (“petticoat-bodies”) or a pair of bodies, a stiffened torso-garment (later known as stays). 

This waistcoat is made of coral-pink silk, is hand-embroidered with blue silk thread wrapped in silver and decorated with spangles. It is a rare surviving example of a waistcoat made of silk, as most surviving examples of this garment from this century are made of linen or fustian (see below). Although not many silk waistcoats have survived, they were not uncommon during the Jacobean period.

References to silk waistcoats appear regularly in the accounts of Elizabeth I and Anne of Denmark.

In June 1610 it was recorded that a “waskett [waistcoat] of white taffetie bound with a white galloone and Lyned with Carnation plushe” was delivered to Queen Anne of Denmark. [a]

The 1624/5 probate will of Dame Honor Proctor of Yorkshire recorded that she owned “one waistcoat of white taffitie” and “one wrought waistcoat with silk…” [b]

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Jacobean Embroidered Linen Waistcoats

Most surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats are embroidered. This particular style appears to have been somewhat unique to England – I have never come across an example of similar embroidered waistcoats in the French court or the Dutch Republic (although I am happy to be proven wrong!). Late Elizabethan and Jacobean English embroidery commonly depicted motifs of strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles, honeysuckle, pansies, foxgloves, sweet peas, vine and oak leaves and acorns. Animals like snails, butterflies and birds were also common. Such motifs were often framed by embroidered scroll work.

Unlike the garment above, the majority of embroidered waistcoats that survive are made from linen and embroidered in silk thread. One of the earliest surviving examples belonged to Margaret Layton, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant who married Francis Layton, a Master Yeomen of the Jewel House at the Tower of London. 

Waistcoat of Margaret Layton, c. 1610-15, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T.228-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As with the previous example of approximately the same age, this waistcoat has narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings. It is fitted over the bust and waist and was originally fastened using silk ribbons. Main differences in design lie in the narrower skirts and it also has a back neck collar. It is made of linen, lined with silk taffeta and embroidered with coloured silk threads, silver/silver-gilt threads and embellished with spangles. According to the V&A catalogue the embroidering techniques utilised include “embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling…”

What makes this example amazing is that Margaret herself was painted wearing the garment c. 1620 by the famous artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. 

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, Margaret Layton, c. 1620, oil on panel. The Victoria and Albert Museum London, E.214-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Another waistcoat embroidered with floral motifs is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MET). This waistcoat also contains floral and vegetal motifs and is a similar cut, although it does not have shoulder wings like those other examples. 

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Embroidered Jacobean Waistcoat (back), c. 1616, English. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 23.170.1

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Stylistic changes in 1620s Waistcoats
British School, Portrait of a Woman c.1620, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 406064.

By the early 1620s the design of waistcoats mirrored the fashionable gowns of the period: the waistline was high and the length short, which created the illusion of a short torso. Take for example the image above of an Unknown Woman c. 1620. The woman wears a beautifully embroidered waistcoat (likely over a separate pair of bodies) and a red petticoat embroidered with gold. In this instance, the portrait portrays this woman in casual undress as her hair is unbound.

 

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Embroidered Waistcoat, 1620-25, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T.4-1935

The final Jacobean waistcoat I want to took at in this blog post shows the evolution in cut and design that occurred during the 1620s. The linen waistcoat is embroidered in silk thread and trimmed with bobbin lace made from white and black linen threads. Like those before it, the decorative motifs consist of scrolling stems and floral motifs such as roses, pomegranates, pansies, pea-pods, acorns and oak leaves, as well as birds and butterflies. While these natural motifs carry on design elements from previous decades, the cut of this 1620s version is quite different.

The waistline is quite high and designed to site over a farthingale roll or “bum roll” as they were increasingly called. The shoulders still contain “wings” but the sleeves are open at the front, which would have revealed the linen smock underneath. This is similar to sleeves seen on gowns from the decade, as depicted in a portrait of Elizabeth Leicester. The waistcoat would have been worn with the centre front piece pinned edge to edge.[2]

Daniel Mytens, Elizabeth Leicester, c. 1620s. Tabley House Collection via ArtUK (CC BY-NC).

 

 

By the end of the decade waistcoats embroidered with coloured silks were still common. The 1629 probate inventory of Arthur Coke a Gentleman from Bramfield in Suffolk contains a list of his late wife’s clothing that included “2 wastcoats wrought with coloured silk & gold” and a “wastcoate wrought with black.” [c]

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Non-Elite Women and Waistcoats

Many of the surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats belonged to women of the aristocracy and gentry. Yet waistcoats were one of the must basic, and fundamental, garments in a common or middling sorts woman’s wardrobe. In 1605 the probate inventory of Agnes Adams, a Spinster from Towersey in Oxfordshire listed her clothing as consisting of a “gowne”, two “red petticoats”, one “russett peticoat”, one “fustian petticoat”, one “fustian waistcoat”, one “wollen waistcoat”, “three kerchiefs”, four smocks, as well as shoes and a hat. [d]

Over a decade later in 1617, the probate inventory of Elizabeth Bateman, a Widow from Shirehampton, contained “on[e] wastcot” alongside red petticoats and “Frise” gowns. In 1618 the goods of Ann Large, who was a servant to a shoemaker named Robert Flower in Bristol, were recorded as containing various types of petticoats and waistcoats that were worn together, such as a a stammel wascote and a ride [red] pettecote” valued as 8 shillings. [e]

There are few images of common women from the Jacobean period, but we can surmise that their waistcoats likely followed the same silhouette and cut of their social superiors as it had changed very little from the preceding Elizabethan period. They may have resembled the waistcoat worn by a female servant in Spain as depicted by Diego Velázquez in a 1618 allegorical painting.

Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London, NG1375.

As probate records show, waistcoats that belonged to these women were likely made of sturdy woollen or wool-mixed fabrics such as fustian or stammel. It is often hard to know from probate entries such as these whether the waistcoats that belonged to common women were embroidered or otherwise decorated, as inventories are often notoriously vague.

However, it is not impossible that that non-elite women’s waistcoats had elaborate embroidery. As Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee have shown, decorating coifs with cutwork or crewel was inexpensive and not uncommon in non-elite wardrobes. Decorative trims like fringe were also widely used by labourers and husbandmen, often purchased from petty chapman who roamed the countryside.[3]

Blackwork was an extremely common embroidery technique during the sixteenth century and was used on waistcoats (as demonstrated by the c. 1620s example above). In 1621 Eadye White, the daughter of a merchant, left her “best blackwork waistcoate” to her aunt after her death. 

Embroidery on non-elite women’s waistcoats may also have been done in coloured woollen thread instead of silk. A woman’s linen waistcoat c. 1610-20 in the Museum of London (MoL) has been embroidered with black wool in a pattern of barberries.  

Adam Martindale, a Lancashire teacher and Presbyterian preacher born to yeoman parents recalled his sister leaving home after the plague of 1625 in his biography. In this description, he reflected on the changing habits of single women in the era: 

Freeholder’s daughters were then confined to their felts, petticoats and waistcoats, cross handkerchiefs about their necks, and white cross-cloths upon their heads, with coifs under them wrought with black silk or worsted. ‘Tis tue the finest sort of them wore gold or silver lace upon their waistcoats, good silk laces (and store of them) about their petticoats, and hone laces or works about their linens.” [4]
 
Waistcoats were therefore a garment that could be embroidered, trimmed and decked out according the tastes and means of the wearer and they were the most basic form of female outer dress – apart from the petticoat – during the early seventeenth century.

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References

[1] Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), 21.

[2] Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), p. 48.

[3] Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee, The Clothing of the Common Sort: 1570-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 258-9.

[4] Adam Martindale, The Life of Adam Martindale: By Himself, ed. Richard Parkinson (Manchester: Chetham Society, 1845; BiblioBazaar, 2008), pp. 6-7.

[a] Cambridge University Library: Dd 1.26: Inventory of Queen Anne of Denmark’s wardrobe, 1607-1611.

[b] John Richard Walbran, James Raine and J.T. Fowler, Memorials of the Abbey of St. Mary of Fountains, vol. II, part 1 (Ripon: 1863).

[c]  Francis W Steer, ‘The Inventory of Arthur Coke, of Bramfield, 1629’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 25 (1952), pp. 264-287

[d]  Oxfordshire Wills Index, 1516-1857.  Agnes Adams, 1605. 

[e]  Clifton and Westbury Probate Inventories, 1609-1761, edited by John S Moore (Avon Local History Association, 1981); Bristol Probate Inventories. Pt. 1: 1542-1650. Vol 54, edited by Edwin & Stella George, with the assistance of Peter Fleming (Bristol Records Society, 2002).

 

Other Examples of Jacobean Waistcoats 

Patterns

Embroidered Silk Waistcoat – Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), pp. 42-47. 

Margaret Layton’s Waistcoat – Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), pp. 28-33. 

1620s Waistcoat – Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), pp. 52-59.

17th century, Bodies and Stays, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, Research Publications, Stuart

The Life and Times of Theophilus Riley: Citizen, Civil War Conspirator and Body-maker.

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Kleermaker (The Tailor), Gillis van Scheyndel (I), 1638. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-1981-140

 

In 2018 I spent two months in the UK going through records relating to tailors, body-makers, and farthingale-makers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Drapers’ and Clothworker’ Companies in London. While doing my archival research at the Drapers’ Company hall, I mentioned to the archivist Penny that the unusual name of a prolific body-maker, Theophilus Riley, kept popping up in many of my sources. Considering that many of the other makers of bodies (boned-torso garments – the precursors of stays and corsets) were named John, Robert, Henry, Samuel, etc., the name Theophilus was bound to stick out to me.

Penny acknowledged the strange name, noting that she felt like she had read it before but could not recall where. This was until one day she came into the small study room where I was sitting, surrounded by numerous 300-year old hand-bound volumes of company records, and told me that she had remembered where she had heard the name before. A draper called Theophilus Riley had bequeathed a large sum of money and property to the Company in the seventeenth century and, astonishingly, this endowment was still aiding many of the Company’s charitable activities today.

Although Riley was acknowledged as a draper (a dealer in cloth, usually woollen) in the Company’s financial records, and technically he could call himself a draper as he was a member of the Drapers’ Company (by the seventeenth century many members of London’s livery companies did not practice the same profession as their namesake), his actual profession was body-making and a body-selling. Essentially, he was one of the first corset-makers in London.

This made me more determined to find out more about this interesting man’s life. Luckily for me, such an unusual name meant that I was able to track down many records relating to the life of Theophilus Riley – and let’s just say that he was one very interesting fellow!

 

The Life and Times of Theophilus Riley 

Theophilus Riley was apprenticed under John Smith between 1608 and 1616. Like many members of these livery companies, his origins are obscure as information about his father is missing from apprenticeship records. Upon completion of his apprenticeship Riley quickly set up his own shop in Bow Lane and took on his first apprentice in 1617. Given his political leanings in later life, which I will talk about below, it is possible that he came from a wealthy merchant family in London and this would explain his ability to set up a profitable workshop so soon after finishing his apprenticeship.

thoephilusrileyshop
Circled is the location of one of Riley’s properties in Cheapside.

The 1630s and early 1640s were prosperous for Riley. During the 1630s he took out two leases on properties near Cheapside – London’s shopping street – which were owned by the Drapers’ Company. From 1642-1655 he was a Liveryman in the Drapers Company, a position that also gave him power within the city of London as Liverymen played a key part in electing the city’s sheriffs, mayors, and members of parliament.

Riley’s successful career took place during one of the most troubled times in England’s history. In January of 1642, King Charles I had tried to arrest five leading members of parliament. He feared that they were determined to seize political control and to impeach his French-Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. When this failed, Charles left London and headed north where he had a strong support base. By August, the king had raised the royal standard at Nottingham, signaling that he considered himself to be at war. In October of 1642, he led his army into battle at Edgehill, the first battle of the wars.

The king’s departure from London in 1642 left the city under the control of his enemies in parliament. At the start of the civil wars Charles’s forces controlled roughly the Midlands, Wales, the West Country and northern England and he established a new court at Oxford. Parliament controlled London, the south-east and East Anglia, as well as the English navy. London was therefore a parliament stronghold and many citizens of the city joined the parliamentarian cause, including Theophilus Riley.

Records reveal that between 1642-3, Riley was a parliamentarian in the Common Council. That same year he was appointed as an ‘assessor for parliamentary subscription and assessments’ and he sat on several important committees such as those that regulated the London Militia and examined ‘malignant, scandalous and seditious ministers.’ By 1643 Riley had become the ‘scoutmaster of the Citie of London’, the chief of the intelligence department of the Parliamentary Army. This meteoric political rise during the tumultuous period of the English Civil Wars as a man who was proclaimed to be ‘of a known & approved Integritie’ and in ‘great esteem with the then Parlament and Citie of London’ soon came to an end though.

From December 1643 to January 1644 Riley was implicated as a royalist spy in Brooke’s Plot. This was a plot that aimed to divide the City of London by severing the ties between parliament and the influential merchants who funded their war effort, and to broker a peace treaty between the City and the king. This was done with the aim of preventing the Scottish army from taking part in the civil war and to bring about an end to the conflict.[1] Riley’s role as scoutmaster had brought him in contact with royalists Sir Basil Brook and Colonel Read, as well as Thomas Violet, a goldsmith who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes that funded the parliamentarian war effort. For his part, it appears that Riley had become weary of the war and resented the religious and economic demands of the Scots. Riley, whose code name during the plot was ‘The Man in the Moone’, perhaps taken from a popular tavern called The Half Moon that was close to his shop in Cheapside, oversaw securing releases for the prisoners so that they could travel to the royal court in Oxford. Eventually the plot was discovered, and the conspirators found themselves in the Tower.[2] Riley was released within the year and his estates were not ‘sequestred or taken away’, unlike those of his fellow plotters.

After this scandal it seems that Riley retired as a parliamentarian but remained active in the Drapers’ Company. He is recorded as being of the Livery and Assistants between 1642-64, and he took his last body-making apprentice in 1646. When he died in 1656/7 part of his other property in Bow Lane was left to his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Mary Swift and her children, and the other part to the Masters, Wardens, and Assistants of the Drapers’ Company to hold in trust for his grandchildren until 1686. As well as these properties near Cheapside and Bow Lane, his will also reveals that Riley leased or owned a number of other properties both within and outside the confines of the City walls. The will also left a £600 endowment that stipulated the creation of a trust for apprenticing children of the poor of the Drapers’ Company, which is still active today.

 

References

[1] J. Rushworth, Mr Rushworth’s Historical Collections from January 1642 to April 1646: abridg’d and improved, Volume 5 (London: 1708), p. 160-2.

[2] A. Percy, A Cunning plot to divide and destroy, the Parliament and the city of London… (London: 1643), pp. 1-12; John Rushworth, Mr Rushworth’s Historical Collections from January 1642 to April 1646, Volume 5 (London: 1708); p. 162; A. Tubb, Thomas Violet, a Sly and Dangerous Fellow: Silver and Spying in Civil War London (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), pp. 44-46.

Parts of this blog post were adapted from my journal article ‘Women’s Dress and the Demise of the Tailoring Monopoly: Farthingale-Makers, Body-Makers and the Changing Textile Marketplace of Seventeenth-Century London’ in Textile History, which is out now! For more information about body-makers and farthingale-makers pre-order my upcoming book Shaping Femininity
15th century, 16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Busk, Elizabethan, Farthingales, French Farthingale Roll Reconstruction, French Wheel Farthingale Reconstruction, Jacobean, Mantua gown, Manuscript / Archival Research, reconstruction, Research, Research Publications, Seventeenth-century fashion, Stuart, Tailoring

Shaping Femininity Book Cover and Pre-order!

Very excited to announce that my book Shaping Femininity has a cover image and pre-order links! See below for details!

About Shaping Femininity

In sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, the female silhouette underwent a dramatic change. This very structured form, created using garments called bodies and farthingales, existed in various extremes in Western Europe and beyond, in the form of stays, corsets, hoop petticoats and crinolines, right up until the twentieth century. With a nuanced approach that incorporates a stunning array of visual and written sources and drawing on transdisciplinary methodologies, Shaping Femininity explores the relationship between material culture and femininity by examining the lives of a wide range of women, from queens to courtiers, farmer’s wives and servants, uncovering their lost voices and experiences. It reorients discussions about female foundation garments in English and wider European history, arguing that these objects of material culture began to shape and define changing notions of the feminine bodily ideal, social status, sexuality and modesty in the early modern period, influencing enduring Western notions of femininity.

Beautifully illustrated in full colour throughout, Shaping Femininity is the first large-scale exploration of the materiality, production, consumption and meanings of women’s foundation garments in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. It offers a fascinating insight into dress and fashion in the early modern period, and offers much of value to all those interested in the history of early modern women and gender, material culture and consumption, and the history of the body, as well as curators and reconstructors.

 

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements
Notes to the Reader
Abbreviations

Introduction: Investigating the structured female body
1. The foundations of the body: foundation garments and the early modern female silhouette
2. The artificial body: courtiers, gentlewomen and disputed visions of femininity, 1560-1650
3. The socially mobile body: consumption of foundation garments by middling and common women, 1560 – 1650
4. The body makers: making and buying foundation garments in early modern England
5. The everyday body: assumptions, tropes and the lived experience
6. The sexual body: eroticism, reproduction and control
7. The respectable body: rising consumption and the changing sensibilities of late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century England
Conclusion: legacies and misconceptions

Glossary
Notes
Selected Bibliography
List of Illustrations
Index

 

Pre-Order:

USA/CAN: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

UK: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

AUS/NZ: https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

EUROPE: It should be available via Amazon and all good online book retailers.

EVERYWHERE ELSE: Also available soon for pre-order from all good online book retailers.

 

17th century, Bodies and Stays, Busk, Mantua gown, Seventeenth-century fashion, Stuart, Tailoring

Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory (1688) and late Seventeenth-century Women’s Dress Terminology

The 1680s was a decade of change in women’s fashion. The new loose-fitting mantua gown vied for popularity with traditional gowns that contained structured bodices (a battle that the new style would win in later decades) and bodies slowly began to be called stays during this decade. One of the best written sources we have for women’s dress during this period is Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory, published in 1688, which has a section on “terms used by tailors” for men and women’s dress.

Holme was a steward to the Stationers Company of Chester and then an alderman. Along with three other members of his family he was a keen genealogist and heraldist. While his book the Academy of Armory was primarily a book of heraldry, it also contained “Etymologies, Definitions and Historical Observations” of his time, including descriptions of various different trades such as tailoring. Many of his observations correspond with other surviving evidence, indicating that, for the most part, Holme was a reliable source when it came to the terminology used for dress in late seventeenth-century England – at least for his area of England.

In this post I’ve placed Holme’s description of the various components of women’s dress during the 1680s alongside various images from the decade in order to demonstrate what he was referring to and what fashionable 1680s dress actually looked like. Holme’s commentary relates to English dress but many of the images I use below are from France. French styles dominated English tastes throughout the seventeenth century, particularly in the 1680s when French fashion prints began to gain popularity and English audiences were exposed almost weekly to new styles from Paris.

In addition to these images, I have provided my own commentary in dark blue in both the text and the image captions.

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The following is taken from:

Randle Holme, The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very usefel [sic] for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences (London: 1688), pp. 94-5.

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Terms used by Taylors.

The type of gown that Holme refers to in the following definitions DOES NOT refer to a mantua. Rather, it is a description of the type of gown with a stiffened bodice worn by the Eleonore this image. 
Artist unknown, Eleonore Magdalena (1655-1720) of Palatinate, ca. 1680. Oil on canvas. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, 5617.

In a Womens Gown there are these several parts, as
  • The Stayes, which is the body of the Gown before the Sleeves are put too, or covered with the outward stuff: which have these peeces in it, and terms used about it. [Stayes here refers to the bodice of the gown, not a separate garment, although the process and terminology was likely the same when making this undergarment].
  • The fore Part, or fore Body: which is the Breast part, which hath two peeces in it; as,
    • The Right side of the Fore-body.
    • The Left side of the Fore-body.
  • The two side parts, which are peeces under both Arms on the sides.
  • The Back.
  • The Shoulder heads, or Shoulder straps; are two peeces that come over the Sholders and are fastned to the Forebody: through which the Arms are put.

Norah Waugh’s pattern for a court bodice (sleeves have been removed) in the V&A c. 1670-90. I have named the parts of the bodice (in blue) according to Holme’s description.

  • Scoreing, or Strick iines on the Canvice to sow straight.
  • Stitching, is sowing all along the lines with close stitches to keep the Whale-Bone each peece from other.
  • — is the cleaving of the Whale-Bone to what substance or thickness the workman pleaseth.
  • Boning the Stays, is to put the slit Bone into every one of the places made for it between each stitched line which makes Stayes or Bodies stiff and strong.

Boning the bodies or stays: Inserting boning into the stitched boning channels of a pair of reconstructed bodies.

  • Cordy Robe skirts to the Staies, are such Stayes as are cut into Labells at the bottom, like long slender skirts.
  • Lining the Bodies, or Stayes; is covering the inside of the Stayes with Fustian, Linnen, and such like.
  • Binding the Neck, is sowing Galloon, at the edge of the Neck.
  • Eylet holes, or Eiglet holes, little round holes whipt-stitched about, through which laces are drawn to hold one side close to the other.

Making eyelet holes on a reconstructed pair of bodies.

  • The Waist, is the depth of the Stayes from the Shoulders to the setting on of the skirts: now it is distinguished by the Back Waist, and the fore-body Waist, which is each side of the Stomacher.
  • Side Waisted, is long or deep in the Body.
  • Short Waisted, is short in the Body.
  • The Stomacher, is that peece as lieth under the lacing or binding on of the Body of the Gown, which said body is somtimes in fashion to be.

Stomacher of pink watered silk, c. 1650-1680, Victorian and Albert Museum London, T.14andA-1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  • Open before, that is to be laced on the Breast.
  • Open behind, laced on the Back, which fashion hath always a Maid or Woman to dress the wearer.
  • The Peake, is the bottom or point of the Stomacher, whether before or behind.
  • A Busk, it is a strong peece of Wood, or Whale-bone thrust down the middle of the Stomacher, to keep it streight and in compass, that the Breast nor Belly shall not swell too much out. These Buskes are usually made in length according to the necessity of the persons wearing it: if to keep in the fullness of the Breasts, then it extends to the Navel: if to keep the Belly down, then it reacheth to the Honor.

English wooden Stay Busk, c. 1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

  • A Point.
  • Covering the Bodies or Stayes, is the laying the outside stuff upon it, which is sowed on the same after diverse fashions: as,
    • Smooth Covered. [Ie. outer fashion fabric hides the stitching of the boning channels].
    • Pleated or Wrinkled in the covering.
  • The Wings, are Welts or peeces set over the place on the top of the Shoulders, where the Body and Sleeves are set together: now Wings are of diverse fashions, some narrow, others broad; some cut in slits, cordy Robe like, others Scalloped.

The “wing” of an embroidered Waistcoat, c. 1620-25, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T.4-1935. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  • The Sleeves, are those parts of the Gown, as covers the Arms: and in these there is as much variety of fashion, as days in the Year: I shall only give the terms of the most remarkable.
  • The close, or narrow Sleeve; which reacheth from the Shoulder to the Wrist of the Arm, and is not much wider then for the Arm: which were of old turned up at the Hand, and faced or lined with some other sort of stuff.
  • The Wide, or full Sleeve; is such as are full and long, and stand swelling out: such are tied about the Elbow close to the Arm with a Ribbon.
  • The open Sleeve, such are open the fore part of the Arm, that their bravery under may be seen whether it be a mock or cheat Waist-coat with Imbrauthery or the like; else their fine Linens and Laces.
  • The slasht Sleeve, is when the Sleeve from Shoulder to the Sleeve hands are cut in long slices, or fillets: and are tied together at the Elbow with Ribbons, or such like.
  • The Sleeve and half Sleeve.
  • The Sleeves with hanging Sleeves, is a full Sleeve in any of the fashions aforesaid, with a long hanging Sleeve of a good breadth hanging from under the back part of the Wing down behind, even to the ground; in the greater sorts of Gallants trailing a good length on the ground.
  • The half Sleeves with Hounds Ears, are such as extend to the Elbow and there turn up, and being slit or open hang at the Elbow like Dogs Ears.

This image may depict what Holme refers to as “half sleeves with hound ears”. Claude Auguste Berey, Madame Lucie de Tourville de Cotantin, Marquise de Gouville, c. 1690-95, etching. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-2016-8-5.

  • The Rim of the Sleeve, is that part which is at the Sleeve hand either lined or Edged or Welted: but of these sorts of Sleeves see their figures and shapes, chap. 5. numb. 130.131. &c.
  • The Faceing.
  • The Skirt, or Gown Skirt; is the lower part of the Gown, which extends from the body to the ground: these are made several fashions, as Open Skirts, is open before, that thereby rich and costly Peti-coat may be fully seen.
  • Turned up Skirts, are such as have a draught on the Ground a yard and more long; these is great Personages are called Trains, whose Honor it is to have them born up by Pages.

The maid is holding up her “gown skirt”, underneath is her petticoat. Sébastien Leclerc, Figures a la mode, ‘Dienstmeisje haar overrok ophoudend’, c. 1685, etching. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-2009-1081.

 

This fashion plate shows a woman with a brown (mantua?) gown with an “open skirt” that is possibly “turned up” or trained. The blue skirt is a petticoat. Nicholas Bonnart, Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘La Belle Plaideuse’, c. 1682-86, Hand-coloured engraving on paper. LACMA: M.2002.57.86.

  • Bearers, Rowls, Fardingales; are things made purposely to put under the skirts of Gowns at their setting on at the Bodies; which raise up the skirt at that place to what breadth the wearer pleaseth, and as the fashion is.
  • Skirts about the Waist, are either whole in one entire peece with Goares, or else cut into little laps or cordy robe skirts: Gowns with these skirts are called Waistcoat-Gowns.
  • Wastcoat, or Waistcoast; is the outside of a Gown without either stayes or bodies fastned to it; It is an Habit or Garment generally worn by the middle and lower sort of Women, having Goared skirts, and some wear them with Stomachers.

A street seller in Paris wearing a red waistcoat and purple petticoat, with a green apron and white kerchief. Nicholas Bonnart, Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘Crieuse de Raues’, afer 1685, Hand-coloured engraving on paper. LACMA: M.2002.57.186.

  • Goare, is a Cant or three cornered peece of cloath put into a skirt, to make the bottom wider then the top: so are Goared Peti-coats.
  • Peti-coat, is the skirt of a Gown without its body; but that is generally termed a Peti-coat, which is worn either under a Gown, or without it: in which Garment there are [this marks a slight change in the meaning of the word “petticoat” during the late seventeenth century. Earlier in the century a petticoat often referred to a skirt with an attached bodice called “petticoat bodies” that was worn under a gown or with a waistcoat.]
    • Peating, that is gathering the top part in into Pleats or folding to make it of the same wideness as the Waist of middle of the wearer.
    • Laceing, is setting a Lace of Silk, Silver or Gold about the bottom of it; which in a Peti-coat is called the Skirt.
    • Bodering, is the lineing of the Peti-coat skirt or bottom in the inner side.
    • Binding, is the sowing of some things (as Ribbon, Galloon or such like) on both sides the Edge of the skirt to keep it from ravelling; sometime it is done by a Hem: the top part of the Peti-coat hath its Binding also; that is, it hath either Incle, Filleting, or Galloon, sowed about the Edges of it, when pleated: which keeps the Pleats in their Pleats, the ends helping to make it fast about the wearers Waist.

     

    A woman wearing a red “petticoat” under her green gown with “full sleeves” (the gown may be a mantua – see below). Nicholas Bonnart, Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘Philis se joüant d’un Oyseau’, c. 1682-86, Hand-coloured engraving on paper. LACMA: M.2002.57.84.

     

  • Hem, is the turning of the Edge of the cloath in; two fould or more, then sowing it up, keeps it from ravelling.
  • Tucking, is to draw up the depth of a Peti-coat be|ing too side or long, and that is by foulding a part over another
  • Pocket, or Pocket holes; are little Bags set on the inside, with a hole, or slit on the outside; by which any small thing may be carried about, or kept therein.

Pair of embroidered pockets, c. 1700-25, Victoria and Albert Museum London, T.697:B, C-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  • A Mantua, is a kind of loose Coat without any stayes [ie. stiffening] in it, the Body part and Sleeves are of as many fashions as I have mentioned in the Gown Body; but the skirt is sometime no longer then the Knees, others have them down to the Heels. The short skirt is open before, and behind to the middle…

The woman wears a mantua gown that is open at the front and pinned to a pair of bodies/stays underneath. The open skirt is turned back revealing the green petticoat underneath. Robert Bonnart, Lady with fontange hairstyle and fan, c. 1685-90, etching, engraving, lacquering, Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, RP-P-2016-8-4

  • A Semmer, or Samare; have a lose body, and four side laps, or skirs; which entend to the knee, the sleeves short not to the Elbow turned up and faced.
  • The Riding Suite for Women.
  • The Hood.
  • The Cap.
  • The Mantle, it is cut round, which is cast over the Shoulders to preserve from rain or cold.
  • The Safegard, is put about the middle, and so doth secure the Feet from cold, and dirt.
  • The Riding Coat, it is a long Coat buttoned down before like a Mans Jaket, with Pocket holes; and the sleeves turned up and buttons.

This woman wears a “riding suit” with a “riding coat”. Nicholas Bonnart, Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘Dame en habit de chasse’, c. 1670, Hand-coloured engraving on paper. LACMA: M.2002.57.14.

 

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More resources on 1680s fashion:

Arnold, Janet, Jenny Tiramani, Luca Costigliolo, Sébastien Passot, Armelle Lucas and Johanne Pietsch. Patterns of Fashion 5: The content, cut, construction and context of bodies, stays, hoops and rumps c. 1595-1795. London: School of Historical Dress, 2018.

Crowston, Clare Haru. Fabricating Women: the seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

Hart, Avril. ‘The Mantua: its Evolution and Fashionable Significance in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. In Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, edited by Amy Le Haye, 93-103. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Norberg, Kathryn, and Sandra Rosenbaum, eds.  Fashion Prints in the Age of Louis XIV: Interpreting the Art of Elegance. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954; reprinted., Abingdon: Routledge, 1991.

My upcoming book Shaping Femininity will also discuss late seventeenth-century fashions, including those of the 1680s.

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

16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Elizabethan, Farthingales, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, Research, Tailoring

Talk: Body-makers and Farthingale-makers in Seventeenth-Century London

Hot on the heels on my talk on whalebone and early modern fashion, I recently gave another presentation about the work I’ve been doing on farthingale-makers and body-makers in late sixteenth and seventeenth-century London. This paper was given at a University of Melbourne lunchtime seminar and and I’ve made it available for everyone to view below:

 

More information about the talk:

 

16th century, 17th century, Elizabethan, Farthingales, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, News and Media, Research

Talk: Whalebone and Sixteenth-Century Fashion

Recently I gave a talk on the use of whale baleen (otherwise known as whalebone) in fashion in sixteenth-century Europe, particularly England.

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The talk was recorded and is now online via the University of Melbourne Early Modern Circle website. I’ve also uploaded a version below:

 

 

 

 

16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Busk, Jacobean, Object Research, Research, Research Publications, Stuart

Seventeenth-Century Busks, Courtship and Sexual Desire

In 2014 my article on this subject was published by Gender & History and a subsequent blog post titled, ‘“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture’ was posted on the blog for the Journal for the History of Ideas. I figured that it was about time that I reproduced that original blog post based on my article. So here it is!

 

“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Busks, Busk-Points, Courtship and Sexual Desire in Early Modern Europe

 

Fig. 5
French Busk, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 30.135.34

Our everyday lives are surrounded by objects. Some are mundane tools that help us with daily tasks, others are sentimental items that carry emotions and memories, and others again are used to display achievements, wealth and social status. Importantly, many of these objects are gendered and their continued use in various different ways helps to mould and solidify Identities, sexualities and sexual practices.

In the early modern period two objects of dress that shaped and reinforced gender norms were the busk, a long piece of wood, metal, whalebone or horn that was placed into a channel in the front of the bodies or stays (corsets), and the busk-point, a small piece of ribbon that secured the busk in place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these accessories to female dress helped to not only shape expressions of love and sexual desire, but also shaped the acceptable gendered boundaries of those expressions.

Busks were practical objects that existed to keep the female posture erect, to emphasize the fullness of the breasts and to keep the stomach flat. These uses were derived from their function in European court dress that complimented elite ideas of femininity; most notably good breeding that was reflected in an upright posture and controlled bodily movement. However, during the seventeenth century, and increasingly over eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lovers not only charged busks and busk-points with erotic connotations but also saw them as tokens of affection. Thus, they became part of the complex social and gendered performance of courtship and marriage.

The sheer number of surviving busks that contain inscriptions associated with love indicate that busk giving during courtship must have been a normal and commonly practised act in early modern England and France. A surviving English wooden busk in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains symbolic engravings, the date of gifting, 1675, and a Biblical reference. On the other side of the busk is an inscription referencing the Biblical Isaac’s love for his wife, which reads: “WONC A QVSHON I WAS ASKED WHICH MAD ME RETVRN THESE ANSVRS THAT ISAAC LOVFED RABEKAH HIS WIFE AND WHY MAY NOT I LOVE FRANSYS”.

wooden busk English 17th cetury v&a
English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. W.56-1929

Another inscription on one seventeenth-century French busk exclaims “Until Goodbye, My Fire is Pure, Love is United”. Three engravings correspond with each line: a tear falling onto a barren field, two hearts appearing in that field and finally a house that the couple would share together in marriage with two hearts floating above it.

Inscriptions found on other surviving busks go beyond speaking on behalf of the lover, and actually speak on behalf of busks themselves, giving these inanimate objects voices of their own. Another seventeenth-century French busk, engraved with a man’s portrait declares:

“He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover
Who would very much like to take my place”

This inscription shows the busk’s anthropomorphized awareness of the prized place that it held so close to the female body. John Marston’s The scourge of villanie Three bookes of satyres (1598, p. F6r-v) expressed similar sentiments with the character Saturio wishing himself his lover’s busk so that he “might sweetly lie, and softly luske Betweene her pappes, then must he haue an eye At eyther end, that freely might discry Both hills [breasts] and dales [groin].”

Although the busk’s intimate association with the female body was exploited in both erotic literature and bawdy jokes, the busk itself also took on phallic connotations. The narrator of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712, p. 12) describes the Baron with an ‘altar’ built by love. On this altar “lay the Sword-knot Sylvia’s Hands had sown, With Flavia’s Busk that oft had rapp’d his own …” Here “His own [busk]” evokes his erection that Flavia’s busk had often brushed against during their love making. Therefore, in the context of gift giving the busk also acted as an extension of the male lover: it was an expression of his male sexual desire in its most powerful and virile form that was then worn privately on the female body.

Early modern masculinity was a competitive performance and in a society where social structure and stability centred on the patriarchal household, young men found courtship possibly one of the most important events of their life – one which tested their character and their masculine ability to woo and marry. In this context, the act of giving a busk was a masculine act, which asserted not only a young man’s prowess, but his ability to secure a respectable place in society with a household.

Yet the inscriptions on surviving busks and literary sources that describe them often to do not account for the female experience of courtship and marriage. Although women usually took on the submissive role in gift giving, being the recipient of love tokens such as busks did not render them completely passive. Courtship encouraged female responses as it created a discursive space in which women were free to express themselves. Women could choose to accept or reject a potential suitor’s gift, giving her significant agency in the process of courtship. Within the gift-giving framework choosing to place a masculine sexual token so close to her body also led to a very intimate female gesture.

A woman’s desire for a male suitor could also take on much more active expressions as various sources describe women giving men their busk-points. When the character Jane in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600) discovers that the husband she thought dead is still alive, she abandons her new beau who tells her that “he [her old husband] shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”, alluding to women’s habit of giving busk-points as signs of affection and promise. John Marston’s The Malcontent (1603) describes a similar situation when the Maquerelle warns her ladies “look to your busk-points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted.” In effect she is warning these girls to keep their doors shut and not give their busk-points away to lovers as keepsakes.

To some, the expression of female sexual desire by such means seems oddly out of place in a society where strict cultural and social practices policed women’s agency. Indeed, discussions of busks and busk-points provoked a rich dialogue concerning femininity and gender in early modern England. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies (corsets) elongated the torso, until the part of the bodie that contained the busk reached to the lady’s “Honor” (Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon…., p. 94) In other words, the lowest part of the busk which contained the ‘busk-point’ sat over a woman’s sexual organs where chastity determined her honour. The politics involved in female honour and busk-points are expressed in the previously discussed scene from The Malcontent: busk-points functioned as both gifts and sexual tokens and this is highlighted by the Maquerelle’s pleas for the girls to look to them ‘chastely’.

13717486_10157141696510392_4553903368644245883_o
To read a tutorial on how I made my own busk click here!

As a result of the intimate position of the busk and busk-point on the female body these objects were frequently discussed in relation to women’s sexuality and their sexual honour. Some moralising commentaries blamed busks for concealing illegitimate pregnancies and causing abortions. Others associated busks with prostitutes, and rendered them a key part of the profession’s contraceptive arsenal. Yet much popular literature and the inscriptions on the busks themselves rarely depict those women who wore them as ‘whores’. Instead these conflicting ideas of the busk and busk-points found in sources from this period in fact mirror the contradictory ideas and fears that early moderns held about women’s sexuality. When used in a sexual context outside of marriage these objects were controversial as they were perceived as aiding unmarried women’s unacceptable forward expressions of sexual desire. However, receiving busks and giving away busk-points in the context of courtship and marriage was an acceptable way for a woman to express her desire precisely because it occurred in a context that society and social norms could regulate, and this desire would eventually be consummated within the acceptable confines of marriage.

Busks and busk-points are just two examples of the ways in which the examination of material culture can help the historian to tap into historical ideas of femininity and masculinity, and the ways in which notions of gender were imbued in, circulated and expressed through the use of objects in everyday life in early modern Europe. Although controversial at times, busk and busk-points were items of clothing that aided widely accepted expressions of male and female sexual desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing. Ultimately, discussions of these objects and their varied meanings highlight not only the ways in which sexuality occupied a precarious space in early modern England, but how material culture such as clothing was an essential part of regulating gender norms.

 

Interested in reading more? You can read my original article in Gender & History here. I will also be talking much more about busks in my forthcoming book, Shaping Femininity
Research, Uncategorized

Lady Mary Fitzroy and the St. John’s Cemetery Project

A little while ago I was asked to research and write a biographical essay on an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Fitzroy (nee Lennox) for the St. John’s Cemetery Project.

28129st_johns_cemetery_parramatta-1
The entrance to St. John’s Cemetery via Wikimedia Commons

St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.  The St. John’s Cemetery Project is a public history project founded by Dr Michaela Cameron and supported by funding from Create NSW, Parramatta City Council and the Royal Australian Historical Society. Dr Cameron established the project to make the history of this site and the people who were interred there available for the wider public.

As well as a history of the cemetery and its surrounds, the project also contains a database of essays about those who were buried there. These range from first fleet convicts, women from the nearby Female Factory, wealthy landowners and British aristocracy, to men who had come to Australia after fighting in the American Revolutionary Wars. Although this is predominately a European burial ground, the remains of some of Australia’s first peoples, such as Dicky Bennelong are located in this cemetery, as are Mauritian slaves, as well as people of multiple backgrounds and religious convictions:  Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Romani, and African American.  Working on this project really opened my eyes to just how diverse and well travelled (willingly or not) many of the people who lived in the early colony of New South Wales were.

lady-sophia-cecil-and-lady-mary-fitzroy
Lady Sophia Cecil and Lady Mary FitzRoy (c. 1820). Image from Bonhams

Although Lady Mary lived slightly out of the period I usually focus on, I was asked to write about her due to my knowledge of the English aristocracy and my specialisation in material culture. Notably, Lady Mary was working on a quilt around the time she tragically passed away, and that unfinished quilt is still in the National Trust Australia collection.

Below is a little excerpt from my essay:

Annabella Boswell, the young daughter of a prominent landowner in the colony, recalled that when Lady Mary stayed with her family in Guruk (Port Macquarie) in Birpai Country in March 1847 the governor’s wife ‘established herself with her work.’ Annabella went on to write that ‘she is most industrious, and is now preparing for the annual fancy bazaar for the School of Industry’ which involved enlisting Annabella and her family to help make work bags, and to knit and crochet various items. All women were taught to sew in the nineteenth century and many were expected to have knowledge of crafts like embroidery, quilt making, and knitting, as these activities were considered ‘fundamental female labour’ that pushed back against the perils of idleness and demonstrated the domesticity and proficiency of a woman as a competent homemaker. Besides her work for the School of Industry’s bazaar, Lady Mary’s knowledge of such skills is also visible in a surviving, albeit unfinished, quilt that she had been making before her untimely death. The hand pieced and sewn quilt is heavily influenced by English styles and the pattern for it was likely taken from pattern books brought to the colony. Lady Mary’s quilt is made of hexagon mosaic patchwork pieces that are of coloured and printed cottons and silks, fabrics that were sourced from throughout the British Empire.

If you’re interested in reading more about Mary who was tragically killed in an accident near Old Government House in Parramatta Park click on the link below! Mary was fascinating figure who was also present at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball just before the Battle of Waterloo and was extremely well travelled – Europe, Canada, South Africa, West Indies – before coming to Australia, all of which is detailed in the essay.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE

News and Media, reconstruction, Research, Uncategorized

New Interview: I talk about reconstruction, whalebone and more!

Recently I was interviewed about my new position as a McKenzie Fellow at the University of Melbourne and about the research project on baleen and fashion that I will be undertaking there.

I also chatted more about historical reconstruction and how valuable it is to understand the dress and making practices of the past.

If you’d like to read the interview please click here.

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