Farthingales were large stiffened structures placed beneath a woman’s skirts in order to push them out and enlarge the lower half of the body. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in England criticisms of these garments increasingly focused on their spatial ramifications, decrying their monstrous size and inconvenience. Nonetheless farthingales served important social and cultural functions for women in early modern England, shaping and defining status and wealth in both court and urban spaces. Using surviving textual and visual sources, as well as engaging with the process of historical dress reconstruction, this article argues that spatial anxieties relating to farthingales were less about the actual size of this garment and more related to older fears concerning the ability of farthingales to create intimate personal spaces around the female body, mask the appropriation of social status, and physically displace men. In turn, these anxieties led to the establishment of a common and enduring trope regarding the monstrous size of these garments as women in farthingales were perceived to be challenging their social and gendered place in the world.
As many of you know, during my PhD I decided to reconstruction four items of female structural dress from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, in order for the reconstructions to be worn during photoshoots the most basic female undergarment of the the early modern period was needed: the smock.
The Smock – A Brief History
Smocks or shifts (‘chemise’ in French) were the most basic undergarment of all women and men (men’s were referred to usually as shirts) in sixteenth century Europe, and indeed had been so for hundreds of years and would remain so, in one form or another, until the twentieth century. During the early modern period they were made from linen, sometimes silk, and later cotton, and sat closest to the historical body. Smocks and shirts were worn underneath every type of clothing, and as a result even the poorest person owned a few smocks, and rich elites often owned dozens.
Throughout the seventeenth century various styles of smocks and shifts developed – from those that were intricately embroidered such as the one below, to those that had elaborate frills around the cuffs and neckline. Interestingly, it was these frills that would eventually turn into a separate accessory in the second half of the sixteenth century – the ruff.
Smocks and shirts served two main purposes during the sixteenth century. During the early modern period outer garments, especially those made from luxurious fabrics such as silks and velvets, were rarely laundered in order to maintain the condition of the fabric. It was the smock then that absorbed sweat and other body excretions, and it was this item that was regularly cleaned and laundered instead. Medical theory during this period also viewed the skin as porous and weak and the hot water from public baths or full immersion bathing was believed to create openings for disease such as plague to slip through. Linen, as a porous fabric, therefore replaced the role of skin in bathing practices, as it was believed to absorb dangerous matter that could then be laundered and removed away from the body. Thus, instead of cleaning the skin one would simply remove and clean their ‘second skin’ – their smock.
Cleanliness by the seventeenth century therefore was not focused on the body of skin and flesh, but measured by the cleanliness of linen and the display of objects and garments in external appearance. Kathleen M. Brown has noted that “a clean linen shirt, complete with ruffs and lace at the neck and wrists, indicated not only the wearer’s refinement, attention to fashion, and wealth, but his access to the services of a laundress”, and his attention to cleanliness. Therefore the whiteness of smocks and shifts, rather than the body itself, was linked to cleanliness during this period. This idea is probably best exhibited through the following instance: at one point yellow linens became so popular in London during the early seventeenth century that critics were quick to associate them with the uncleanliness of the Spanish courtiers who used saffron dye as a way to deter vermin, and with the neglected hygiene of those Europeans in hot climates whose sweat and lack of access to laundering turned the colour of their white shifts to yellow.
All smocks during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century (and beyond) were similar in construction, they were made from a collection of basic geometric shapes: rectangles, squares and triangles. These pieces were cut from standards lengths of linen. Although regional differences could exist. Smocks and shirts were usually sewn in the home by women, or female seamstresses were employed.
Smocks also changed in style throughout the early modern period in England depending on the styles of outer clothing worn. Necklines could be high such as on the smock above, or fashionable bodices and gowns that had necklines cut horizontally off the shoulder during the mid-seventeenth century would have required smocks that also had this scooped neckline (such as in the Rembrandt below). Unfortunately, very few seventeenth century English women’s smocks survive in museum collections. So it is hard to establish a chronology of styles during this period.
Tudor and Elizabethan-era Smock Construction
The pattern I used for my smock came from Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies’ wonderful book, The Tudor Tailor. As the title indicates, the smock pattern provided only date until the end of Elizabethan era. However, Jacobean fashions were similar enough that this style would work for this era as well.
The book provides patterns for two types of women’s smocks, and five types of men’s shirts. I decided that in order to get the most use of my smock that I would make option g) a “smock with simple hemmed neck and sleeve.” So no fancy period specific neck or wrist cuff, or embroidery. However, the neckline is very similar to the neckline of the smock that Mary Queen of Scots supposedly wore to her execution in 1587 which is now held by the National Trust.
This style of smock would have been worn with a court style of gown that required a low neckline, such as the French gown.
Because the basic shape of the smock contains no curved lines (except the neckline), the pattern was easy to scale up onto my chosen pattern paper (which is actually the inexpensive baking/parchment paper from the baking aisle). I decided to use a lightweight white linen that I already had in my supplies. It is not as fine as the Holland linen that would have been used by wealthier people during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but it does the trick.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of time of my smock, and as it’s not actually one of my reconstructions there was no need for it to be hand sewn. As a result, the smock was easily and quickly put together. Again, as this is not one of my reconstructions, I decided not to use period specific construction techniques in regards to hemming and seams (as it would take too long) – so I just did those the same way I would do on a modern garment I was constructing. The only difficulty I had with the smock was sewing the gussets under arms as this is quite an historical sewing technique that is rarely used in modern clothing. However, after reading some information on gussets they went together well.
The primary reason I made this smock was for my models to wear it underneath the reconstructions that completed as part of PhD (bodies and farthingales). The garment looked fantastic on them and I’m really pleased with how it photographed, and it ended up working for both an Elizabethan pair of bodies and an off-the shoulder civil war-era pair too!
I’m also pleased with how it sat underneath my Jacobean gown that has a low cut doublet bodice.
So all in all, I think this is an excellent pattern, that, while not strictly historically accurate for these eras, is also suitable for most Stuart dress too.
For further reading on the linen smock, see the footnotes below:
 Georges Vigarello has explored this idea of the ‘second skin’ in his work on hygiene in France. See: Georges Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 54.
Wool was a commonly used natural material in early modern Europe. Besides being spun for use in cloth production and knitted garments (such as men’s felted flat caps), wool was also commonly used in structural garments as stuffing. My construction of a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale, made as part of my PhD research, required the use of wool as stuffing.
We know that some sort of stuffing like wool was used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in the garments because wardrobe warrants, such as one for Elizabeth I dating from April 1581, specified its use:
“Item to Robrt Sipthorpe for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of peache color satten stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone and bent: for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of oringe tawnye & watchett damaske stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone & bent…”
Like most early modern sources, terminology often becomes an issue when trying to decipher what materials were used and how. For example, in this wardrobe warrant it is not 100% obvious as to what “cotton wool” refers to. The fibre cotton as we know it was not unheard of in the sixteenth century, but it also was not very commonly used in garment production (although elite women like Elizabeth I would certainly have had access to this raw material from the Indian subcontinent).
Further compounding this uncertainty is that ‘cotton’ often referred to a type of woollen cloth in the sixteenth century. Although these entries might certainly refer to raw cotton, it was probably more common for structured garments in England to be stuffed with wool, a natural fibre that was very readily available and a staple of English industry. As a result I chose to use wool instead of cotton to stuff the rolls of my French farthingale reconstructions.
Not only did I choose to use wool due to its ready availability in early modern England, but it was also easy for me to obtain because I was raised on a sheep farm in rural New South Wales, Australia. So I asked my dad to put some wool aside for me next time he was shearing.
Preparing the Wool
One of the downsides of using this raw material though, especially when it comes from rural Australia, is that it contains a quite a lot of dirt and organic matter. So in order to use it for my reconstructions I had to wash and prepare it. However, as anyone who has ever worked with wool can attest, it is a temperamental fibre to wash. The first difficulty is that if wool is agitated too much in water it has a tendency to felt; great if that is your intention, but a pain if you just want to wash it. Secondly, wool fibres shrink at the high temperatures required to wash it correctly, so I ended up having to use twice as much wool as I thought I would need to allow for this shrinkage.
After chatting to other costumers I decided that the best way to wash and prepare my wool would be to buy some large laundry wash bags, stuff them with the wool and allow them to soak in a tub of hot soapy water (oil removing dish-washing liquid seems to be the best option here).
While these bags were soaking in the hot water I slightly agitated them every now and then, but not too much in case the wool felted together.
As you can see from the pictures the wool did shrink after being immersed in the hot water and A LOT of dirt came out. In fact, I had to repeat this soaking process about three times for each bag of wool in order to get it to a satisfactory state.
After getting the wool as clean as I possibly could, I laid it out on pavement in the hot summer sun to dry.
As you can see in the image above, the wool was still full of burrs and other organic plant matter. I did my best to pick out as much of this as possible, but I’m certain that some of it is sitting in my reconstructions, which is fine.
I hope this post has been helpful to anyone thinking of preparing their own raw wool for spinning or stuffing. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to prepare your wool, feel free to comment below and let us know!
 Wardrobe Warrant of Elizabeth I, 6 April 1581. The British Library, Egerton MS 2806, fol. 166r.
 Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 36.
The structural fashions of the early modern period in Europe reached a peak at the turn of the seventeenth century. Women wore farthingales, whaleboned bodies and wired sleeves, whilst men donned puffy hose and peascod-bellied doublets. Whilst the ruff, a gathered and starched linen frill that was worn around the neck, was still widely worn, at the beginning of the seventeenth century a new type of standing linen collar became fashionable. Like the ruff before them, these accessories forced the wearers, both male and female, to keep their head held high as they slightly impeded normal neck and head movement. These standing collars also halo-ed the head with bright white, sometimes translucent, linen or silk that was often trimmed with expensive bobbin lace. As a result, early modern neck wear such as ruffs and standing collars projected aristocratic ideas of wealth, power and prestige.
The rebato, also known as a piccadill and underproper (in England) and a suportasse (in France) was a stiffened support for a standing ruff or collar. These accessories were often made from wire or pasteboard that was covered in silk. Although “piccadills” or “piccadilly collars” appear commonly in English sources, it seems that “rebato”, an Italian term, was most commonly used in England to refer to those collar supports that were made from wire. Unlike the structures made from board and silk, the rebato, with its intricate wire motifs, loops and scallops was both a collar support and a decorative neck ornament.
There are well preserved examples of these stiffened collar supports in many museums in Europe. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has three examples of piccadills and supportasses made from pasteboard or cardboard.
Tutorials on how to recreate two of these collar supports, the piaccdill in figure 1 and the supportasse in figure 2, are featured in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two for anyone who is interested in constructing these particular types of collar support.
At least three examples of the wired rebato exist in European and American collections:
As no patterns for these wire frames exist (as far as I’m aware) my rebato is based on a pattern drafted by myself using the rebato from the Musée national de la Renaissance-Chateau d’Écouen in Paris (fig. 5) as inspiration.
The linen standing collar was based primarily on a portrait of a young French woman by an Unknown painter (if you know who painted this and where it currently held please let me know!).
I also used the standing collar pattern in The Tudor Tailor as a guide and took much inspiration from the rebato made by the Couture Courtesan on her blog.
Rebatos in museum collections are made from varying types of metal wire, including iron wrapped in silver gilt or gilded copper wire. So, for the outer frame of my rebato I decided to use a relatively thick galvanised tie wire that I picked up from my local hardware store. This was to make sure that the rebato would be sturdy and keep its shape. For the intricate loops and inner frame I chose to use two sizes of copper jewellery wire, as this was easy to bend and mould into any desired shape.
Ruffs, standing collars, and later, falling bands, were usually made from fine linen or silk. So for the collar I chose to use a lightweight linen fabric. As I was making this for an event I didn’t have enough time to buy period accurate lace from the somewhere like the Tudor Tailor Shop. Instead I found some period-looking 3cm wide guipure lace, which is a type of bobbin lace and was known as Genoese lace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and used this instead.
Additional tools needed were: pliers and a wire-cutter, as well as thread (I used a cotton thread; silk or linen would be more period accurate). As I was pushed for time I also cheated a little on the linen collar and machined sewed parts where a straight running or back stitch would have been used.
Make sure to stay tuned for my next blog post as I’ll be outlining how I constructed the metal rebato frame.
 Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 100.
 Denis Bruna, ed., La Mécanique des Dessous: Une Histoire indiscrete de la Silhouette (Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2013), pp. 75-78.
The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, formerly the Powerhouse Museum, has an amazing collection of shoes that range from medieval work shoes to modern haute couture. The Joseph Box shoemaking archive forms the core of the collection, and when I was a curatorial volunteer in the design and textiles department I was able to view one of the more interesting pieces from this collection.
According to the museum’s curatorial notes the construction of these shoes is as follows: “Women’s pair of straight laced shoes of rand construction with visible stitching and upcurved blunt pointed over needlepoint toe and covered Louis heel. Uppers consist of embroidered linen, lined with silk and leather, featuring a high cut vamp with square tongue, under latchets tieing in centre front, oblique side seams, centre back seam and leather soles. Edges bound in pink silk and uppers decorated with silver scrolls and silk flowers embroidered in the centres.”
Interestingly the design of these shoes leans to a production date in England in the early eighteenth century, around 1705-1715. Now, I’m sure any of my readers that are familiar with seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashions will note that the embroidery motifs on these shoes certainly do not resemble those of the eighteenth century. On close inspection you can see that the embroidery detail features strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles and cornflowers that are framed by metallic-thread scrolls.
Indeed when footwear specialist June Swann was invited to view them at the Museum she noted that: “Although shoes were made “straight” and would normally have been swapped daily to equalise wear, each shoe has been pieced at the bunion joint where wear would be greatest, if worn continually on the same foot. There is no evidence the piecing was done after the present soles were attached. This suggests that the uppers were either made into shoes on a previous occasion (probably not before the late 17th century when women’s toe shapes change to a point) or, less likely, that the uppers were pieced during the making of this pair.”
The presence of piecing in the fabric of the shoes indicates that they were most likely made from another older garment. Going purely off the embroidery, it seems that these shoes have been made from an early seventeenth-century garment, possibly a coif, but it is more likely that they were made from an Elizabethan or Jacobean embroidered waistcoat, of which many examples have survived.
Take for example the embroidered motifs on these linen waistcoats from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This woman’s waistcoat dates from 1600-1625 and features silk embroidery with spangles that depict “honeysuckle, pansies, carnations, foxgloves, borage, strawberries, cornflowers, rosehips, thistles, columbine and vine leaves.” Silver-gilt thread scrolls frame these floral motifs which was characteristic of this style of Jacobean design.
The second waistcoat has a slightly larger date range of 1590-1630 but contains the same sort of silk floral embroidery motifs of “spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle.”
As with the previous waistcoat and with most embroidered garments from this period, the floral motifs are framed by embroidered scroll work.
How an intricate embroidered waistcoat came to made into a pair of shoes in the early eighteenth century remains a mystery. However, as all dress historians of the early modern period will attest, there are few surviving extant clothing examples, not only due to the age and fragility of these items, but also because many were often remade into other items.
Fabric, particularly silk embroidery, was extremely expensive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so early modern people were the thriftiest up-cyclers. Embroidered shoes were also highly fashionable at the start of the eighteenth century, as this other pair of shoes in the Box collection shows. However, as you can see from this example, the style of embroidery, while still focused on floral designs, is much different to that other the early seventeenth century.
Instead of paying for a brand new pair of shoes then, clearly for the original owner of these thought it was cheaper to remake a family heirloom into some fashionable eighteenth-century footwear.
I just realised that it has been ages since I last posted anything, so apologies to all my blog followers! The last four months has been so hectic and now I’m only a few weeks away from submitting my PhD!
After I submit my PhD and mark my students exams I promise to continue writing my tutorial on making a French farthingale roll.
But until then, here is a blog post on my reconstructions that I wrote for the University of Sydney History Department’s blog.
As well as a sneak peek of the awesome photos of my reconstructions by my friend Georgie Blackie, as well as a behind the scenes video!
I recently contributed a post titled, ‘“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture’, to the Journal for the History of Ideas blog. The article uses some of my PhD research on busks and busk-points and focuses on the ways that these items of dress challenged and upheld gender norms in England and France during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries.
If you’re interested in reading the post, head to the JHI Blog to read it!