Shaping Femininity

Awarded Highly Commended in the 2022 Society for Renaissance Studies Biannual Book Prize (UK)

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

Notes to the Reader

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

Selected Bibliography
List of Illustrations

Previews of the book are Available via Google Books.

Where to Buy


“Sarah Bendall’s fascinating exploration of women’s foundation garments in Early Modern England shows not just how artisans made clothes, but how clothes made their wearers. Richly researched and beautifully illustrated, Shaping Femininity is both scholarly and accessible, and its innovative use of historical reconstruction ensures that it will become the essential study of female silhouettes before the Victorian corset.” –  Timothy McCall, Villanova University, USA

“Body shaping garments determined the social spaces females claimed, an embodied assertion, always political. Sarah Bendall’s original and important interdisciplinary study reveals the gendered meanings of shaping garments, in elite and everyday life. History is enriched through her findings.” –  Beverly Lemire, University of Alberta, Canada

Shaping Femininity provides fascinating insight into female foundation garments in early modern England – their makers and wearers, their materiality and their meanings. With a richly evocative contextual background that takes in a wide range of texts, images, garments and objects, Bendall deftly shows how female bodies were a site of agency and contest, power and beauty. A powerful voice of the role of experiential learning, Bendall charts her own reconstructions of garments. The vital importance of making and experience is at the heart of this book, which insists that we take foundation garments – and the women who wore them – seriously.” –  Erin Griffey, University of Auckland, New Zealand

“Bendall highlights the tightrope of early modern femininity as women sought to show their husband’s wealth and status, while not being vulgar and open to ridicule; to present a straight and feminine body without being accused of artifice; and later, to ensure that erotically wobbly or soft areas of the body were modestly contained whilst still conforming to ideals of the ‘natural’ female body. Here, Bendall shows that the meaning and importance of early modern garments were both constantly shifting and changing, whilst also laying the groundwork of Western ideas of feminine shape and deportment for centuries to come.” Sarah Fox, University of Birmingham (review in Gender & History).

“Research in practice has become a desirable goal for many working in the Humanities but rarely can it have been carried out with as much dedication, skill, and panache as in Sarah Bendall’s impressive Shaping Femininity. Virtually nothing is known about early modern undergarments, although they were clearly worn by (nearly) everyone. Moving beyond surviving inventories, images and objects, Bendall reconstructed her own garments in order to understand how they shaped the female body The result is a fascinating exploration of a – literally – disguised history, one that shows how female agency shaped and defined notions of femininity alongside the male gaze. Shaping Femininity not only offers a substantial contribution to gender history, it also documents a thrilling research journey.” – Society for Renaissance Studies (SRS) Book Prize 2022.

“The book is beautifully and sensitively written, and the author skillfully synthesizes complex source material into a coherent and articulate narrative of foundation garments and the early modern female body, as well as the cultural discourses and practices that encompassed them. Bendall notes early on in her book the absence of women’s own voices in her story, but through her analysis of surviving garments like the maternity bodies or the romantically inscribed busks given as love tokens we are able to enter into an intimate world of female experience and personal relationships. Shaping Femininity is not only a welcome and valuable addition to the expanding field of early modern clothing studies; it also makes a significant contribution to our understanding of gender and gender relations in early modern England.” – Danae Tankard, University of Chichester (review in Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal).

“While solidly grounded in historical research, Shaping Femininity will resonate with contemporary readers interested in fashion, feminism and the female body.” – Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Ornaments Magazine

Book Launch:

The book launch for Shaping Femininity was held 4 November 2021. Hosted by the Sartorial Society.
Chair: Rebecca Unsworth
Discussants: Hilary Davidson and Erin Griffey