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:
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
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”.
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’.
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.
1. Using my pattern, draw out the shape of the rebato collar on tracing paper (or baking paper as I’m using here). I took size inspiration from looking at portraits from the period.
2. Place the paper on your mannequin or even a styrofoam head to check the size. Adjust as needed.
3. 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. I twisted these into loops with long stems as shown. They should look a bit like spoons 🥄 🥄
4. I placed these loops onto my pattern to check for size. It also gave me an idea of how many I would need to make, how long they should be, and how far apart they would be spaced.
5. 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. Again I kept comparing with my pattern piece to check to shape and size.
6. Place the loops on top of the outer frame to check placement.
7. Once you’re happy with the placement start to attach the stem of the loops by wrapping the excess wire around the frame. To secure the loops themselves use thin jewellery wire, winding it around both lots of wire as shown.
8. Thread other wire through the loops,, following the semi circular shape of the outer frame. This will add stability.
In 2018 I had the pleasure of being a David Walker Memorial visiting fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. The Bodleian Library contains one of the largest collections of guild records (MS Morrell series) relating to tailoring outside of London. My research aims were to learn more about these trades and their craft in England during the seventeenth century and to see if I could find any evidence of body-making or farthingale-making in this guild or indeed the city.
Although I found no evidence of these separate branches of tailoring in Oxford, the MS Morrell records reveal fascinating and important insights into the everyday life of tailors and the role that these artisans and their guild played in the social and economic community of Oxford at the time. In 1621 it was estimated by the Oxford guild that the trade directly supported a population (tailors and their families) of five hundred people in the city and surrounds. Various donations to poor members or the guild for things such as clothing and burial expenses during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrate the importance of the guild to this community.
The records that yielded the most interesting information were the guilds ordinances, meeting books and wardens books, as they contain both company orders and fines given out when those rules were disobeyed give detailed information about the daily lives of tailors. These records reveal the quality control measures that took place within the trade (and fines received for poor quality work), how tailors were and were not allowed to approach customers, where and when tailors could ply their trade, descriptions of certain aspects of shops and working chambers, and the complex relationships between Masters, Journeymen and Apprentices.
Select examples from the records include a fine issued to Thomas Day in 1600 for “begging worke of other mens customers” and in 1604 a Richard Palmer was fine “for suffering Robert Baylie to worke in his house & to carry home worke to his owne house & to his owne vse, forfeyted & paid.” Tailors in the city were clearly expected to attract their own customers without begging and not to undertake work in living chambers, but rather in commercial spaces like shop fronts.
Other fines were issued for the behaviour of tailors and their apprentices, indicating that the company sought to uphold the behaviour and hierarchies of respect within the profession. In 1622 John Ffayrebeard was fined “for calling MS [master] Steevens late MS of the company Jack a Napes and foole” – jack a napes here meaning a monkey. The most common fine in the guild’s books are aimed at tailors who were “workinge disorderlie” – what this actually meant though is hard to gauge as very little detail is offered beyond this description, so it likely covered a wide range of offences.
The records also reveal measures taken by the guild and its members to maintain the monopoly on the types of garments that were made by tailors. For example, records reveal that during the 1660s to 1680s the guild had ongoing disputes with both the Glovers and the Milliners who were accused of selling garments that were usually made by tailors, such as leather breeches, or ready-made clothing in Oxford, which threatened the tailoring trade. Many tailors were also punished for selling ready-made clothing, which undermined the relationship between tailors and their customers, and the bespoke nature of the tailor’s work. This is all crucial information that allows us to build a picture of the tailoring trade, whose skills and knowledge were taught orally and tacitly from Master to apprentice.
Additionally, these records offer insights into the roles that women played in tailoring and the guild. Female apprentices do not appear in the tailors guild records, except in a few instances where their Masters received fines for employing a woman which was against “ye bylaws of th[e] Company…” Widows do appear in election records, meeting notes and quarterages paid, however, this was not until the 1610s. This indicates that it was only at the start of the seventeenth century that widows, who were continuing their husband’s business after his death, were recognised as legitimate members of the guild and could hold similar powers within the guild as their male counterparts, such as voting in elections. Various records relating to meeting and fines also reveal that widows could have apprentices, hire journeymen and were fined for disobeying orders, just as other members of the guild were.
For example, in 1626 John Wildcroose was fined for trading in his own house under the “pretext of Widdow Bolton whose name and freedom was merely vsed by his craft to bolsten out his fraud”, while later in 1666 the widow Jane Slatter was fined for “setting a journeyman to work without him being sworn.” It was expected that widows should employ their own journeymen or apprentices, as another fine issued in 1626 to Robbe Mooney for “makeinge a contracte wth widdow Norland that for paieinge… he should have the use of her shoppe.” One particular widow, Ann Dudly, was repeatedly fined between the years 1660-70 for refusing to attend meetings when summoned and for “sending to the Master a very sleight answer”, indicating that widows held a similar position in the company as their male peers.
All this information about tailoring in Oxford gives insights into the production of clothing in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England and the gendered distribution of labour within such trades. I’ll be using some of the research I did in Oxford, alongside the archival work I undertook at the Drapers’ and Clothworkers’ Companies in London, in my forthcoming monograph in a chapter on making and selling foundation garments in early modern England.
I have recently signed my contract so I am so delighted to announce that my first book based on much of the research that this blog showcases will be published by Bloomsbury Academic/Visual Arts.
Shaping Femininity is the first large-scale study of the materiality, production, consumption, and meanings of foundation garments for women in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. The desirable body during this period was achieved by using two types of foundation garments: bodies (corsetry) and farthingales (skirt-shaping structures). It was this structured female silhouette, first seen in sixteenth-century fashionable dress, that existed in various extremes in Western Europe and beyond until the early twentieth century. By utilising a wide array of archival and early printed materials, visual sources and material objects, as well as historical reconstruction, Shaping Femininity reorients discussions about female foundation garments by exploring the nuances of these items of material culture in the context of their own times. It argues that these objects of material culture shaped understandings of the female body and of ideas of beauty, social status, health, sexuality, and modesty in early modern England, and thus, enduring western notions of femininity.
I’m very excited to be publishing with Bloomsbury and to bring audiences an accessible academic book. At the moment it is early stages, but make sure to keep an eye on this space for more details about release date, etc.
I was recently asked to be an allied researcher on the ACIS project Textiles, Trade and Meaning in Italy: 1400-2018, particularly in relation to the clothing and textiles at the court of Mantua under Isabella d’Este. As part of this project I was asked to write a short piece on Isabella’s underwear, as part of a collection of short essays that will accompany the portrait of the Marchesa by Titian on the Isabella D’Este Archive (IDEAS).
Now Isabella was living at the time in the early sixteenth century when the undergarments that my work usually focuses on – bodies and farthingales – were not yet found in the wardrobes of Italy’s elites (although bodices as an outer-garment were certainly available). So that left me to write about Isabella’s main undergarments – her chemises or smocks.
To write about this topic firstly I needed to get an idea of what sort of chemises Isabella actually owned. This is where this great edited volume came into play:
The volume contains many inventories relating to the Gonzaga family of Mantua, including Isabella’s household and wardrobe inventories that were taken after her death.
My contribution to the project is not up on the website yet, but in the meantime I wanted to share my English translations of some of the chemises in Isabella’s post-mortem inventory from 1539. Please note that these are my english translations of some of the text from the Gonzaga volume, so all credit goes to Daniela Ferrari for transcribing and publishing these records from the original papers.
Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 234)
Una camisa da bagno de banbaso, lavorada de oro
A bathing chemise of linen, wrought with gold
una camisa de cambraglia granda, lavorada de oro
A large cambric chemise, wrought with gold
una camis da homo de cambraglia, lavorada de oro
one men’s cambric shirt, wrought with gold
due camise de bambaso, lavorate di seda negra suso le crespe
two linen chemises, with black silk trimmings under the pleats/folds
una camisa di tela batiza lavorada di seda negra, inzipado il colar
one chemise of fine linen cloth with black silk work, around the collar [tela batiza = cloth used for baptisms, so a fine linen cloth]
una manica de camisa de cambralia, lavorata de oro seda de più colori,
one sleeve of a cambric chemise, wrought with gold silk of more colours
quatro grombiali di cambralia, lavorati cum oro, listadi al longo, videlicet uno di seda negra,
four cambric smocks, wrought with gold thread, striped vertically, one of which is black silk
uno par de maniche large, listade cum lavorerii di seda negra
one pair of large sleeves, with stripes of black silk
Of interest here is Isabella’s bathing chemise. These chemises may have resembled those worn by the bathmaids in the image from this fifteenth-century bible from the Library of the National Museum in Prague. Perhaps the gold work in these chemises refers to the neckline and straps that are visible on these garments. Isabella may have worn this chemise or one like it when she visited the hot springs at the thermal spa of Abano south of Padua in 1532 (Shaw, 275).
Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 240)
Due camise di tela de renso, lavorate di seda zizola, videlicet una a traverso e una al sbiasso,
Two chemises of Rheims linen, worked of silk dyed with the fruit of the jujube, one embroidered crosswise and the other biaxially
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate di seda cremesina, videlicet una al longo e l’altra al traverso
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought of with silk dyed with kermes, one with the embroidery lengthways and the other horizontally (sideways).
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, listadi al longo
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue silk and striped vertically
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda incarnada
one chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with bright red silk
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda morella,
one chemise of cloth of fine linen, wrought with mulberry red silk
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, videlicet le cositure maestre,
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue coloured silk on the front.
quarantaotto camise di tela di renso, da notte, lavorate cum seda negra,
Forty-eight nighgowns of Rheims linen, wrought with black silk
decesette camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda negra
seventeen chemises of Rheims linen, Spanish style, wrought with black silk
due camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda biancha
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, Spanish style, wrought with white silk
The chemises embroidered with silk threads of various colours around the collars and cuffs may have resembled a contemporary men’s shirt in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Daniela Ferrari, Le Collezioni Gonzaga: L’inventario dei beni del 1540–1542, ed. Daniela Ferrari (Milan: Silvana, 2003)