To celebrate the upcoming release of Shaping Femininity I’ve decided the post the pattern that I made of the garment when I examined it in 2017.
A pattern for this garment has since been published by the School of Historical Dress in 2018’s Patterns of Fashion 5. The School’s pattern is much more detailed than mine. So I highly suggest that anyone who wants to make this garment check out their instructions too.
Still, I figured that since I drew this pattern as part of my study notes after examining the garment myself (first in 2015 and again in 2017), and there are no patterns in own book, I might as well share it with you all!
Although I have written c. 1620-50 on the pattern, these bodies are more suitable for the 1630s, 40s and 50s. So ideal for any English civil war re-enactors out there.
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.
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. 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. 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.
 J. Rushworth, Mr Rushworth’s Historical Collections from January 1642 to April 1646: abridg’d and improved, Volume 5 (London: 1708), p. 160-2.
 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.
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
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
List of Illustrations
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.
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.
Terms used by Taylors.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.”
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).”
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.
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 
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? 
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.”
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.
The records of Mary Queen of Scots shed more light. 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.
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.
All translations of French sources are my own.
 Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 6.
 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.
 Anon., La complaincte de Monsieur le Cul contre les inventeurs des vertugalles (Francoys Girault, 1552), p. Aii (5).
 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.
 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
 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
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.
I recently announced that my first research monograph, Shaping Femininity, is now under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. Featured in the book will be the reconstructions of bodies (corsetry) that I did during my PhD (and began blogging about on this site in 2015!), as well as some newer reconstructions. My reconstructions, including farthingales, feature predominately in chapters on making and wearing.
One of the additional reconstructions that I am doing for the book are a pair of bodies dating to the first half of the seventeenth century from the town of Sittingbourne in Kent. These bodies were found under the floorboards of an old tavern called the Plough Inn in Sittingbourne and form part of a larger body of deliberately conceal garments that were found in the building when it was demolished, such as a breeches, shoes and felt hat. They have been heavily worn and contain multiple patches and repairs.
I am using two patterns for my reconstruction. The first was my own that I took when I examined the garment for a second time in 2017. The second pattern was taken by Armelle Lucas and Jenny Tiramani from the School of Historical Dress and can be found in 2018’s Patterns of Fashion 5: The Content, Cut, Construction & Context of Bodies, Stays, Hoops & Rumps c. 1595-1795.
The Sittingbourne bodies consist of four parts: three main sections plus a stomacher. There are a total of five tabs that spread over the hips. The shoulder straps fasten the same way as the effigy bodies at the front, but these straps sit more on the edge of the shoulders keeping in fashion with the off-the-shoulder fashions of the late 1620s onward.
There was definitely a stomacher that accompanied the bodies, only a fragment of which survives. As we only have this small fragment, I have based the shape and design of the stomacher on it and the stomachers of two bodies that are somewhat contemporary to this pair – the Dame Filmer Bodies and the Pink bodies at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Sittingbourne bodies are made from two layers of twill woven linen and are double bound in leather, sewn in linen thread. They are boned with whalebone, which is visible in various places where the bodies have been damaged.
As all the reconstructions detailed on this blog are primarily for academic research and experimentation, rather than for actual wear (everyday, costume, cosplay, or otherwise), in this reconstruction I decided to experiment by using two types of linen. The first is a plain weave natural linen that I have used for both the lining and outer of the stomacher and one panel of the bodies, and a twill-weave linen for the lining and outside of the rest of the garment pieces.
Plain-weave natural linen
Twill-weave natural linen
My main reason for doing so was because I wanted to test how the weave of the fabric affects the garment – both in making and wearing. As most sewers and historians who are familiar with later nineteenth-century corsets would know, it was common for a strong twill woven cotton like coutil to be used. These thicker, twill woven fabrics lend themselves more to everyday wear (there’s a reason denim, a twill cotton fabric, was originally work wear!), especially garments that are worn tightly on the body and prone to strain, such as corsets.
For all my reconstructions of all the pairs of bodies documented on this blog I chose to use a modern plastic dressmaking boning and plastic cable ties. Both of these materials mimic baleen’s properties, which is why I have chosen to go the synthetic whalebone route over the more historically accurate bents/reeds.
The widths of the whalebone channels in the original are very narrow (1/8″ or about 3 mm), with some larger bones around the eyelets 3/8″ wide (9.5 mm). Due to the constraints of the sizes that modern plastic “whalebone” come in, each boning channel will be 6 mm-wide to accommodate this 5 mm boning and 11 mm wide to accommodate 10 mm-wide boning strips. These are similar channel widths to those found on the 1603 effigy bodies, so although not completely accurate for this particular reconstruction they are somewhat accurate for the century.
The original bodies have also been double bound with sheeps leather. Taking inspiration from this garment and the effigy bodies at Westminster Abbey, that were bound by strips of green leather with a suede finish, I am using a soft un-dyed suede lambs leather to bind my reconstruction.
Make sure to stay tuned for part two!
 Janet Arnold, 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), 46-7.
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 16th and 17th-century England, when the female silhouette underwent a dramatic change. With a nuanced approach that incorporates transdisciplinary methodologies and a stunning array of visual and written sources, the book reorients discussions about female foundation garments in English and wider European history. It argues that these objects of material culture, such as bodies, busks, farthingales and bum-rolls, shaped understandings of the female body and of beauty, social status, health, sexuality and modesty in early modern England, and thus influenced enduring western notions of femininity.
Beautifully illustrated in full colour throughout, this book 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 the history of the body, as well as curators and reconstructors.
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.
What should we call the torso-shaping female foundation garments of the seventeenth century? Were they pairs of bodies? Bodices? Stays? Corsets? Moreover, how were they worn? Were they underwear or were the outerwear?
This post was inspired by a question that I saw written on an Instagram post uploaded by the very talented Morgan Donner about a pattern from the new Patterns of Fashion 5:
“17th Century things are so 😍… one thing I’m curious about is that I’ve seen boned bodices for gowns, and then stays, and then stays with sleeves. I assume the latter are basically worn as “tops”, and that boned gown bodices obviously wouldn’t have stays under them… so are the stays only for under the lovely embroidered jackets and such?”
As I did my PhD on bodies and farthingales, and my forthcoming book Shaping Femininity examines these garments and the lives of the women who wore them, this question inspired me to make this post to clear the air. Not just about terminology, but also in an attempt to answer this question as it is much more complicated than it seems!
Why then do I not use the term stays when so many others do? Well, in my almost six years of archival research I have never seen the term “stays” used in historical documents to refer to these garments until at least the 1680s, which is when Randle Holme was writing.
The term stays does appear in the records from the middle of the century, however, it always refers to the stiffening in the garments that are being made – not to the garments themselves. Artisan’s bills will often quote a total price for the garment and then break down the price of each component of that garment. For example, a tailor’s bill might look something like this:
A pair of bodies of crimson satin bodies with silver lace ______ 00 – 00 – 00
for 1 yard 1/2 of silk at 11s the yard ________ 00 – 00 – 00
for calico to the lining __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for silver lace to them __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for stayes and stiffenings __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for making and furnishing ___________ 00-00-00
Therefore, “stayes and stiffenings” refers to the materials used to stiffen these garments like whalebone, not to the actual garment itself. Additionally, “stays” referring to stiffening does not just appear in women’s clothing bills. I have also found references to “stay and buckram” in tailoring bills for menswear, such as a suit and coat from 1680 on this occasion.
This is why in my own research I use the terminology “bodies” or “pair of bodies” when I refer to these garments that would later come to be called stays and corsets. For me it is important to use the terminology that was used at the time, otherwise we are placing slightly anachronistic modern assumptions onto this clothing. This becomes especially important when it comes to answering the next question of this blog entry regarding the ambiguity of bodies as under or outer wear in the seventeenth century.
Underwear or Outerwear?
As you can probably tell the early modern term “bodies” sounds an awful lot like the modern term “bodice”, and that is because the term bodice is derived from bodies! Anybody who has read early modern English sources before knows that there was little to no standardised spelling at the time, and so words were regularly spelled different ways (even when they were only sentences apart). Thus, these are terms that are regularly conflated and used interchangeably in the archival sources from this century.
Variations in spelling included: bodies, bodyes, bodis, bodice, boddisses, etc. “I” and “Y” were interchangeable vowels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries so “bodys” could be spelt “bodis” and then “bodis” spelt “bodice” (so bodys = bodis = bodice, confused yet?). So there appears to be no rhyme or reason for most of the century as to what a “bodie” is vs a “bodice”, or whether one is an under garment or an outer garment.
In the seventeenth century there was no firm distinction between under and outer wear as we see in later centuries when it came to bodies, or other items of women’s dress like petticoats. So “bodies” could be either outerwear or underwear, it all depended on a woman’s social status, the occasion she was dressing for, or maybe her own personal taste. Some surviving bodies from this century contain detachable sleeves (that are laced on with points), indicating that the uses of this garment were flexible, and its use could be easily manipulated depending on the situation it was worn in. Detachable sleeves were also worn in earlier Elizabethan petticoats (see more about that here).
Detachable sleeves on elaborate bodies may have been worn with a matching skirt to form a gown, but on other occasions the sleeves may have been taken off and the bodies worn underneath what we would now call a jacket (but at the time was known as a waistcoat).
The particular decade of the seventeenth century being investigated is also important. For example, the 1660s saw the rise of the very rigid bodices that were retained for court wear in countries like France well into the eighteenth centuries. The highly boned nature of this garment meant that separately boned bodies were not needed or worn underneath. However, I would be hesitant to claim that this means that under-bodies were discarded during these centuries – as this highly boned style was not universally worn, nor would it have been worn all the time, even by elite women.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to have been any hard or fast rules for how to wear bodies during the seventeenth century, and there definitely was not the major distinction between underwear and outerwear like there is in regards to stays later in the eighteenth century, or the corsets of the nineteenth century. However, there is still a lot to uncover, and I hope to tackle this question in my forthcoming book, so who knows, maybe soon I will have a better answer!