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 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.
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 upcoming book looks at these garments and the way they shaped ideas of femininity, 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!
After many months of hand sewing and many pricked fingertips I present my reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies c. 1630-50 from Manchester Galleries.
As I was working completely from pictures, a few measurements and curatorial notes when reconstructing these bodies it was only after completing them that I realised that there were a couple of things I got wrong.
The first is that I did not do the boning channels 100% accurately. Although my boning channels run vertically to the centre front of the bodies, after reanalysing pictures of the bodies I can see that the boning is slightly slanted away from the centre-front at the top, like the effigy bodies. This would have been to allow for the bust and could slightly change the way that my reconstruction fits around the bust area, making it less accommodating of larger busts.
Secondly, I also realise that I did not cut the slits between the back tabs high enough. In my original pattern I actually had them much higher, as they should be, however, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too high so I lowered the slits a bit. Turns out I had it right to begin with! Again this means that the fit of the bodies might be slightly altered, as it makes the waistline lower.
One thing I cannot work out are the shoulder straps. These straps are designed to sit off the shoulder in accordance with mid-seventeenth century fashions. However, the straps on my reconstruciton are very short, even though I checked my measurements and calculations multiple times before I cut out my fabric. Either the original owner had very narrow shoulders or there is meant to be a length of ribbon holding them together. Then again, my blow up mannequin off eBay doesn’t have the best proportions so once I try these on a model hopefully I can work this out more.
Overall though I’m extremely happy with how the bodies turned out and I can’t wait for my models to try them on!
After completing the stomacher I proceeded to cut out the three (or, really, six – lining and outer fabric) pattern pieces to complete the bodies. This consisted of two front pieces and one back piece, with extra seam allowance given on the side seams. As with the Effigy bodies I attached both layers of each pieces together by overhanding the silk and linen together, right sides facing each other (so inside out), from the wrong side, and then pulled them right sides out so that the raw edges were on the inside.
I then proceeded to back stitch the boning channels. This is the second time I have done this now and it is by far the most time consuming part of the construction process. The widths of the boning channels in the original are incredibly tiny and much smaller than any of the modern plastic ‘whalebone’ I could find. So each boning channel is 6mm wide to accommodate this 5mm boning.
After the boning channels were complete I then attached the pieces of the bodies to each other at the side seams. On the effigy bodies the side seams were stitched together from the wrong side so that the seam was on the inside of the bodies when worn. However, the Filmer bodies were whip stitched together from the right side so that the seam was facing outwards. This seam was then covered by the decorative metal braid trim.
After placing the boning into all the channels, I backstitched over the tops of them to keep the boning inside and finished adding all the metal braid trim and some grosgrain ribbon.
The centre-front, all the tabs, as well as the stomacher of the original bodies have been double bound – meaning that it was first bound with a thicker strip of the same silk used for the outer fabric, and then bound again with ribbon. This was done in order to prevent the boning from creating a hole and poking through the bottom of the bodies when worn.
To make this binding I took a rectangular piece of the silk taffeta attached it to the stomacher in a manner similar to the ribbon binding: I placed the raw edge of the binding near the raw edge of the tabs, backstitched it down and then folded the silk over both raw edges and then felled the pressed side of the silk binding using a whip stitch onto the wrong side. Afterwards I then added the ribbon binding over the top.
The Filmer bodies also contain gores between the first, second and third tabs. To make these gores I cut four pieces of linen and 4 pieces of silk to size, backstitched the side seams, turned it right sides out and then bound the bottom with ribbon. I then whip stitched the gores to the inside of the tabs.
Eyelet Holes & Lacing
After binding the bodies the last step was to create the eyelet holes – all 42 of them. To do this I first measured where the holes should be and then I took a tailor’s awl (which is similar to a bodkin) and created a hole in between the fibres of the material. I then used two sizes of knitting needles – 4mm to widen the holes until they were the desired size. After the hole was made I whipped stitched around it until all the raw edges were concealed. To see this process in more detail see my post about how I did it on the effigy bodies here.
After the eyelet holes were complete and the shoulder straps secured, all I had left to do was to lace the bodies together with straight lacing.
I’ll be unveiling the finished bodies and my afterthoughts on the construction process in my next blog post so stay tuned!
 Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.
 Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.
Unlike my earlier effigy bodies reconstruction, the Dame Filmer bodies (along with many other mid-seventeenth-century examples) has one extra component: a stomacher.
The term ‘stomacher’ can refer to various parts of early modern female dress. The first use of the term refers simply to a V-shaped piece of cloth, usually decorated with embroidery, lace, metallic thread or even jewels, that was worn with open front gowns, waistcoats or bodices (concealing the kirtle, petticoat, bodies or stays underneath) from the sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries.
In regards to undergarments, the stomacher was a detachable, V-shaped boned forepart that sat underneath the front laces of the bodies and stays. In the mid-seventeenth century when boned bodices were common, the stomacher could also be boned. Stomachers could also include a busk.
To construct the stomacher from the Dame Filmer bodies I first cut out the stomacher pieces (with no seam allowance): one lining piece from linen and one outer fabric piece from yellow silk taffeta. I then proceeded to sew the boning channels. The boning in this stomacher takes a ‘T’ shape with some horizontal boning at the top.
According to description given of the bodies on the Manchester Gallery online catalogue, the stomacher contains a “central bone and one bone each side.” Examining photographs that I took of the bodies when I was in Manchester last year it seems that the centre front bone is the widest, with the bones on either side being a tad smaller.
As previously mentioned, the width of the boning channels in the original are very very small and unfortunately no modern whalebone substitute is able to be cut that thin. So my boning channels are 6mm wide. The two boning channels on either side of the centre front are 13mm wide and contain 12mm wide plastic boning.
The original stomacher is also decorated with a metallic metal braid in a ‘T’ shape. I managed to pick up this very similar gold and silver metallic braid from my local sewing store, so after the boning was inserted I stitched it onto the middle of the centre-front boning channel.
Next I started to bind the raw edges of the stomacher with a cream grosgrain ribbon. To attach the ribbon I used a half back stitch to stitch the binding to the right side of the bodies, leaving a couple of millimetres between the edge of the taffeta and the edge of the ribbon. Then I folded the ribbon over the raw edge and then felled using a whip stitch onto the wrong side (so the side with the linen). I left the bottom of the stomacher unbound in preparation for the busk to be inserted.
From what I could see of the inside of the stomacher when I viewed the bodies on display in Manchester, it appeared that the centre bone might be what was known as a busk, a long, flat piece of wood, metal or bone that was placed down the front the early modern bodies. Although busks could be taken in and out of bodies and bodices at will, some were also sewn into the garment itself.
The busk in the original stomacher is most likely made from whalebone (baleen), however, as this material is not available I decided to use wood. For more information about how I made the busk, see my previous post. After the busk was complete I inserted it into the stomacher.
The bottom of the original stomacher has also been double bound – meaning that it was first bound with a thicker strip of the same silk used for the outer fabric, and then bound again with ribbon. This was done in order to prevent the boning from creating a hole and poking through the bottom of the stomacher when worn.
To make this binding I took a rectangular piece of the silk taffeta and folded one of outside edges in that that there would be no raw edges when it was sewn onto the stomacher, and ironed it flat.
Then I simply attached it to the stomacher in a manner similar to the ribbon binding: I placed the raw edge of the binding near the raw edge of the stomacher, backstitched it down and then folded the silk over both raw edges and then felled the pressed side of the silk binding using a whip stitch onto the wrong side. Afterwards I then added the ribbon binding over the top.
 Sarah Anne Bendall, ‘To Write a Distick Upon it: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England’, Journal of Gender and History, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2014), p. 199
 Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.
The busk is one peculiar element of early modern dress that continues to fascinate me the more that I research it. Understandably, most people have never heard of a ‘busk’ before and considering the term for it in English (derived from the French ‘busc’) is very similar to other words already in our common vocabulary, like “busking”, it can often be quite confusing when casually dropped into conversation.
GENERAL HISTORY OF BUSKS
Yet from the mid-sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, the busk was a commonly known part of female dress: an independent, interchangeable part of the bodies and stays (corsets). It consisted of a long piece of a stiffened substance that was placed into a stitched channel between layers of fabric in the front of the bodies or stays and secured into place at the bottom by a small piece of ribbon called the ‘busk-point’.
In contrast, modern and later nineteenth-century busks are incorporated in the centre-front of the corset opening.
According to Randle Holme’s book, The Academy of Armory and Blazon (1688), the busk existed to keep the posture erect, to ‘keep in the fullness of the breasts’ and to keep the belly flat.
However, the busk didn’t just serve a utilitarian purpose in female dress.
Collections of busks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York helpfully reveal the social functions that busks played in early modern society. Busks were often elaborately decorated with common love motifs: hearts, cupids and foliate scrolls. Some even bore portraits and lovers’ words, or poetry, making them highly personalised and emotional accessories encoded with various significant meanings. From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and with decreasing frequency over nineteenth century, lovers saw the busk as a love token of affection, usually given by a man to a woman during the act of courting, thus entering into the complex social performance of courtship and marriage.  The busk’s association with the female body, its closeness to the breasts at one end and to the groin at the other meant that this object was inherently sexualised and participated in the construction of early modern sexuality and sexual practices. If anyone is interested about reading more about the busk in the sexual culture of seventeenth-century England, I have an article about it here.
Surviving busks in museum collections are made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal, ivory and horn. Many surviving seventeenth-century busks from France are made of metal or ivory, whilst many from England are wooden. However, due to the sporadic nature of surviving material objects such as busks from the seventeenth century, it is hard to know for sure what materials were the most popular in both countries by looking at surviving examples alone. Other sources such as the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I reveal that whalebone (baleen) was also a common material used, for example a warrant dated 28 September 1586 requested an ‘item for making Buskes of Whalesbone and wyer coverid with sarceonet quilted’.
MAKING A BUSK
As part of the Filmer reconstruction I decided to construct a busk that would be placed into the separate stomacher of the bodies. Surviving busks vary in size depending on the style of fashion that was popular at the time of construction. For example, eighteenth-century busks tend to be short and wide whereas busks from the 1660s are quite long and narrow, as bodices during this period were extremely long-waisted.
The size of my busk depended on the stitched channel at the centre front of the Filmer bodies’ stomacher, which in this case happened to be about 1.5cm wide and 34cm long.
Baleen and ivory is hard to source as it is banned in may countries (for obvious ethical reasons). Other historically accurate options would be metal or horn, but again these materials are hard to source (if you don’t live near an Ox farm) and use if you are not familiar with metalwork. Therefore wood is the only historically accurate material that I could use.
I’m no carpenter, so I wanted to find some pre-cut wood that I wouldn’t have to mess around with too much. At my local hardware store I found a coverstrap made from Tasmanian Oak that measured 2cm wide and was 4mm thick. Perfect!
Turning the coverstrap into a busk was quite simple and quick. Firstly, I had to cut the two metre coverstrap to size. I did this with a hacksaw in my father’s workshop. Then I had to reduce the width from 2cm to 1.5cm.
I marked the dimensions on the wood and then I used a very coarse (probably the roughest you can get) type of sandpaper to sand the width of the busk down.
Once reduced to the desired width, I used the sandpaper to round off the perpendicular edges on one side. I also rounded off the busk at the top and bottom. I then took another bit of very fine sandpaper and smoothed away the rough edges until I was left with this:
As this busk was going to be sewn into the actual stomacher of the bodies, and therefore wouldn’t be able to be taken in and out of the garment like many busks were, I didn’t need to varnish it and I definitely didn’t need to decorate it.
However, as I will probably make another busk replica to use as a prop in presentations, I decided to use this as a test run (so to speak) for busk decoration. All I did was quickly sketch a folate design onto the busk in pencil, taking inspiration from these two French seventeenth-century ivory busks.
Then I went over the design in a black ball point pen.
And that’s it! While this worked well enough, for my next busk I think I will either burn a design into the busk or draw on it with a felt tipped pen, so that the ink really seeps into the wood. Then I will varnish it.
 Randle Holme, ‘The Academy of Armory and Blazon (Book III) (1688)’, cited in Patterns of Fashion, Vol. 1, Englishwomen’s Dresses and their Construction c. 1660-1860 (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 3.
 Observed from a sample of surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century busks taken from Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum collections. There are no surviving busks from the sixteenth century.
 Scrimshaw busks were popular in the nineteenth century at the height of whaling practices and are featured in various museum collections. See: ‘Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk and Summary, accession no. TR*388604’, On the Water Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Keeneth E. Behring Center (2012) <http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/tr_388604.html>.
The second ‘bodies’ (ie. 17th-century corset) reconstruction that I’m undertaking for my PhD research is of the Dame Filmer Bodies at the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery. The exact dating of these bodies is disputed. The museum has dated them according to their provenance: they are believed to have belonged to Dame Elizabeth Filmer, and they have a letter ‘E’ near the shoulder of the garment. Dame Elizabeth Filmer died in August 1638 and so a reasonable date range for these bodies of 1620-1640 has been given by the Museum.
Yet in Luca Costigliolo’s examination of the garment he states that the “long-waisted style” of the bodies is more characteristic of the 1650s, than of the higher waisted styles of the 1630s and 1640s, and subsequently has given the date range 1638-1650. I’m more inclined to side with Costigliolo, but regardless these are an amazing and rare example of foundational undergarments from the first half of the seventeenth century.
At the moment there is no available pattern for these bodies, although I’m hoping that there will be one in the upcoming Patterns of Fashion 5. When I was in the UK last year, I did not have a chance to examine these bodies in detail as they were on display. I did, however, get to look at them closely from different angles through the display glass and there is quite a lot of detailed curatorial/conservation notes on the garment on the Gallery of Costume website.
So how did I draft a pattern?
There are two pictures of these bodies lying flat, one in Norah Waugh’s The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1600-1930, and the other in Jenny Tiramani and Susan North’s Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two. On the Gallery of Costume website there are also some measurements for the bodies. So by scaling up the pictures that I have with the measurements given, I was able to draft my own pattern for these bodies. Of course the nature of bodies, being boned, means that they may not have been laying completely flat in those pictures, however, after making a mock up I feel fairly confident that my pattern is accurate in shape and size to the original.
The Filmer bodies consist of four separate parts: two front sections and two back sections. These bodies lace together at the front with nineteen pairs of eyelet holes, but unlike the effigy bodies, they have a separate stomacher over which the lacing sits. The stomacher in these bodies is fully boned, and I can’t be sure, but there does appear to be a busk made from a thicker piece of whalebone or wood in the centre of the stomacher as well. 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 are six tabs at the bottom of the bodies that spread over the hips, and between the first and second tab on either side of the front, a gore made from silk and linen has been added.
These bodies are made from a crimson silk satin with a linen twill lining, and are bound with a pale blue silk ribbon. The bodies are stitched all over in blue silk thread, stiffened with whalebone and are trimmed with a metal thread braid.
For my reconstruction, I decided to use a linen for the lining and yellow gold silk taffeta for the outside. Queen Henrietta Maria’s wardrobe accounts from the same period contain entries for both silk taffeta and silk satin bodies, and one of the bodies in these entries was yellow. Many portraits of the Queen from the period also depict her in yellow silks, so I tried to find a shade of yellow similar to those gowns she was depicted in.
The widths of the whalebone channels in this style are incredibly tiny and much smaller than the both the effigy bodies and another bodie that is contemporary to this. For both my effigy reconstruction and this one, I chose to use a modern plastic dressmaking boning and plastic cable ties, as both of these mimic baleen’s properties. Unfortunately, there is no way that I would be able to cut these down to the same width as the original, so each boning channel will be 6mm wide to accommodate this 5mm boning. These are the same channel widths as found on the 1603 effigy bodies, so although not completely accurate for this particular reconstruction they are accurate for the period.
The original bodies are decorated with a metal braid trim, and I was lucky enough to find this very similar metallic gold and silver braid at my local sewing supplies store.
 In the museum catalogue these are called ‘stays’, however, I prefer to use the term bodies as this is what they were called at the time they were made and worn. The term stays does not come into being until the late seventeenth century.
 Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.