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 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.
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 synthetic whalebone, which mimics 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.
After blogging about the process of reconstructing the earliest pair of surviving English bodies that were found on the 1603 effigy of Queen Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey, one of the most frequent questions that I received was: do you think these bodies actually belong to the Queen?
My answer: no… and yes, maybe.
Funerary records from the time list that an effigy “representing her late Majestie with a paire of straight bodies…” was ordered from a man called John Colte, and these ‘straight bodies’ were probably made by the Queen’s tailor William Jones. Although the Queen never wore these bodies, considering their hasty construction between Elizabeth’s death and her funerary procession, it is probable that their design and construction was based on styles of bodies (and thus measurements) that Jones had previously made for the Queen. Yet, as some people have pointed out, they could also have been made purely for the effigy – as the two were ordered together. To me though, it would seem easier to make a garment from pre-existing measurements and patterns, and simply construct the effigy to fit the garments, rather than the other way around. Certainly, an effigy would probably be much faster to construct than the garments that sat over it.
Surprisingly, the process of trying my reconstruction of these bodies on a model seemed to confirm contemporary accounts about Elizabeth I’s appearance, which leads me to believe that they were made according to previous patterns that her tailor had made, and possibly previous measurements.
The average height of women during the Tudor era was approximately 158cm and my model was an AU size 6 (UK 6 / US 2) and 156cm (5’2”) tall, so just a tad shorter than the average height during this period. When my model was laced into the bodies they nearly fit her around the torso, with only an inch gap between the centre front openings. However, the underarms cut into her, the shoulder straps were far too big and the back jutted up past shoulder height. This indicates that I need a taller model with a longer torso to accurately fit these bodies.
In 1557 the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Michiel, described Elizabeth who was then 23 years old as “tall and well formed.” Later Francis Bacon stated that she was “tall of stature” and John Hayward described that she “was slender and straight…” The findings from my experiment of placing the bodies on a slender but petite model seems then to confirm that these bodies were tailored for a woman who was not only slender but also tall and long in the torso, just as Elizabeth is described as being.
Okay, so the bodies were designed to fit a taller woman (or effigy), but what about the size of the bodies. Surely, they are far too small for someone (besides a child) to have actually worn them?? As I mentioned previously, the bodies did fit my model around her torso, with only a small gap at the front (when laced very tightly). However, as the portrait of the Countess of Southampton indicates, they were probably designed to be worn with the centre front pieces touching side by side, which means my model was just a tad too big for them.
Although Elizabeth was described as being tall for the time, the tiny size of her waist was not unique, rather, it seems she was quite average. My reconstruction of the effigy bodies measures 53.4cm (21”) in the waist and 73.6cm (29”) in the bust, placing the wearer as an AU size 4 (UK 4 / US 0) or smaller. Some commentators (and my supervisor) have commented that maybe this was because the Queen was quite sick in the last few months of her life. Whilst this is true, Janet Arnold records that another pair of bodies dated earlier to 1598 from Germany, known as the von Neuburg bodies, had an even smaller waist measurement of 50.8cm (20”) and bust of 71.1cm (28”). A much later bodice, which would have been worn to court, from the 1660s at the Museum of London has an even smaller 48cm (19”) waist measurement! Numerous other seventeenth-century bodies and bodices in other collections all show similar measurements, which means that the size of the effigy bodies is not an anomaly. It is possible that maybe a couple of inches was taken off the centre front panels of the pattern to fit the effigy better. Unfortunately, this effigy was redressed in the eighteenth century so we do not have the original outer garments that over the top of these to compare for size. Presumably those garments would have been chosen from the vast wardrobe that Elizabeth owned.
So did these bodies belong to Elizabeth I?
No they didn’t, as we have certain proof that were commissioned after she died for her effigy. However, I am inclined to believe that they were made from previous patterns for the style of bodies that would have been worn by the Queen and the measurements were possibly taken from previous garments made for the Queen… although we will never know for sure.
* If you’d like to see a much more thorough and detailed use of historical reconstruction to learn about past historical figures, dress historian Hilary Davidson has written an excellent piece ‘Reconstructing Jane Austen’s Silk Pelisse, 1812-1814‘ in the Journal of Costume.
 Janet Arnold, ‘The ‘pair of straight bodies’ and ‘a pair of drawers’ dating from 1603 which Clothe the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey’, Costume, Vol. 41 (2007), p. 1.
 Ninya Mikaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor tailor: Reconstructing 16th-century Dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 9.
 Francis Bacon, The felicity of Queen Elizabeth: and her times, with other things; by the Right Honorable Francis Ld Bacon Viscount St Alban. (LONDON: Printed by T. Newcomb, for George Latham at the Bishops Head in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651), p. 18; John Hayward, Annals of the First Four Years of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Volume 7, John Bruce, ed. (London: Camden Society, 1840), p. 7.
 Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c. 1560-1620 (London: MacMillan, 1985), p. 127.