1. Using my pattern, draw out the shape of the rebato collar on tracing paper (or baking paper as I’m using here). I took size inspiration from looking at portraits from the period.
2. Place the paper on your mannequin or even a styrofoam head to check the size. Adjust as needed.
3. For the intricate loops and inner frame I chose to use two sizes of copper jewellery wire, as this was easy to bend and mould into any desired shape. I twisted these into loops with long stems as shown. They should look a bit like spoons 🥄 🥄
4. I placed these loops onto my pattern to check for size. It also gave me an idea of how many I would need to make, how long they should be, and how far apart they would be spaced.
5. For the outer frame of my rebato I decided to use a relatively thick galvanised tie wire that I picked up from my local hardware store. This was to make sure that the rebato would be sturdy and keep its shape. Again I kept comparing with my pattern piece to check to shape and size.
6. Place the loops on top of the outer frame to check placement.
7. Once you’re happy with the placement start to attach the stem of the loops by wrapping the excess wire around the frame. To secure the loops themselves use thin jewellery wire, winding it around both lots of wire as shown.
8. Thread other wire through the loops,, following the semi circular shape of the outer frame. This will add stability.
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.
I’m delighted to announce that my new article was published on Friday! It’s about the experimental reconstructions I did as part of my PhD – some of which are documented here on this very blog. It talks about why historians should engage in experimental reconstruction, and what we can and can’t learn about artisanal knowledge and practices, as well as embodied experiences.
So far, only my article is available on early view. However, if you are interested in historical reconstruction as a research practice, please make sure to check back to the journal over the next few weeks as my colleagues’ papers will also appear. I will link them in this blogpost as they are released:
Now that the article is out I’ll be doing a more layman’s blogpost series about how I made the French wheel farthingale. But if you’d like to read the article please click on the link below to get institutional access. If you don’t have access but would still be interested to read it please get in touch and I will see what I can do!
This article showcases experimental dress reconstruction as a valuable research tool for the historian. It presents a case study detailing how two underskirts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, French Farthingale Rolls and French Wheel Farthingales, were reconstructed using historical techniques and experimental methodologies. The first section outlines my methodological approach to reconstructing these ephemeral garments, exploiting archival and printed records, visual sources, and knowledge of seventeenth-century sewing techniques. The second section focuses on the experience of reconstruction and shows how this process allows the historian to form tacit knowledge. This section also raises questions and provides answers about artisanal design practices such as reflective rationality, embodied experiences, and tacit skills that cannot be accessed in other ways. Finally, this article shows how reconstruction can inform understandings of the embodied experiences of dressing and wearing. Dressing the female body in the reconstructed underskirts discussed in this article made it possible to observe the garments’ practical realities and challenge polemical historical sources concerning fashionable sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European dress.
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!
Farthingales were large stiffened structures placed beneath a woman’s skirts in order to push them out and enlarge the lower half of the body. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in England criticisms of these garments increasingly focused on their spatial ramifications, decrying their monstrous size and inconvenience. Nonetheless farthingales served important social and cultural functions for women in early modern England, shaping and defining status and wealth in both court and urban spaces. Using surviving textual and visual sources, as well as engaging with the process of historical dress reconstruction, this article argues that spatial anxieties relating to farthingales were less about the actual size of this garment and more related to older fears concerning the ability of farthingales to create intimate personal spaces around the female body, mask the appropriation of social status, and physically displace men. In turn, these anxieties led to the establishment of a common and enduring trope regarding the monstrous size of these garments as women in farthingales were perceived to be challenging their social and gendered place in the world.
Wool was a commonly used natural material in early modern Europe. Besides being spun for use in cloth production and knitted garments (such as men’s felted flat caps), wool was also commonly used in structural garments as stuffing. My construction of a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale, made as part of my PhD research, required the use of wool as stuffing.
We know that some sort of stuffing like wool was used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in the garments because wardrobe warrants, such as one for Elizabeth I dating from April 1581, specified its use:
“Item to Robrt Sipthorpe for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of peache color satten stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone and bent: for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of oringe tawnye & watchett damaske stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone & bent…”
Like most early modern sources, terminology often becomes an issue when trying to decipher what materials were used and how. For example, in this wardrobe warrant it is not 100% obvious as to what “cotton wool” refers to. The fibre cotton as we know it was not unheard of in the sixteenth century, but it also was not very commonly used in garment production (although elite women like Elizabeth I would certainly have had access to this raw material from the Indian subcontinent).
Further compounding this uncertainty is that ‘cotton’ often referred to a type of woollen cloth in the sixteenth century. Although these entries might certainly refer to raw cotton, it was probably more common for structured garments in England to be stuffed with wool, a natural fibre that was very readily available and a staple of English industry. As a result I chose to use wool instead of cotton to stuff the rolls of my French farthingale reconstructions.
Not only did I choose to use wool due to its ready availability in early modern England, but it was also easy for me to obtain because I was raised on a sheep farm in rural New South Wales, Australia. So I asked my dad to put some wool aside for me next time he was shearing.
Preparing the Wool
One of the downsides of using this raw material though, especially when it comes from rural Australia, is that it contains a quite a lot of dirt and organic matter. So in order to use it for my reconstructions I had to wash and prepare it. However, as anyone who has ever worked with wool can attest, it is a temperamental fibre to wash. The first difficulty is that if wool is agitated too much in water it has a tendency to felt; great if that is your intention, but a pain if you just want to wash it. Secondly, wool fibres shrink at the high temperatures required to wash it correctly, so I ended up having to use twice as much wool as I thought I would need to allow for this shrinkage.
After chatting to other costumers I decided that the best way to wash and prepare my wool would be to buy some large laundry wash bags, stuff them with the wool and allow them to soak in a tub of hot soapy water (oil removing dish-washing liquid seems to be the best option here).
While these bags were soaking in the hot water I slightly agitated them every now and then, but not too much in case the wool felted together.
As you can see from the pictures the wool did shrink after being immersed in the hot water and A LOT of dirt came out. In fact, I had to repeat this soaking process about three times for each bag of wool in order to get it to a satisfactory state.
After getting the wool as clean as I possibly could, I laid it out on pavement in the hot summer sun to dry.
As you can see in the image above, the wool was still full of burrs and other organic plant matter. I did my best to pick out as much of this as possible, but I’m certain that some of it is sitting in my reconstructions, which is fine.
I hope this post has been helpful to anyone thinking of preparing their own raw wool for spinning or stuffing. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to prepare your wool, feel free to comment below and let us know!
 Wardrobe Warrant of Elizabeth I, 6 April 1581. The British Library, Egerton MS 2806, fol. 166r.
 Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 36.