I was recently asked to be an allied researcher on the ACIS project Textiles, Trade and Meaning in Italy: 1400-2018, particularly in relation to the clothing and textiles at the court of Mantua under Isabella d’Este. As part of this project I was asked to write a short piece on Isabella’s underwear, as part of a collection of short essays that will accompany the portrait of the Marchesa by Titian on the Isabella D’Este Archive (IDEAS).
Now Isabella was living at the time in the early sixteenth century when the undergarments that my work usually focuses on – bodies and farthingales – were not yet found in the wardrobes of Italy’s elites (although bodices as an outer-garment were certainly available). So that left me to write about Isabella’s main undergarments – her chemises or smocks.
To write about this topic firstly I needed to get an idea of what sort of chemises Isabella actually owned. This is where this great edited volume came into play:
The volume contains many inventories relating to the Gonzaga family of Mantua, including Isabella’s household and wardrobe inventories that were taken after her death.
My contribution to the project is not up on the website yet, but in the meantime I wanted to share my English translations of some of the chemises in Isabella’s post-mortem inventory from 1539. Please note that these are my english translations of some of the text from the Gonzaga volume, so all credit goes to Daniela Ferrari for transcribing and publishing these records from the original papers.
Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 234)
Una camisa da bagno de banbaso, lavorada de oro
A bathing chemise of linen, wrought with gold
una camisa de cambraglia granda, lavorada de oro
A large cambric chemise, wrought with gold
una camis da homo de cambraglia, lavorada de oro
one men’s cambric shirt, wrought with gold
due camise de bambaso, lavorate di seda negra suso le crespe
two linen chemises, with black silk trimmings under the pleats/folds
una camisa di tela batiza lavorada di seda negra, inzipado il colar
one chemise of fine linen cloth with black silk work, around the collar [tela batiza = cloth used for baptisms, so a fine linen cloth]
una manica de camisa de cambralia, lavorata de oro seda de più colori,
one sleeve of a cambric chemise, wrought with gold silk of more colours
quatro grombiali di cambralia, lavorati cum oro, listadi al longo, videlicet uno di seda negra,
four cambric smocks, wrought with gold thread, striped vertically, one of which is black silk
uno par de maniche large, listade cum lavorerii di seda negra
one pair of large sleeves, with stripes of black silk
Of interest here is Isabella’s bathing chemise. These chemises may have resembled those worn by the bathmaids in the image from this fifteenth-century bible from the Library of the National Museum in Prague. Perhaps the gold work in these chemises refers to the neckline and straps that are visible on these garments. Isabella may have worn this chemise or one like it when she visited the hot springs at the thermal spa of Abano south of Padua in 1532 (Shaw, 275).
Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 240)
Due camise di tela de renso, lavorate di seda zizola, videlicet una a traverso e una al sbiasso,
Two chemises of Rheims linen, worked of silk dyed with the fruit of the jujube, one embroidered crosswise and the other biaxially
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate di seda cremesina, videlicet una al longo e l’altra al traverso
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought of with silk dyed with kermes, one with the embroidery lengthways and the other horizontally (sideways).
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, listadi al longo
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue silk and striped vertically
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda incarnada
one chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with bright red silk
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda morella,
one chemise of cloth of fine linen, wrought with mulberry red silk
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, videlicet le cositure maestre,
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue coloured silk on the front.
quarantaotto camise di tela di renso, da notte, lavorate cum seda negra,
Forty-eight nighgowns of Rheims linen, wrought with black silk
decesette camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda negra
seventeen chemises of Rheims linen, Spanish style, wrought with black silk
due camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda biancha
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, Spanish style, wrought with white silk
The chemises embroidered with silk threads of various colours around the collars and cuffs may have resembled a contemporary men’s shirt in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Daniela Ferrari, Le Collezioni Gonzaga: L’inventario dei beni del 1540–1542, ed. Daniela Ferrari (Milan: Silvana, 2003)
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? 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?”
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.
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 that has read early modern English sources before knows that 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, 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 not as firm of a 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.
For example, for a formal event these pink bodies from the Victoria and Albert Museum may have been worn with sleeves and a skirt, 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 use of detachable sleeves was probably borrowed from their use in sixteenth-century petticoats (which consisted of a skirt that was attached to a bodice, ie. “petticoat bodies”). For example, in the Dutch genre painting by Pieter de Hooch below, the woman standing in centre wears a waistcoat possibly over a pair of bodies, the woman sitting in front left wears a boned bodice and skirt, and finally the household servant in the background wears what appears to be a petticoat that contains a pair of attached yellow petticoat-bodies over her smock.
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. However, there is still a lot to uncover, and I hope to tackle this question in my book that I am currently working on, so who knows, maybe soon I will have a better answer!
Being a history research graduate has a lot of perks – we get to discuss subjects that some might think of as frivolous, we get to pursue our academic interests in an environment where you are supported rather than laughed at (“you’re doing a thesis on corsets, how will that help you get a job?” I had someone ask me once), and well, there are those student discounts.
However, if I had to say what I thought the biggest perk of being a historian was, it’s the documents and the artefacts that we get to view, read and handle. Documents that very few others could ever dream of getting their hands on. It is a little known fact that the University of Sydney has quite an extensive collection of manuscripts and printed works from the medieval and early modern periods in our Rare Books Library. We have the oldest surviving printed European Torah in our collection, we have medieval music books and we also have one of the largest collections of early modern books on demonology, witchcraft and Grimoires.
In this collection we also, randomly, have a household accounts book that dates to the year 1675 and I had the pleasure of studying it in a coursework subject as part of my honours year. This however is no ordinary accounts book. It was an accounts book that belonged to a very well well known English Countess of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery.
If you are interested in late Elizabethan and seventeenth century English history, and in particular women’s history during this period, you may have heard of Anne before, in fact, she has been written about many times. This is mainly due to the fact that many of the diaries and letters she wrote during her life have survived, allowing us to take a glimpse into the sometimes very private life of an English noblewoman during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England.
This accounts book is also significant as it provides a glimpse into the running of a seventeenth century English estate. It covers the span one year, gives details for household expenses, wages paid and Anne’s private purse.
Lady Anne Clifford
Anne Clifford was born at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire on 30th January, 1590. She was the only surviving child of George Clifford, 3rd Early of Cumberland and Lady Margaret Russell who was the daughter of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. As a child she was tutored by the poet Samuel Daniel and she was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. When she was 15 her father died and left all their estates to his brother, Francis Clifford, 4th Earl of Cumberland. From that moment on and for most of her life she was involved in a struggle to regain her family’s properties which she deemed to be her rightful inheritance. It wasn’t until her Francis Clifford only son Henry died without an heir in 1643 that she managed to secure the estate. By that time she was 53 and had been married twice. First to Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset in 1609, two whom she had five children (all three of her sons died). After her first husband’s death in 1624 she later went on to marry Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery in 1630.
Brougham Castle in located in near the city of Penrith in Cumbria. It was founded in the 13th century by the Norman Robert de Vieuxpont on the site of a Roman fort and at this time it entertained Edward I(Longshanks). Brougham castle’s usefulness diminished after medieval times and by the time it came into the hands of Anne Clifford’s father, George, it was in quite a state of disrepair.
After his death in 1605, and all his estates had been willed to his brother Francis, Anne’s mother Margaret managed to hold onto Brougham castle and started repair work to it. Therefore, Anne spent most of her childhood here. However in 1617 the King granted that Francis was the rightful owner. During the time that it was in Francis’ hands, it entertained James I at an estimated cost of £1,200. It also entertained Charles I in 1629.
The castle again fell into a state of neglect until Anne Clifford finally inherited her estates, however she did not live in it for another six years as the English Civil War was raging and the castle was garrisoned by Cavalier forces. By 1650, after the Civil war had ended, Anne began repairs on the castle. Repairs were mostly complete by 1653, but continued for several years afterwards, the work costing an estimated £40,000. During her time in the castle in which she made it her country retreat, Lady Anne not only restored much of the castle’s structure, but also the way of life associated with living in a castle, something which is evident from this accounts book which details wages paid, etc.
After her death the castle passed to the Earls of Thanet, when it again fell into a state of disrepair. In 1691 Brougham was partially demolished and finally in 1714, any materials that could be used at the castle were sold off.
The manuscript is plainly bound in vellum. There once was a ribbon attached to tie the covers together and there also used to be red gilding on the pages of the book but this has deteriorated.
For its age the book is surprisingly in good condition even though the bind has deteriorated in some places, and some of the pages are falling out . In the past someone in their wisdom had the idea of sticking newspaper between some of pages. As a result this became stuck to the original manuscript in places.
There are two main sets of handwriting in the manuscript. Anne’s in the margins is in scrawly italic script, which looks quite out of place compared to the stylised late seventeenth handwriting of the other person who’s handwriting I could identify: Edward Hazell, Anne’s Steward.
Sir Edward Hasell, born 27/11/1642 in Hildersham, Cambridgeshire. Upon the death of his parents, Edward went to live with his uncle Bishop Rainbow in Cumbria. He was appointed steward (chief secretary) of Lady Anne Clifford in 1668, a position which he maintained until her death in 1676. Upon her death, he was left a large bequest, and using this be purchased Dalemain House in Cumberlandshire in 1680. From there on be became M.P. for the county, and high Sheriff in 1682. He was knighted by William III in 1682 and is listed as helping Wiliam III with his war against France. He died 12/9/1717.
Other pieces of handwriting in the book are those of the servants and people employed at the castle. As they were paid and this was recorded, they were asked to provide their ‘mark’ as proof of payment. Some people’s marks consisted of their signature, for the others who could not write it is simply noted ” ___ ___’s mark’. Surprisingly most of the servants in the household could sign their name, indicating that they must have been literate to some degree.
The book is split into two halves, each starting from the different covers. The first section, which I will not discuss in this post, contains the household expenditures of Brougham castle in the year 1675, whilst the other contains Anne’s personal expenses.
The Private Purse of Lady Anne Clifford
By the time this private purse was written Lady Anne Clifford was well into her eighties. As a result, her personal expenditure on items like clothing or luxury goods is minimal. However, the contents of this section are still very useful in telling us how Anne spent her last year before she died. To get an idea of how much Anne was spending in the equivalent modern currency, I used to website Measuring Worth to find out. As there is no one way to exactly measure the worth of things in the past, as different people and contexts produced a variety of prices for similar items, the Measuring Worth website gives two main indications: RPI, or a Commodity which indicates the present worth of buying an item in terms of spending, and GDP, which calculates how affordable something was based on the average wage or average earnings at the time.
Many of the entries are about money given to people who had provided a service for the Countess. For example she paid the “chaplan for preaching a good sermon”, and gave payment to men who had fetched things for her. However, there are many personal entries that reveal more about the Countess’ personal life. For example, one of the most interesting entries in the section is one that states, “Paid George Goodgion for clipping off all the haires of my head in my chamber at this Brougham castle which I had not done since the 24th September last…” This entry is recorded on the 20th day of October, so not only can we gather how often the countess had a haircut, but who gave it to her and how much she paid him (6 shillings or £38.20 in today’s currency). On a different occasion she also paid George “ffour shillings” for bringing her “a pound of Virginia tobacco”. So we can also gather that she smoked and that this pound of tobacco cost around £25.50 in today’s currency.
For the historian of material culture the best thing about this private purse is that it allows us to see the value of things in the past. For example, two ” ffushion sheets” purchased from the tailor Emannell Jackson for the Countess’ bed cost 2 shillings / £12.70 today. Whilst two pairs of sleeves (I assume for a gown) cost the Countess 4 shillings and 6 pence / £28.60 today, and 14 yards of bone lace cost 5 shillings and 9 pence / £36.60 today.
In this section another large order is placed, this time for all the materials needed to make a complete gown. In this order was “8 yards and a half of cloth serge for a gorone for mee :1:11:2:… ” and “fustian, buckram, canvis gallooz, ferrit ribbon and other thing trimming of it 0:13:6:”. Not only do we have a complete list of everything that was used to make the gown, we also have separate prices for the fabric and the trims! All up these materials are listed as costing 2 pounds, 4 shillings, 8 pence / £284 today. The serge fabric (a lightweight twill fabric with a worsted warp and woollen weft) was £198 for 8 yards, so £24.75 per yard. 
In October 1675 the Countess paid “3 yards of scarlet cloath hee bought for mee at Kendall at 1:10:p yard: :4:10:0: and for the bayes that it came in :1:6: In all ffour Pounds Eleauen Shillings and Six pence”. In today’s currency this 3 yards of scarlet cloth would be the equivalent of £573 (if we use the RPI on Money Worth). I assume that in this entry the scarlet cloth is referring to the expensive woolen broadcloth fabric (usually coloured red with the expensive kermes dyes) that was common in the medieval and Tudor periods. 
It is only by looking at these sorts of figures that you can begin to understand why only the aristocratic classes could afford such exquisite clothing in the past, if three yards of this fabric cost £573 imagine how much a whole tailored dress was, especially since 8 yards of the plain serge fabric mentioned above cost the same as only one metre of this scarlet fabric.
Roughly speaking if a gown used 8 yards of fabric, just the fabric alone for one dress using this scarlet cloth would cost a whopping £1530 in today’s currency (8 x 1 pound:10 shillings per yard, with 20 shillings to a pound = £12 / 8 yards of fabric)!!! That’s over $3000 US/AU for one dress!
However it appears that this fabric wasn’t for personal use as in the margins we learn that the Countess did not intend to keep this cloth as she has remarked “payed for 3 yards of scarlet clothe to give away”. By the end of her life it appears that the countess must have been very charitable as many of the items listed were intended as gifts. One entry states that she “Payed the 13th day to George Goodgion for 30 bookes of devotion hee bought me at Penrith for severall sortes, and different rates which I intend to give away to my servants…” She also gave Robert Bartion (who she has referred to in the margins as ‘Doctor Barton’?) 5 shillings “to buy him a pair of gloves”. This is the equivalent to £31.80 today.
Anne Clifford died in Brougham castle in the same room as her father was born in, on the 22nd March 1676, at the age of 86 – only one year after this accounts book is dated. As a result this accounts book must be one of the last ones ever completed for Brougham castle when it was under Anne’s ownership. What I’ve talked about in this post is just skimming the surface of the amazing information that this manuscript contains, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of not only a famous figure in English history, but into the everyday lives of those ordinary people who worked in her estates.
 Ninya Mikaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor tailor: Reconstructing 16th-century Dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 37.
 Mikaila and Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor tailor, p. 36..