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.
Did you know that much of the full body plate armour that we think of as being medieval is usually not medieval at all?
If you type “medieval armour” into google images then chances are that something like this will appear:
Yet the majority of examples of armour shown here are in fact from the Renaissance, or the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which is when plate armour reached its zenith in Europe. In fact, during much the medieval period men did not really wear the full body suits of plated armour that the general public have come to associate with the “Knight in Shining Armour” stereotype from film and television.
As Tobias Capwell, curator of the Wallace collection, has mentioned, “in the fourteenth century they couldn’t make [the] big pieces of iron and steel” that characterise the suits of armour in the google search image above. Rather, they found other ways of protecting the body: chain mail or padded textiles, such as the jupon of the Black Prince.
Now you could spend years debating when the medieval period ends and the Renaissance / early modern starts. For example, historians of England would argue that the medieval period ended in England after the War of the Roses in 1485, while historians of Spain would say it did end there around 1510 with the deaths of Isabella of Castile or later, Ferdinand. The Renaissance is generally categorised as lasting between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, although Renaissance is quite a regional term that most often applied to Italian city states. Generally though, it is agreed that the early modern period, which is a little broader in scope than Renaissance, started in 1500 and ended in 1800.
For the sake of this post though, it is my opinion that the majority of plate armour in the popular imagination of the general public is more characteristic of the later Renaissance period, than of the medieval (although I could be wrong, tell me what you think below!).
Armour design and armourers thrived in the first half of the sixteenth century. This was due to one central conflict that raged throughout Europe during the first sixty years of that century: the Habsburg-Valois Wars, also better known as the Italian Wars (1494 – 1559). These were a series of conflicts between the rival French Valois dynasty and the Spanish-Austrian Habsburg dynasty, primarily fought over territory in the Italian Peninsula. Although many of the battles were fought in what is now Italy, the rivalry involved much of Western Europe at the time, and drew in nations such as England, Scotland, as well as the German and Swiss Provinces. The fact that this conflict lasted decades meant that practical armour was not just required, but the rivalry between Renaissance monarchs such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I required magnificent ceremonial armour that displayed their military prowess, wealth and importance.
In fact some of the most famous plate armourers in history were Renaissance artisans who were patronised by key figures of the Italian Wars. As Silvio Leydi has explained, from “the French invasion of 1499 to the peace with France in 1559” Milan was “at the centre of every war between the Habsburgs and the Valois”, and it was successively occupied by various forces throughout the conflict. This involvement with the conflict was capitalised on by Milanese artisans and talented family workshops, such as that of the Negroli family, was established, the most famous of who were Filippo and Giovan Paolo.
The Negroli family boasted customers such as Emperor Charles V, King Francis I, Henry II of France, and Francesco Maria I Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. We know this because much of the armour they created bears their makers mark and has survived in royal armoury collections.
Talented armourers also arose in Habsburg territories such as the Seusenhofer brothers, Hans and Konrad, from Innsbruck in Austria. In fact, their workshop was the court workshop of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, and the Emperor regularly commissioned armour for both himself and as gifts for others. Many iconic pieces by the Seusenhofer brothers, and Han’s son Jorg Seusenhofer, appear in various armour collections across Europe such as those of Maximilian I, Charles V, Henry VIII England and Francis I.
As part of my postdoctoral work on fashion during the Italian Wars I travelled to Austria, Spain and France to view a lot of Renaissance armour. Although this is somewhat out of my usual expertise (although there are many parallels you could draw between armour and fashion during the sixteenth century), I found this learning experience helpful to understanding the connections between armour and fashion, as well to key aspects of Renaissance thought such as their conceptualisation of classical antiquity. This was also when my idea of a medieval knight and shining armour was challenged.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll outline some of the main styles of Renaissance armour that were prevalent during and advanced by the events of the Italian Wars.
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!
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.
The structural fashions of the early modern period in Europe reached a peak at the turn of the seventeenth century. Women wore farthingales, whaleboned bodies and wired sleeves, whilst men donned puffy hose and peascod-bellied doublets. Whilst the ruff, a gathered and starched linen frill that was worn around the neck, was still widely worn, at the beginning of the seventeenth century a new type of standing linen collar became fashionable. Like the ruff before them, these accessories forced the wearers, both male and female, to keep their head held high as they slightly impeded normal neck and head movement. These standing collars also halo-ed the head with bright white, sometimes translucent, linen or silk that was often trimmed with expensive bobbin lace. As a result, early modern neck wear such as ruffs and standing collars projected aristocratic ideas of wealth, power and prestige.
The rebato, also known as a piccadill and underproper (in England) and a suportasse (in France) was a stiffened support for a standing ruff or collar. These accessories were often made from wire or pasteboard that was covered in silk. Although “piccadills” or “piccadilly collars” appear commonly in English sources, it seems that “rebato”, an Italian term, was most commonly used in England to refer to those collar supports that were made from wire. Unlike the structures made from board and silk, the rebato, with its intricate wire motifs, loops and scallops was both a collar support and a decorative neck ornament.
There are well preserved examples of these stiffened collar supports in many museums in Europe. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has three examples of piccadills and supportasses made from pasteboard or cardboard.
Tutorials on how to recreate two of these collar supports, the piaccdill in figure 1 and the supportasse in figure 2, are featured in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two for anyone who is interested in constructing these particular types of collar support.
At least three examples of the wired rebato exist in European and American collections:
As no patterns for these wire frames exist (as far as I’m aware) my rebato is based on a pattern drafted by myself using the rebato from the Musée national de la Renaissance-Chateau d’Écouen in Paris (fig. 5) as inspiration.
The linen standing collar was based primarily on a portrait of a young French woman by an Unknown painter (if you know who painted this and where it currently held please let me know!).
I also used the standing collar pattern in The Tudor Tailor as a guide and took much inspiration from the rebato made by the Couture Courtesan on her blog.
Rebatos in museum collections are made from varying types of metal wire, including iron wrapped in silver gilt or gilded copper wire. So, 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. 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.
Ruffs, standing collars, and later, falling bands, were usually made from fine linen or silk. So for the collar I chose to use a lightweight linen fabric. As I was making this for an event I didn’t have enough time to buy period accurate lace from the somewhere like the Tudor Tailor Shop. Instead I found some period-looking 3cm wide guipure lace, which is a type of bobbin lace and was known as Genoese lace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and used this instead.
Additional tools needed were: pliers and a wire-cutter, as well as thread (I used a cotton thread; silk or linen would be more period accurate). As I was pushed for time I also cheated a little on the linen collar and machined sewed parts where a straight running or back stitch would have been used.
Make sure to stay tuned for my next blog post as I’ll be outlining how I constructed the metal rebato frame.
 Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 100.
 Denis Bruna, ed., La Mécanique des Dessous: Une Histoire indiscrete de la Silhouette (Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2013), pp. 75-78.
The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, formerly the Powerhouse Museum, has an amazing collection of shoes that range from medieval work shoes to modern haute couture. The Joseph Box shoemaking archive forms the core of the collection, and when I was a curatorial volunteer in the design and textiles department I was able to view one of the more interesting pieces from this collection.
According to the museum’s curatorial notes the construction of these shoes is as follows: “Women’s pair of straight laced shoes of rand construction with visible stitching and upcurved blunt pointed over needlepoint toe and covered Louis heel. Uppers consist of embroidered linen, lined with silk and leather, featuring a high cut vamp with square tongue, under latchets tieing in centre front, oblique side seams, centre back seam and leather soles. Edges bound in pink silk and uppers decorated with silver scrolls and silk flowers embroidered in the centres.”
Interestingly the design of these shoes leans to a production date in England in the early eighteenth century, around 1705-1715. Now, I’m sure any of my readers that are familiar with seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashions will note that the embroidery motifs on these shoes certainly do not resemble those of the eighteenth century. On close inspection you can see that the embroidery detail features strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles and cornflowers that are framed by metallic-thread scrolls.
Indeed when footwear specialist June Swann was invited to view them at the Museum she noted that: “Although shoes were made “straight” and would normally have been swapped daily to equalise wear, each shoe has been pieced at the bunion joint where wear would be greatest, if worn continually on the same foot. There is no evidence the piecing was done after the present soles were attached. This suggests that the uppers were either made into shoes on a previous occasion (probably not before the late 17th century when women’s toe shapes change to a point) or, less likely, that the uppers were pieced during the making of this pair.”
The presence of piecing in the fabric of the shoes indicates that they were most likely made from another older garment. Going purely off the embroidery, it seems that these shoes have been made from an early seventeenth-century garment, possibly a coif, but it is more likely that they were made from an Elizabethan or Jacobean embroidered waistcoat, of which many examples have survived.
Take for example the embroidered motifs on these linen waistcoats from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This woman’s waistcoat dates from 1600-1625 and features silk embroidery with spangles that depict “honeysuckle, pansies, carnations, foxgloves, borage, strawberries, cornflowers, rosehips, thistles, columbine and vine leaves.” Silver-gilt thread scrolls frame these floral motifs which was characteristic of this style of Jacobean design.
The second waistcoat has a slightly larger date range of 1590-1630 but contains the same sort of silk floral embroidery motifs of “spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle.”
As with the previous waistcoat and with most embroidered garments from this period, the floral motifs are framed by embroidered scroll work.
How an intricate embroidered waistcoat came to made into a pair of shoes in the early eighteenth century remains a mystery. However, as all dress historians of the early modern period will attest, there are few surviving extant clothing examples, not only due to the age and fragility of these items, but also because many were often remade into other items.
Fabric, particularly silk embroidery, was extremely expensive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so early modern people were the thriftiest up-cyclers. Embroidered shoes were also highly fashionable at the start of the eighteenth century, as this other pair of shoes in the Box collection shows. However, as you can see from this example, the style of embroidery, while still focused on floral designs, is much different to that other the early seventeenth century.
Instead of paying for a brand new pair of shoes then, clearly for the original owner of these thought it was cheaper to remake a family heirloom into some fashionable eighteenth-century footwear.