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
In her 2001 book The Corset: A Cultural History Valerie Steele claimed that vasquines and basquines were early types of corsets:
“The other precursor of the corset was the basquine or vasquine, a laced bodice to which was attached a hooped skirt or farthingale. The vasquine apparently originated in Spain in the early sixteenth century, and quickly spread to Italy and France.”
But were they?
As many of you may already know, my book on early modern foundation garments, Shaping Femininity, is currently under contract with Bloomsbury (anticipated release is mid-2021). Although my book primarily analyses how bodies and farthingales shaped the lives of women in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, during my PhD I also began to examine the French context of these garments too.
Vasquine and basquine are not terms one comes across much in sixteenth-century English sources, and as a result I don’t really talk about these garments in my forthcoming book. However, they are very common in sixteenth-century French and Spanish sources, and so I thought that I would address the question of what they are (or at least what I think they are) here on my blog.
Basquińas and Vasquinas in Spain
Let’s start at the beginning – Spain.
In Spain the basquińa was, as Spanish fashion historians Carmen Bernis and Amalia Descalzo have outlined, a type of skirt.
“The basquińa was an overskirt that had neither openings nor a train. Judging by the patterns provided by Alcega, it was gathered or pleated at the waist and was fuller at the back than at the front. Some of the basquińas shown in Alecega’s book are paired with a sleevess low-necked bodice (cuerpo bajo).”
In Alcega’s pattern book, published in 1580, the garment is spelt “Vasquina” and it appears that this was a common spelling variation. As you can see from the images below, taken from Alcega’s manual, the Vasquina could be a skirt or a skirt with an attached bodice.
So, in Spain it was type of skirt that was sometimes accompanied by a bodice called a cuerpo bajo. There is no indication that the bodice of this garment was stiffened with bents or whalebone, although by the end of the sixteenth century it certainly could have been.
What about France?
Vasquines and Basquines in France
The term becomes a little more complicated when you look at the French sources, where, like in Spanish it was also spelt with an interchangeable v[asquine] or b[asquine]. Indeed, in contemporary French sources this garment is always mentioned alongside the farthingale so it would be tempting to think of this garment as a corset, another stiffened garment.
Take, for example, two published denunciations of fashionable dress from sixteenth-century France.
Besides the hilarious title of this work – The complaint of Mr Bum against the inventors of farthingales – the complaint mentions vasquines alongside farthingales, although it does not really describe what they are or what is so bad about them:
Mauldiectz soient ses beaux inventeurs
Ces Coyons ces passementeurs
De vertugalles and vasquines 
Execrable are these handsome inventors
That believe these lies
about farthingales & vasquines
The next is a French Catholic clerical remonstrance from 1563 called Le Blason des Basquines et vertvgalles that pleads with women to stop wearing these garments. The text begins by stating that “Vous dames et damoyselles, Qui demontrez qu’estes rebelles A Dieu, vostre Pere et Seigneur [You Ladies and girls who demonstrate rebellion against God, your Father and Lord]”, connecting the wearing of such items specifically with rebellion against God. It goes on to say:
Que vous seruent ces vertugalles,
Sinon engendrer des scandalles?
Quel bien apportent vos basquines
Fors de lubricité les signes? Quel fruit vient de vos paremens? 
What use are these farthingales,
If not to generate scandal?
What good are your basquines
Other than to indicate lust?
What fruit comes from your adorning trickery?
Again, no description of what basquines are, just that they were associated with farthingales and they were clearly provocative garments (in the eyes of this moralist anyway).
So, vasquines/basquines seem to have been garments that were commonly worn with farthingales. But this does not mean that they were a type of early corset.
In 1611 Randle Cotgrave’s French to English dictionary described these garments as:
“Basquine. A Vardingale of the old fashions; or a Spanish Vardingale; see Vasquine.”
“Vasquine: f. A kirtle or Petticoat,; also, a Spanish vardingale.”
By the time that Cotgrave wrote his dictionary, these garments had been around for more than 50 years and so it’s meaning may have changed many times during that period. He also seems to reiterate the confusion of earlier descriptions that associate these garments with farthingales.
To me, it doesn’t make sense to me that French sources would refer to the Spanish farthingale (the only type known of at the time that the previously mentioned French denunciations were published) as both a vertugalle and a basquine.
So what was a vasquine or basquine? Was it a corset? A type of farthingale? A bodice?
It would appear that Cotgrave’s definition of this garment as a petticoat or kirtle is the most accurate, and this reflects the meaning of this garment in Spain.
The records of Mary Queen of Scots shed more light. The 1562 wardrobe of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been raised at the French court until her return to Scotland in 1560 and so dressed in French fashions, gives a clearer idea of what these garments were. Her inventory is recorded in French and it contains many vasquines, described as:
Les Vasquines de Toile Dor et Toitie Dargent
Vasquines of cloth or gold and cloth of silver.
Vne vafquine de toille dargent frisee bordée de passement d’argent
A vasquine of cloth of silver trimmed with curly silver lace
Vne vafquyne de fatin blanc auecq le corps A vasquine of white satin with the bodice
Vne vafquyne de fatin noyer auecq le corps et les bourletz
A vasquine of black satin with the bodice and the rolls
Most importantly, in these accounts vasquines are mentioned separately to farthingales, so they are not the same garment. They are also mentioned as having “bodices” so they could not have been a corset in the true sense of the word.
This seems to be confirmed by the very source that Steele quoted as referring to a corset. François Rabelais wrote sometime before 1553 that:
Au dessus de la chemise vestoient la bella Vasquine de queleque beau camelot de soye: sus icelle vestoient la Verdugale de tafetas blanc, rouge, tanne, gris, &c.
Over the chemise is worn a beautiful vasquine of pure silk camlblet, and over this is worn a verdugale of white, red, tan, grey, etc.
The first garment any woman wore over her chemise before 1550 was a kirtle or petticoat, and then a farthingale could be placed over the top of this.
So, what were these garments?
In summary: vasquines and basquines were not corsets, rather, they were a style of petticoat or kirtle of Spanish origin, that often consisted of a skirt with an attached bodice. It is possible that the bodices of these garments were stiffened with bents or whalebone, especially by the end of the sixteenth century. However, they were not corsets in the true sense of the term and so should not be labelled as such.
All translations of French sources are my own.
 Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 6.
 Carmen Bernis and Amalia Descalzo, ‘Spanish Female Dress in the Habsburg Period’, in Fashion at the Courts of Early Modern Europe, Vol. 1, edited by José Luis Colomer and Amalia Descalzo (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2014), p. 44.
 Anon., La complaincte de Monsieur le Cul contre les inventeurs des vertugalles (Francoys Girault, 1552), p. Aii (5).
 Anon, Le Blason des Basqvines et Vertugalles: Avec la belle remontrance qu’on faict quelques dames quand on leur a remonstré qu’il n’en failloit plus porter (Lyon: Benoist Rigaud, 1563), reprinted by A. Pinard (Paris: 1833), A iij r.
 Joseph Robertson, Inventaires de la Royne Descosse, Douairiere de France: Catalogues of the Jewels, Dresses, Furniture, Books, and Paintings of Mary Queen of Scots 1556 – 1569 (Edinburgh: 1863), pp. 60-74
 François Rabelais, Oeuvres de Maître François Rabelais avec des remarques historiques et critiques de Mr. le Duchat. Nouvelle édition, ornée de figures de B. Picart, etc… augmentée de quantité de nouvelles remarques de M. le Duchat, de celles de l’édition angloise des Oeuvres de Rabelais, de ses lettres et de plusieurs pièces curieuses et intéressantes, Volume 1 (Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1741), p. 181
Hot on the heels on my talk on whalebone and early modern fashion, I recently gave another presentation about the work I’ve been doing on farthingale-makers and body-makers in late sixteenth and seventeenth-century London. This paper was given at a University of Melbourne lunchtime seminar and and I’ve made it available for everyone to view below:
A little while ago I was asked to research and write a biographical essay on an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Fitzroy (nee Lennox) for the St. John’s Cemetery Project.
St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery. The St. John’s Cemetery Project is a public history project founded by Dr Michaela Cameron and supported by funding from Create NSW, Parramatta City Council and the Royal Australian Historical Society. Dr Cameron established the project to make the history of this site and the people who were interred there available for the wider public.
As well as a history of the cemetery and its surrounds, the project also contains a database of essays about those who were buried there. These range from first fleet convicts, women from the nearby Female Factory, wealthy landowners and British aristocracy, to men who had come to Australia after fighting in the American Revolutionary Wars. Although this is predominately a European burial ground, the remains of some of Australia’s first peoples, such as Dicky Bennelong are located in this cemetery, as are Mauritian slaves, as well as people of multiple backgrounds and religious convictions: Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Romani, and African American. Working on this project really opened my eyes to just how diverse and well travelled (willingly or not) many of the people who lived in the early colony of New South Wales were.
Although Lady Mary lived slightly out of the period I usually focus on, I was asked to write about her due to my knowledge of the English aristocracy and my specialisation in material culture. Notably, Lady Mary was working on a quilt around the time she tragically passed away, and that unfinished quilt is still in the National Trust Australia collection.
Below is a little excerpt from my essay:
Annabella Boswell, the young daughter of a prominent landowner in the colony, recalled that when Lady Mary stayed with her family in Guruk (Port Macquarie) in Birpai Country in March 1847 the governor’s wife ‘established herself with her work.’ Annabella went on to write that ‘she is most industrious, and is now preparing for the annual fancy bazaar for the School of Industry’ which involved enlisting Annabella and her family to help make work bags, and to knit and crochet various items. All women were taught to sew in the nineteenth century and many were expected to have knowledge of crafts like embroidery, quilt making, and knitting, as these activities were considered ‘fundamental female labour’ that pushed back against the perils of idleness and demonstrated the domesticity and proficiency of a woman as a competent homemaker. Besides her work for the School of Industry’s bazaar, Lady Mary’s knowledge of such skills is also visible in a surviving, albeit unfinished, quilt that she had been making before her untimely death. The hand pieced and sewn quilt is heavily influenced by English styles and the pattern for it was likely taken from pattern books brought to the colony. Lady Mary’s quilt is made of hexagon mosaic patchwork pieces that are of coloured and printed cottons and silks, fabrics that were sourced from throughout the British Empire.
If you’re interested in reading more about Mary who was tragically killed in an accident near Old Government House in Parramatta Park click on the link below! Mary was fascinating figure who was also present at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball just before the Battle of Waterloo and was extremely well travelled – Europe, Canada, South Africa, West Indies – before coming to Australia, all of which is detailed in the essay.