17th century, 18th century, Manuscript / Archival Research, Research, Stuart

Quilted Petticoats in the Seventeenth Century

Quilted petticoats in England and America are usually attributed to and discussed in the context of the eighteenth century. This is likely due to the fact that all the earliest surviving quilted petticoats (to my knowledge) date from this period.

Quilted Petticoat, c. 1740-60 (made), 1870-1910 (altered), British. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.430-1967.

I am currently writing a book about the women who made, sold, managed and cared for the clothing of England’s Stuart queens during the period 1603-1714. As I have been transcribing their wardrobe accounts I have come across several references to quilted petticoats.

But firstly, what is a petticoat? The term ‘petticoat’ began to appear in English in the sixteenth century when it was used interchangeably with the preexisting term ‘kirtle’. At this time, and until the mid-seventeenth century, petticoat usually referred to a skirt that had an attached, sleeveless bodice (known as “petticoat bodies”). A petticoat with an attached front lacing bodice is visible in the painting below.

The woman who is standing on the right in this scene is lacing up her petticoat (skirt and attached bodice), which she wears underneath what appears to be a waistcoat (jacket) and jerkin. Frans Francken the Younger, The Witches’ Kitchen, 1606, Hermitage Museum.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, “petticoat” generally began to refer only to the skirt. Petticoats could be under or outer wear. Women often wore many layers of petticoats at this time made from various different materials. This brings me to quilted petticoats in the seventeenth century.

Evidence from the Queens’ Accounts

Did quilted petticoats exist in the seventeenth century?

Yes! They did.

Quilted petticoats begin to appear in the royal accounts after the reign of Henrietta Maria. Unfortunately, the first twenty years of accounts belonging to Catherine of Braganza have not survived. However, those during the 1680s do.

In the Christmas quarter of 1685-6, several “Quilted coats[s]” were made or altered for dowager Queen Catherine of Braganza. At thsi time, the queen’s tailor and dressmakers also provided “new Eaching & Ribanding” for “a Quilted coat” and widened the “Wasts of 3 Quilted Coats.”[1] 

During the early 1700s, Queen Anne was provided with several types of quilted petticoats.[2] These included garments described as “white Quilted under peticoats.” The fabrics that these quilted under petticoats were made from are not mentioned, but if can be assumed that they were some sort of linen, as silks were usually specified in these accounts.

In later periods, quilted petticoats were primarily worn for warmth and this was no different in the late seventeenth century. Even when quilting wasn’t mentioned, wadding of silk, “ferret” and of an unspecified nature (likely wool or cotton) were also frequently listed in Queen Anne’s accounts. For example:

“a scarlet velvet under peticoat _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 1-5-0
silk wadding and shaloon _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 0-10-6″

Other Evidence

It is likely that the quilted petticoats belonging to Catherine of Braganza and Queen Anne resembled the quilted petticoat belonging to a doll known as Lady Clapham (fig ). The doll portrays fashionable clothing worn by wealthy women during the 1690s and is believed to have belonged to the Cockerell family who had a family home in Clapham, London. This petticoat shows the same sorts of decorative needlework that we see on later eighteenth century examples.

But quilted petticoats were not just common among queens and other elites in England.

In 1688, Thomas Barlow and Oliver Morris of St. Giles’s in the Fields were Indicted for entring the Dwelling-house of John Appleby” and stealing “one Silk Flowred Gown, value 40 s. one Quilted Petticoat, value 10 s. one Crape Petticoat, value 8 s. a pair of Sattin Stayes, value 10 s. and other goods of Ann Thomas.”[3] All these items appear to have been part of an ensemble, the gown was likely a new fashionable mantua gown.

Later, in 1692, Elizabeth Morgan (alias Jones) and Sarah Chandlor were tried for stealing a quilted petticoat from Faith Butler in London too.[4] By 1697, quilted petticoats were also referenced in The provok’d wife a comedy by John Vanbrugh.

These garments therefore appear to have been a relatively common sight by the end of the seventeenth century in places such as London.


References

[1] TNA: LR 5/81

[2] BL: Add MS 61407

[3] https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t16880113-41&div=t16880113-41&terms=quilted_petticoat#highlight

[4] https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t16921207-40&div=t16921207-40&terms=quilted_petticoat#highlight

16th century, Armour, Manuscript / Archival Research, Object Research, Research, Research Publications

Fortuna and virtù: Embodying Classical Concepts in Renaissance Armour

The first half of the sixteenth century was a period dominated by repeated conflicts in Europe. The immense amounts of practical and ceremonial arms and armour that these conflicts required fuelled this so-called golden age of armour production seen in key centres of production such as Milan, Augsburg, and Tyrol. During these times of occupation, particularly during the Italian Wars, armourers like the Negroli family of Milan were commissioned to make many garments for princes such as Charles V, and so these items represent elite ideals of power and glory. Although some scholars have claimed that ‘much of the decoration on arms and armour is simply ornamental’, power dynamics and paradoxes between the genders during the Renaissance were exploited in the decorative processes of etching and embossing to personify key ideas such as bravery, perils, fortune, virtue, and victory, in either male or female forms.[i] These representations were deliberately fashioned to make explicit proclamations about power by noblemen on the battlefield and beyond in sixteenth-century Europe. Two concepts that armour during this century embodied in these wats were those of fortune and virtue.

Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Cornelis Bos after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Capture of Francis I by the forces of Charles V during the Battle of Pavia in 1525, c. 1555-56. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, RP-P-BI-6603.

During the medieval period Fortuna was potrayed an assistant to God and she stood for the decrepitude of worldly things and expressed a hidden, unknowable order that made men and women powerless to chance without faith. However, by the fifteenth century humanists and political theorists who believed that men could take back control began to conceptualise Fortuna as possessing innate feminine weaknesses. Like women, Fortuna was now a fundamentally unknowable, destructive and unpredictable power, but one that could also be influenced or yield to those who fought with force.[ii] To counteract the unpredictability of Fortuna and take back control over destiny, authors began to articulate the concept of virtù, something that was masculine, rational and ultimately victorious.[iii] Although early humanists stressed that virtus (a morally good force) was an intrinsic value for all rulers as it brought glory and greatness, for Niccolò Machiavelli the concept of virtù was not necessarily concerned with ethics.[iv] Rather it was more dynamic and stood for political and military achievements that were the foundation of flourishing states.[v]

Lady Fortuna and the Wheel of Fortune. From an edition of Boccaccio’s “De Casibus Virorum Illustrium” (Paris, 1467) MSS Hunter 371-372 (V.1.8-9). Image (vol. 1: folio 1r). Credit: Wiki

Machiavelli penned his widely circulated work of political philosophy The Prince (1532) in reaction to what he perceived to be the weaknesses of rulers during the Italian Wars. He concluded the work by stating that due to the ‘enormous upheavals that have been observed and are being observed everyday’ it was imperative that men fought to control the whims of Fortuna with ‘ordinata virtù’ (well-ordered virtue) because ‘fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’.[vi] Machiavelli here echoed the fifteenth-century humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II) who after Alfonso V of Aragon’s victory in Naples in the early 1440s imagined the king entering the city and grabbing ‘Fortuna by the scruff of the neck’.[vii] Fortuna’s antithesis Virtù was therefore intrinsically linked to forceful state building and warfare.

Santi di Tito, Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, c. second half of sixteenth century. Palazzo Vecchio. Credit: Wiki

These concepts and their gendered power dynamics were increasingly emphasized in political theory, literature, and art during the turmoil of the Italian Wars. The importance of personifying Fortuna as feminine so that she may be overcome by masculine virtù is best exemplified in a portrait medal of French king Francis I from 1537. One side of the portrait medal depicts the king in profile wearing a laurel wreath and holding a staff with a fleur de lis, proclaiming him ‘Francis King of the French’. The reverse side of the medallion shows the king in armour on horseback, arm raised with sword in hand, trampling the naked female figure of Fortuna. The inscription reads ‘He has vanquished fortune through virtue’.[viii] The portrayal of Francis on horseback defeating fortune through virtue is a statement of the King’s tact as a military leader.

Medallion of Francis I – Bust & Allegory, c. 1537, cast iron, Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7272b.

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, which had been published only five years earlier, it was a prince who had come to power via virtue (here meaning skill and temperament), rather than fortune, who could maintain his principality, as ‘he who relies less upon Fortune has maintained his position best’.[ix] This gendered juxtaposition was therefore a very clear claim about Francis’s masculinity – he was a courageous and brave prince, who won battles for his Kingdom through his reliance on his masculine traits of virtue such as military skill, rather than relying on the feminine whims of fortune.

Similarly, when the concept of fortune was depicted on armour it was always personified as female to remind the wearer of the potential dangers of relying too much on this feminine force. Take for example a shield in the Royal Armoury in Madrid made in 1543 in Augsburg for Prince Phillip (later Phillip II of Spain) by the armorer Mattheus Frauenpreiss.[x] This round shield portrays the semi-nude figure of a woman (Fortuna) holding an oar while attempting to row the vessel. Around her are the words ‘FIDES’ (faith) on a shield, ‘CARO’ (humanity) on the boat, ‘FORTEGA’ (fortitude) on the oar, and ‘GRACIA DEI’ (by the Grace of God) on a box below her knee. There are two possible interpretations of this shield. La Rocca has argued that fortune is depicted as trying to reverse the direction of humanity with the aid of a steering oar and guided by the shield and compass.[xi] This representation of Fortuna appears to take its cues from the medieval understandings as an assistant to God – with faith fortune can be a guiding force.

Jane Clifford, ‘Shield of Phillip II’, photograph c.1865 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 47602). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, as with all visual culture, the meaning of this scene is multivalent and it could also warn of the risks of letting Fortuna have too much control over the ship of humanity, as she is facing towards the stern and so does not have control over its movement. The top of the mast also contains a small fool’s cap making this vessel a ‘metaphorical ship of fools’ that is being steered by the unpredictable force that is Fortuna.[xii] The fools here are perhaps those who place their trust in fortune to lead them, rather than those other items on the vessel like the shield of faith. In either case, as La Rocca has proposed, the ‘overall meaning of the shield’s symbolism seems to be intended as a commentary on the misdirection of human folly’.[xiii] The feminine force of Fortuna was considered to play a key role in guiding human fate and potential folly during conflict. It is possible that this shield was gifted to the young Prince Phillip on his wedding day as a salient reminder to the importance of his union to Maria Manuela of Portugal and his role as prince during these troubled times.[xiv]

This acknowledgement of the place of Fortuna in deciding human destiny accounts for other examples of armour and arms that contain her image. A ceremonial breastplate of worked gilded iron gifted to the future Philip III of Spain by Carlo Emmanuelle, Duke of Savoy, now in the Royal Armoury in Madrid, contains the image of Fortuna is framed by winged genii, Justice, Temperance, and other figures, as well as the word ‘SPANIA’.[xv] The piece was made in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century by an unknown armourer.

Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna, c. 1641, engraving. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-10.856

Arms from this period also depict Fortuna. A print with a design for a dagger sheath by Hans Holbein the Younger and Hans Lützelburger dating from 1520-1526 shows a woman (Fortuna) in armour standing on a shell with drapery flowing around her.[xvi] In both these examples the symbolic meaning could be two-fold. Authors like Machiavelli stressed that human actions could only be controlled to an extent by virtù, with the rest remaining the domain of Fortuna.[xvii] Therefore, by personifying fortune as Fortuna on armour and arms this practice served to not only remind the wearer of her dangerous influence and acknowledge the part she played in his fate, but in turn, it would also have had the effect of prompting him to remember her antithesis stressed by humanist authors – his own masculine virtù that could overcome her feminine threat.

Filippo Negroli, Helmet all’Antica, c. 1532–35. This piece was possibly a copy of the original in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 04.3.202.

In contrast to Fortuna, virtù was rendered in anthropomorphic forms that transformed the wearer into the vision of masculinity that this concept represented. This is most recognisable in all’antica-style helmets produced by the Milanese armourer Filippo Negroli for Francesco Maria della Rovere the Duke of Urbino, Charles V, and the Gonzagas of Mantua.[xviii] These helmets are sophisticated examples of how embossed armours could literally fashion their wearer into their desired human form. The earliest helmet of this style was forged in 1532 for the Duke of Urbino. It is a burgonet of blackened steel embossed in high relief that forms a head with curly hair and ear lobes, wearing a diadem of twisted palms.[xix] The purpose of this burgonet was to create the likeness of a Roman youth on the wearer, covering his own physical traits and replacing them with those of youth rendered in steel. However, the helmet soon caught the eye of a much more important and powerful patron, Charles V.

A letter sent from the Duke of Mantua to the Duke of Urbino described the Emperor’s interest in Francesco’s recent commission and urged him to send it to the Emperor for inspection. Charles V was so impressed with Urbino’s anthropomorphic helmet that he commissioned his own. It was presented to him on his official visit to Milan in 1533.[xx] The Emperor’s helmet, however, was quite different in form and meaning than that of Urbino’s. It was a full helmet made in two parts of steel and gold. The burgonet was embossed and chiselled by Negroli to create the head of a classical warrior with gold curly hair and earlobes, wearing a laurel wreath. The detachable buffe (lower face defence) contains an additional full beard, lips, and mouth. It is possible that there was also another missing piece of the helmet that created a mask and concealed the face.[xxi]

Filippo Negroli, Classical Roman Burgonet of Charles V, Milanese, c. 1533. Madrid: Royal Armoury, 10000075 – 10000076, D-1; D-2

While both anthropomorphic helmets created classical masculine heads, the differences in the ways that these helmets were gendered male had great implications for expressions of virtù by these Renaissance rulers. While the Duke of Urbino’s helmet and armour depicts a Roman youth at the cusp of manhood and is without personal insignia, the Emperor’s helmet represented a grown Roman man with a full beard. It contains many details that link it explicitly to Charles V such as a collar of the gold fleece with Burgundian fire steels and flaming flints and Charles’s device of PLVS VLTRA with the columns of Hercules.[xxii]

Anthropomorphic helmets and Cuirasses (joined breastplates and backplates) were also embossed to create well-muscled torsos that alluded to men of the ancient world allowed their wearers to literally embody the qualities of virtus and virtù during the conflicts of the sixteenth century.[xxiii] As Carolyn Springer has noted in her discussion of classically-inspired armour, these cuirasses constructed an idealised vision of the ‘elite male body through the process of prosthetic addition’ and they were a form of exclusively male masquerade that enabled the wearer to disguise his own imperfections to achieve the ‘highest model of proportion and physical beauty’ and to represent himself ‘in a heroic and aggrandized mode’.[xxiv] These helmets and torso pieces concealed the wearer’s true form behind a metal façade, allowing him to literally become a classical Roman Emperor who epitomised these values. As Francesco Petrarca advised Niccolò Acciaiuoli in a letter written in the late fifteenth century, to fight back against Fortuna he must become a conqueror and have the ‘moral qualities of a Caesar’, or in other words ‘a man of true manliness’ like those Caesars of the past would overcome Fortuna and attain public glory.[xxv]

Although Charles V commissioned this piece, there is no evidence to indicate that the Emperor dictated its mature appearance.[xxvi] Rather it appears that this was a shrewd political move on behalf of Negroli and Urbino to portray Charles V as he imagined himself to be. Portrait medals struck between 1520 and 1540 celebrated the Holy Roman Emperor as a modern Caesar as they depict him with a laurel wreath on his head and clad in Roman-style armour surrounded by the text ‘IMP. CAES CAROLVS V AVG’, in direct imitation of roman coins.[xxvii] Therefore, the form that this helmet took, whether dictated by Charles himself or others, allowed the Emperor to take that final step in literally embodying his title of a virtuous Caesar.

Joos Gietleughen, Hubert Goltzius, Gillis Coppens van Diest, Portrait of Charles V as Caesar, c. 1559. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, BI-2008-4132-148.

This blog post was adapted from an early version of my new research article ‘Female Personifications and Masculine Forms: Gender, Armour and Allegory in the Habsburg-Valois Conflicts of sixteenth-Century Europe’ in which I explore the use of female personifications on sixteenth-century armour made for men between 1525 and 1550. It argues that foreign invading forces and their allies exploited or inverted traditional gender binaries associated with the classical and humanist iconography of the Italian Renaissance, particularly its female allegorical forms, to visually signify power relationships between combatants during the Italian Wars. Rather than simply embodying masculinity, elaborate ceremonial armours with images of women are revealing of both ideals of masculinity and femininity during times of war. These portrayals were part of wider conversations about gender and power, about the strength and weaknesses of women, and, ultimately, women’s inferior status to men, which were utilised in allegorical forms to make claims to authority on these elite forms of male dress.

You can access the article by clicking here.

This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant
(DP180102412) held at The University of Western Australia


References

[i] Donald J. LaRocca, Gods of war: Sacred imagery and the decoration of arms and armor (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), 3.

[ii] Arndt Brendecke and Peter Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity’ in The End of Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2017), 2; Corretti, Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa, 68. 

[iii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 1-5.

[iv] Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics: Volume 2, Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 123.

[v] Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History, trans. Douglas Scott (New York: Praeger, 1965), 31; Skinner, Visions of Politics, 144, 154-6.

[vi] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and ed. Peter Bondanella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 84-87.

[vii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 4.

[viii] Medallion of Francis I – Bust & Allegory, c. 1537, cast iron, Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7272b.

[ix] Machiavelli, The Prince, 21.

[x] Donald J. LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools: A Survey of Embossed Armor in Germany and Austria, ca. 1475 – ca. 1575,’ A farewell to arms, studies on the history of arms and armour, eds. Gert Groenendijk, Piet de Gryse, Dirk Staat, Heleen Bronder (Legermuseum, 2004), 42.

[xi] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42; Carolyn Springer, Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 128.

[xii] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42.

[xiii] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42.

[xiv] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 128.

[xv] Albert F. Calvert, Spanish Arms and Amour: Being a Historical and Descriptive Account of the Royal Armoury of Madrid (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1907), 131.

[xvi] Hans Holbein the Younger (artist) and Hans Lützelburger (block cutter), Design for a Dagger Sheath, c. 1520-6, print, London: The British Museum, 1895,0122.841-842.

[xvii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 5.

[xviii] Silvio Leydi, ‘A History of the Negroli Family,’ in Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries, eds. Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 41; Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy, eds. Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 119.

[xix] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 116.

[xx] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 105; Leydi, ‘A History of the Negroli Family,’ 41.

[xxi] Álvaro Soler del Campo, The art of power: Royal armor and portraits from Imperial Spain (Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, 2009), 48.

[xxii] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 125-130.

[xxiii] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 14-15.

[xxiv] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 11, 25, 30.

[xxv] Peter Stacey, Roman Monarchy and the Renaissance Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 143; Skinner, Visions of Politics, 123, 125.

[xxvi] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 105-106.

[xxvii] Joos Gietleughen, Portrait of Charles V, c. 1559, print, 17.9 x 17.8cm. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, BI-2008-4132-148.

17th century, Bodies and Stays, reconstruction, Research, Seventeenth-century fashion, Stuart

Sittingbourne Bodies Pattern, c. 1630-50

To celebrate the upcoming release of Shaping Femininity I’ve decided the post the pattern that I made of the garment when I examined it in 2017.

A pattern for this garment has since been published by the School of Historical Dress in 2018’s Patterns of Fashion 5. The School’s pattern is much more detailed than mine. So I highly suggest that anyone who wants to make this garment check out their instructions too.

Still, I figured that since I drew this pattern as part of my study notes after examining the garment myself (first in 2015 and again in 2017), and there are no patterns in own book, I might as well share it with you all!

Although I have written c. 1620-50 on the pattern, these bodies are more suitable for the 1630s, 40s and 50s. So ideal for any English civil war re-enactors out there.

I hope some of you find it useful!

Sittingbourne Bodies pattern civil war stays pattern corset stuart corset

Click here to download a Sittingbourne Bodies doc.

Make sure to keep an eye out for my book which will contain detail photographs of the bodies too – and a discussion of their possible owner.

17th century, Jacobean, Research, Stuart

Seventeenth-Century Waistcoats for Women: Jacobean Fashions

The waistcoat is by far one of the most common pieces of clothing I have come across in the records of seventeenth-century women. While women did wear gowns during this period, if we look across the social spectrum we can see that waistcoats and petticoats were by far the most common garments that were worn by women on a daily basis in seventeenth-century England. 

Many museums and scholars refer to these garments as “jackets”, presumably because the word waistcoat is now commonly associated with male dress. However, this is anachronistic. During the seventeenth century these garments were never called jackets. They were recorded in female wardrobe accounts as “wastcotes”, “wastcoates”, “waistcoates”, etc. They were commonly worn over the top of the petticoat and a pair of bodies, but I have also seen them listed in conjunction with gowns too. In essence, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a waistcoat was a type of informal front fastening jacket-bodice.

An Elizabethan woman selling hot codlings. Under her apron she wears a waistcoat that is open at the front showing her petticoat bodice. Source.

I have examined many common, middling, and aristocratic wardrobe inventories and bills in the last eight or so years since I began studying the dress of the seventeenth century, so I thought I would share some of the material I’ve come across relating to waistcoats and their changing silhouette and construction. I hope anyone who is interested in reconstructing seventeenth-century dress will find this useful. I’ve also included some handy resources for where to get patterns for these waistcoats below. 

I initially wrote this as one blog post. However, I soon realised that it would be too long to do the entire century in one go. So, I decided to break it up into 3 parts: Jacobean Era, Caroline and Interregnum Era and Restoration Era. This blog post pertains to the Jacobean Era.

 

Jacobean Era (1603-1625)

Waistcoats were worn by all social sorts in England by at least the middle of the sixteenth century.[1] The waistcoats of the Jacobean era changed little in design from those of the preceding Elizabethan period. They were generally fitted around the bust, waist and arms, with “skirts” that were looser over the hips. We have several surviving waistcoats from this period in British collections, all of which exemplify the different styles worn at the time. I will give an outline of the styles typically found during this period. 

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Jacobean Silk Waistcoats
2010EB2747_2500
Embroidered Jacobean Waistcoat, c. 1610-20, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 179-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This example from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is dated between 1610-20 and is believed to have belonged to a member of the Isham family from Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. It contains narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings that cover where the sleeve is attached to rest of the garment, mirroring design elements seen in men and women’s doublets. Gores have been inserted into the skirts of the waistcoat to enlarge them so that they would sit perfectly over a farthingale roll. The front of the garment ties together with the silk ribbons attached to either side. The general cut of this example is typical of other surviving waistcoats from the 1610s (see list of other examples below). 

This garment would have been worn over a petticoat with an attached bodice (“petticoat-bodies”) or a pair of bodies, a stiffened torso-garment (later known as stays). 

This waistcoat is made of coral-pink silk, is hand-embroidered with blue silk thread wrapped in silver and decorated with spangles. It is a rare surviving example of a waistcoat made of silk, as most surviving examples of this garment from this century are made of linen or fustian (see below). Although not many silk waistcoats have survived, they were not uncommon during the Jacobean period.

References to silk waistcoats appear regularly in the accounts of Elizabeth I and Anne of Denmark.

In June 1610 it was recorded that a “waskett [waistcoat] of white taffetie bound with a white galloone and Lyned with Carnation plushe” was delivered to Queen Anne of Denmark. [a]

The 1624/5 probate will of Dame Honor Proctor of Yorkshire recorded that she owned “one waistcoat of white taffitie” and “one wrought waistcoat with silk…” [b]

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Jacobean Embroidered Linen Waistcoats

Most surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats are embroidered. This particular style appears to have been somewhat unique to England – I have never come across an example of similar embroidered waistcoats in the French court or the Dutch Republic (although I am happy to be proven wrong!). Late Elizabethan and Jacobean English embroidery commonly depicted motifs of strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles, honeysuckle, pansies, foxgloves, sweet peas, vine and oak leaves and acorns. Animals like snails, butterflies and birds were also common. Such motifs were often framed by embroidered scroll work.

Unlike the garment above, the majority of embroidered waistcoats that survive are made from linen and embroidered in silk thread. One of the earliest surviving examples belonged to Margaret Layton, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant who married Francis Layton, a Master Yeomen of the Jewel House at the Tower of London. 

Waistcoat of Margaret Layton, c. 1610-15, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T.228-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As with the previous example of approximately the same age, this waistcoat has narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings. It is fitted over the bust and waist and was originally fastened using silk ribbons. Main differences in design lie in the narrower skirts and it also has a back neck collar. It is made of linen, lined with silk taffeta and embroidered with coloured silk threads, silver/silver-gilt threads and embellished with spangles. According to the V&A catalogue the embroidering techniques utilised include “embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling…”

What makes this example amazing is that Margaret herself was painted wearing the garment c. 1620 by the famous artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. 

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, Margaret Layton, c. 1620, oil on panel. The Victoria and Albert Museum London, E.214-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Another waistcoat embroidered with floral motifs is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MET). This waistcoat also contains floral and vegetal motifs and is a similar cut, although it does not have shoulder wings like those other examples. 

DP159815

Embroidered Jacobean Waistcoat (back), c. 1616, English. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 23.170.1

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Stylistic changes in 1620s Waistcoats
British School, Portrait of a Woman c.1620, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 406064.

By the early 1620s the design of waistcoats mirrored the fashionable gowns of the period: the waistline was high and the length short, which created the illusion of a short torso. Take for example the image above of an Unknown Woman c. 1620. The woman wears a beautifully embroidered waistcoat (likely over a separate pair of bodies) and a red petticoat embroidered with gold. In this instance, the portrait portrays this woman in casual undress as her hair is unbound.

 

2010EB2465_2500.1
Embroidered Waistcoat, 1620-25, English. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T.4-1935

The final Jacobean waistcoat I want to took at in this blog post shows the evolution in cut and design that occurred during the 1620s. The linen waistcoat is embroidered in silk thread and trimmed with bobbin lace made from white and black linen threads. Like those before it, the decorative motifs consist of scrolling stems and floral motifs such as roses, pomegranates, pansies, pea-pods, acorns and oak leaves, as well as birds and butterflies. While these natural motifs carry on design elements from previous decades, the cut of this 1620s version is quite different.

The waistline is quite high and designed to site over a farthingale roll or “bum roll” as they were increasingly called. The shoulders still contain “wings” but the sleeves are open at the front, which would have revealed the linen smock underneath. This is similar to sleeves seen on gowns from the decade, as depicted in a portrait of Elizabeth Leicester. The waistcoat would have been worn with the centre front piece pinned edge to edge.[2]

Daniel Mytens, Elizabeth Leicester, c. 1620s. Tabley House Collection via ArtUK (CC BY-NC).

 

 

By the end of the decade waistcoats embroidered with coloured silks were still common. The 1629 probate inventory of Arthur Coke a Gentleman from Bramfield in Suffolk contains a list of his late wife’s clothing that included “2 wastcoats wrought with coloured silk & gold” and a “wastcoate wrought with black.” [c]

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Non-Elite Women and Waistcoats

Many of the surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats belonged to women of the aristocracy and gentry. Yet waistcoats were one of the must basic, and fundamental, garments in a common or middling sorts woman’s wardrobe. In 1605 the probate inventory of Agnes Adams, a Spinster from Towersey in Oxfordshire listed her clothing as consisting of a “gowne”, two “red petticoats”, one “russett peticoat”, one “fustian petticoat”, one “fustian waistcoat”, one “wollen waistcoat”, “three kerchiefs”, four smocks, as well as shoes and a hat. [d]

Over a decade later in 1617, the probate inventory of Elizabeth Bateman, a Widow from Shirehampton, contained “on[e] wastcot” alongside red petticoats and “Frise” gowns. In 1618 the goods of Ann Large, who was a servant to a shoemaker named Robert Flower in Bristol, were recorded as containing various types of petticoats and waistcoats that were worn together, such as a a stammel wascote and a ride [red] pettecote” valued as 8 shillings. [e]

There are few images of common women from the Jacobean period, but we can surmise that their waistcoats likely followed the same silhouette and cut of their social superiors as it had changed very little from the preceding Elizabethan period. They may have resembled the waistcoat worn by a female servant in Spain as depicted by Diego Velázquez in a 1618 allegorical painting.

Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London, NG1375.

As probate records show, waistcoats that belonged to these women were likely made of sturdy woollen or wool-mixed fabrics such as fustian or stammel. It is often hard to know from probate entries such as these whether the waistcoats that belonged to common women were embroidered or otherwise decorated, as inventories are often notoriously vague.

However, it is not impossible that that non-elite women’s waistcoats had elaborate embroidery. As Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee have shown, decorating coifs with cutwork or crewel was inexpensive and not uncommon in non-elite wardrobes. Decorative trims like fringe were also widely used by labourers and husbandmen, often purchased from petty chapman who roamed the countryside.[3]

Blackwork was an extremely common embroidery technique during the sixteenth century and was used on waistcoats (as demonstrated by the c. 1620s example above). In 1621 Eadye White, the daughter of a merchant, left her “best blackwork waistcoate” to her aunt after her death. 

Embroidery on non-elite women’s waistcoats may also have been done in coloured woollen thread instead of silk. A woman’s linen waistcoat c. 1610-20 in the Museum of London (MoL) has been embroidered with black wool in a pattern of barberries.  

Adam Martindale, a Lancashire teacher and Presbyterian preacher born to yeoman parents recalled his sister leaving home after the plague of 1625 in his biography. In this description, he reflected on the changing habits of single women in the era: 

Freeholder’s daughters were then confined to their felts, petticoats and waistcoats, cross handkerchiefs about their necks, and white cross-cloths upon their heads, with coifs under them wrought with black silk or worsted. ‘Tis tue the finest sort of them wore gold or silver lace upon their waistcoats, good silk laces (and store of them) about their petticoats, and hone laces or works about their linens.” [4]
 
Waistcoats were therefore a garment that could be embroidered, trimmed and decked out according the tastes and means of the wearer and they were the most basic form of female outer dress – apart from the petticoat – during the early seventeenth century.

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References

[1] Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), 21.

[2] Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), p. 48.

[3] Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee, The Clothing of the Common Sort: 1570-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 258-9.

[4] Adam Martindale, The Life of Adam Martindale: By Himself, ed. Richard Parkinson (Manchester: Chetham Society, 1845; BiblioBazaar, 2008), pp. 6-7.

[a] Cambridge University Library: Dd 1.26: Inventory of Queen Anne of Denmark’s wardrobe, 1607-1611.

[b] John Richard Walbran, James Raine and J.T. Fowler, Memorials of the Abbey of St. Mary of Fountains, vol. II, part 1 (Ripon: 1863).

[c]  Francis W Steer, ‘The Inventory of Arthur Coke, of Bramfield, 1629’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 25 (1952), pp. 264-287

[d]  Oxfordshire Wills Index, 1516-1857.  Agnes Adams, 1605. 

[e]  Clifton and Westbury Probate Inventories, 1609-1761, edited by John S Moore (Avon Local History Association, 1981); Bristol Probate Inventories. Pt. 1: 1542-1650. Vol 54, edited by Edwin & Stella George, with the assistance of Peter Fleming (Bristol Records Society, 2002).

 

Embroidered Silk Waistcoat – Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), pp. 42-47. 

15th century, 16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Busk, Elizabethan, Farthingales, French Farthingale Roll Reconstruction, French Wheel Farthingale Reconstruction, Jacobean, Mantua gown, Manuscript / Archival Research, Research, Research Publications, Seventeenth-century fashion, Stuart, Tailoring

Shaping Femininity Book Cover and Pre-order!

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

Acknowledgements
Notes to the Reader
Abbreviations

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

Glossary
Notes
Selected Bibliography
List of Illustrations
Index

 

Pre-Order:

USA/CAN: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

UK: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

AUS/NZ: https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/shaping-femininity-9781350164109/

EUROPE: It should be available via Amazon and all good online book retailers.

EVERYWHERE ELSE: Also available soon for pre-order from all good online book retailers.

 

16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Research

The sixteenth-century Vasquine / Basquine: A corset, farthingale or Kirtle?

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.”[1]

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).”[2]

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.

vasquina
Pattern for a Vasquina of silk for a Woman, by Juan de Alcega (1580), from World Digital Library

vasquina with bodice
Vasquina of wilk with a low-cut bodice, by Juan de Alcega (1580), from World Digital Library.

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 [3]
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? [4]
 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.”[5]

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.

Mary queen of scots vasquine kirtle
François Clouet, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), c. 1558-60, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, Royal Collection, RCIN 401229. In this portrait Mary likely wears a vasquine underneath her gown.

The records of Mary Queen of Scots shed more light.[6] 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.[7] 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.

6ef067c748e00a31733b46e1067aad63
A Tudor Kirtle and petticoat pattern from the Tudor Tailor

References

All translations of French sources are my own.

[1] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 6.

[2] 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.

[3] Anon., La complaincte de Monsieur le Cul contre les inventeurs des vertugalles (Francoys Girault, 1552), p. Aii (5).

[4] 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.

[5] http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/

[6] 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

[7] 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

16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Elizabethan, Farthingales, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, Research, Tailoring

Talk: Body-makers and Farthingale-makers in Seventeenth-Century London

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:

 

More information about the talk:

 

16th century, 17th century, Elizabethan, Farthingales, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, News and Media, Research

Talk: Whalebone and Sixteenth-Century Fashion

Recently I gave a talk on the use of whale baleen (otherwise known as whalebone) in fashion in sixteenth-century Europe, particularly England.

EfXRCKgUEAALyjH

The talk was recorded and is now online via the University of Melbourne Early Modern Circle website. I’ve also uploaded a version below:

 

 

 

 

16th century, 17th century, Bodies and Stays, Busk, Jacobean, Object Research, Research, Research Publications, Stuart

Seventeenth-Century Busks, Courtship and Sexual Desire

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

 

Fig. 5
French Busk, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 30.135.34

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”.

wooden busk English 17th cetury v&a
English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. W.56-1929

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’.

13717486_10157141696510392_4553903368644245883_o
To read a tutorial on how I made my own busk click here!

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