16th century, 17th century, Uncategorized

Back to Basics: The Smock in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

As many of you know, during my PhD I decided to reconstruction four items of female structural dress from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, in order for the reconstructions to be worn during photoshoots the most basic female undergarment of the the early modern period was needed: the smock.

The Smock – A Brief History

Smocks or shifts (‘chemise’ in French) were the most basic undergarment of all women and men (men’s were referred to usually as shirts) in sixteenth century Europe, and indeed had been so for hundreds of years and would remain so, in one form or another, until the twentieth century. During the early modern period they were made from linen, sometimes silk, and later cotton, and sat closest to the historical body. Smocks and shirts were worn underneath every type of clothing, and as a result even the poorest person owned a few smocks, and rich elites often owned dozens.

Throughout the seventeenth century various styles of smocks and shifts developed – from those that were intricately embroidered such as the one below, to those that had elaborate frills around the cuffs and neckline. Interestingly, it was these frills that would eventually turn into a separate accessory in the second half of the sixteenth century – the ruff.

 

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Examples of early embroidered frill on cuffs and neckline.  Man’s Shirt, c. 1540, England. T.112-1972. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Smocks and shirts served two main purposes during the sixteenth century. During the early modern period outer garments, especially those made from luxurious fabrics such as silks and velvets, were rarely laundered in order to maintain the condition of the fabric. It was the smock then that absorbed sweat and other body excretions, and it was this item that was regularly cleaned and laundered instead. Medical theory during this period also viewed the skin as porous and weak and the hot water from public baths or full immersion bathing was believed to create openings for disease such as plague to slip through.  Linen, as a porous fabric, therefore replaced the role of skin in bathing practices, as it was believed to absorb dangerous matter that could then be laundered and removed away from the body.   Thus, instead of cleaning the skin one would simply remove and clean their ‘second skin’ – their smock.[1]

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Woman’s Smock, c. 1615-1630, England. T.2-1956. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cleanliness by the seventeenth century therefore was not focused on the body of skin and flesh, but measured by the cleanliness of linen and the display of objects and garments in external appearance.[2] Kathleen M. Brown has noted that “a clean linen shirt, complete with ruffs and lace at the neck and wrists, indicated not only the wearer’s refinement, attention to fashion, and wealth, but his access to the services of a laundress”, and his attention to cleanliness.[3] Therefore the whiteness of smocks and shifts, rather than the body itself, was linked to cleanliness during this period.[4] This idea is probably best exhibited through the following instance: at one point yellow linens became so popular in London during the early seventeenth century that critics were quick to associate them with the uncleanliness of the Spanish courtiers who used saffron dye as a way to deter vermin, and with the neglected hygiene of those Europeans in hot climates whose sweat and lack of access to laundering turned the colour of their white shifts to yellow.[5]

All smocks during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century (and beyond) were similar in construction, they were made from a collection of basic geometric shapes: rectangles, squares and triangles. These pieces were cut from standards lengths of linen. Although regional differences could exist. Smocks and shirts were usually sewn in the home by women, or female seamstresses were employed.

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A Seamstress sewing a Linen Garment . The Virtuous Woman, Nicolas Maes, c. 1655. Wallace Collection, London

Smocks also changed in style throughout the early modern period in England depending on the styles of outer clothing worn. Necklines could be high such as on the smock above, or fashionable bodices and gowns that had necklines cut horizontally off the shoulder during the mid-seventeenth century would have required smocks that also had this scooped neckline (such as in the Rembrandt below). Unfortunately, very few seventeenth century English women’s smocks survive in museum collections. So it is hard to establish a chronology of styles during this period.

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A Woman Bathing in a Stream, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1654. The National Gallery, London.

 

Tudor and Elizabethan-era Smock Construction 

The pattern I used for my smock came from Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies’ wonderful book, The Tudor Tailor. As the title indicates, the smock pattern provided only date until the end of Elizabethan era. However, Jacobean fashions were similar enough that this style would work for this era as well.

The book provides patterns for two types of women’s smocks, and five types of men’s shirts. I decided that in order to get the most use of my smock that I would make option g) a “smock with simple hemmed neck and sleeve.” So no fancy period specific neck or wrist cuff, or embroidery. However, the neckline is very similar to the neckline of the smock that Mary Queen of Scots supposedly wore to her execution in 1587 which is now held by the National Trust.

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Chemise belonging to Mary Queen of Scots in which she was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, c. 1580s. NT 135702. Coughton Court, Warwickshire

This style of smock would have been worn with a court style of gown that required a low neckline, such as the French gown.

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The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1592. The National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

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Anne of Denmark, John De Critz the Elder, c. 1605-1610. The National Portrait Gallery, London

Because the basic shape of the smock contains no curved lines (except the neckline), the pattern was easy to scale up onto my chosen pattern paper (which is actually the inexpensive baking/parchment paper from the baking aisle).  I decided to use a lightweight white linen that I already had in my supplies. It is not as fine as the Holland linen that would have been used by wealthier people during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but it does the trick.

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I didn’t want to spend a lot of time of my smock, and as it’s not actually one of my reconstructions there was no need for it to be hand sewn. As a result, the smock was easily and quickly put together. Again, as this is not one of my reconstructions, I decided not to use period specific construction techniques in regards to hemming and seams (as it would take too long) – so I just did those the same way I would do on a modern garment I was constructing. The only difficulty I had with the smock was sewing the gussets under arms as this is quite an historical sewing technique that is rarely used in modern clothing. However, after reading some information on gussets they went together well.

The primary reason I made this smock was for my models to wear it underneath the reconstructions that completed as part of PhD (bodies and farthingales). The garment looked fantastic on them and I’m really pleased with how it photographed, and it ended up working for both an Elizabethan pair of bodies and an off-the shoulder civil war-era pair too!

I’m also pleased with how it sat underneath my Jacobean gown that has a low cut doublet bodice.

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So all in all, I think this is an excellent pattern, that, while not strictly historically accurate for these eras, is also suitable for most Stuart dress too.

For further reading on the linen smock, see the footnotes below:

[1] Georges Vigarello has explored this idea of the ‘second skin’ in his work on hygiene in France. See:  Georges Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 54.

[2] Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness, p. 3.

[3] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul bodies: cleanliness in early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 31

[4] Georges Vigarello, ‘The Skin and White Linen’ in Textiles: Critical and Primary sources, Catherine Harper (ed.), (London, New York: Berg, 2012), p. 377

[5] Brown, Foul Bodies, p. 32.

Uncategorized

Guest Blog Post: JHI Blog

I recently contributed a post titled, ‘“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture’, to the Journal for the History of Ideas blog. The article uses some of my PhD research on busks and busk-points and focuses on the ways that these items of dress challenged and upheld gender norms in England and France during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries.

If you’re interested in reading the post, head to the JHI Blog to read it!

 

Fig. 5

17th century, Dame Filmer Bodies Reconstruction, Uncategorized

Dame Filmer Bodies, c. 1630-1650 Reconstruction | Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

  1. Filmer Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Filmer Bodies Part Two: The Busk
  3. Filmer Bodies Part Three: The Stomacher
  4. Filmer Bodies Part Four: Constructing & Finishing
  5. Filmer Bodies Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

After many months of hand sewing and many pricked fingertips I present my reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies c. 1630-50 from Manchester Galleries.

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My reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies (L), the original bodies (R)

 

Some closeups:

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Afterthoughts:

As I was working completely from pictures, a few measurements and curatorial notes when reconstructing these bodies it was only after completing them that I realised that there were a couple of things I got wrong.

The first is that I did not do the boning channels 100% accurately. Although my boning channels run vertically to the centre front of the bodies, after reanalysing pictures of the bodies I can see that the boning is slightly slanted away from the centre-front at the top, like the effigy bodies. This would have been to allow for the bust and could slightly change the way that my reconstruction fits around the bust area, making it less accommodating of larger busts.

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Note to self: Make sure you analyse all your photos in detail before sewing boning channels!

Secondly, I also realise that I did not cut the slits between the back tabs high enough. In my original pattern I actually had them much higher, as they should be, however, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too high so I lowered the slits a bit. Turns out I had it right to begin with! Again this means that the fit of the bodies might be slightly altered, as it makes the waistline lower.

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One thing I cannot work out are the shoulder straps. These straps are designed to sit off the shoulder in accordance with mid-seventeenth century fashions. However, the straps on my reconstruciton are very short, even though I checked my measurements and calculations multiple times before I cut out my fabric. Either the original owner had very narrow shoulders or there is meant to be a length of ribbon holding them together. Then again, my blow up mannequin off eBay doesn’t have the best proportions so once I try these on a model hopefully I can work this out more.

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Overall though I’m extremely happy with how the bodies turned out and I can’t wait for my models to try them on!

17th century, Elizabeth I Effigy Bodies Reconstruction, Uncategorized

Elizabeth I Effigy Bodies Reconstruction | Part Five: The Finished Product & Afterthoughts

  1. Effigy Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Effigy Bodies Part Two: Cutting & Sewing
  3. Effigy Bodies Part Three: Boning & Binding
  4. Effigy Bodies Part Four: Eyelets & Lacing
  5. Effigy Bodies Part Five: The Finished Product

Without further ado, I present my reconstruction of Elizabeth I’s bodies, side by side with the original effigy bodies in Westminster Abbey:

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My reconstruction (L) and the original effigy bodies (R). My reconstruction does not have the underarm sweat guards that the original has.

 

Some close ups of the bodies when mounted on an inflatable mannequin:

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“… a paire of French bodies of carnacion Taffata…” – Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe accounts, 1590.

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Detail of waist tabs and how they flare out when placed over hips
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Detail of shoulder strap attaching to front of bodies

 

The completed bodies, when on an inflatable mannequin that is small enough to fit them, measure:

Bust: 71.5cm / 28″
Waist: 55cm / 21.5″

Or roughly the equivalent of a AU/UK size 4 / US size 0 / Euro size 32… or in other words: TINY!

 

Afterthoughts

There are many things I would change if I were to make these again, many of which I’ve mentioned in my previous blog posts, but I’ll outline the most important here. Firstly, I would have used a linen as a lining for the bodies, as besides the fustian used in the original, this is what was most commonly used in other seventeenth century examples. Anne of Demark’s wardrobe records show that she preferred her bodies to be lined with taffeta, which is why my option to use it is historically justifiable. However, with that said I haven’t noticed any disadvantage in terms of fabric strength or durability (so far) to using taffeta. Yet, lining the bodies, which sit so close to the human body which perspires, with a fabric like linen would be the better choice for a garment intended for daily use.

I would also have sewn the bodies entirely in silk thread, and used a back stitch for all the boning channels, not a running stitch (as the original have) and then a half-back stitch as I ended up doing for the last panel.

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Side back seam. Boning channels completed in linen thread with a running stitch

 

Some of the readers of this blog have asked why I chose to use plastic whalebone instead of more period accurate materials like bents or cane. For my location and my budget, bents (a type of reed) were far too hard to source. Cane can be quite large and round or thick, and would not have been small enough to replicate the 6mm wide boning channels of the original. When recreating a later pair of American seventeenth-century stays for Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts, stay maker Hallie Larkin noted that “These stays would have been extremely difficult to make without the artificial whalebone, wood products cut to 4mm would have a tendency to break or bend especially in the long channels at center front and back.” The thick nature of most available cane means that they also would have taken up much more fabric in the boning channels and therefore shrunk the bodies, more than the 1-2mm deep x 5mm wide plastic boning did. Plastic boning not only replicates the size and shape of the original cut baleen in bodies and stays, but it is flexible, molds to the body after time (as baleen did) and is just generally easier to work with.

 

 

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Side front view, with 13mm (1/2″) boning channel visible

Other lovely readers have also informed me of other ways to create the eyelet holes when I don’t have a bodkin. These include using different sized knitting needles to create a hole between the threads without breaking them, or to use a tailor’s awl. I hope to trial both these methods in my reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies c. 1630-50.

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Overall I’m extremely happy with how the bodies turned out, considering this was my first time sewing a ‘corset’ of this style and doing it completely by hand. My next step is to find a model with body measurements small enough to fit into the bodies and test ideas of fit and movement.