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
The 1680s was a decade of change in women’s fashion. The new loose-fitting mantua gown vied for popularity with traditional gowns that contained structured bodices (a battle that the new style would win in later decades) and bodies slowly began to be called stays during this decade. One of the best written sources we have for women’s dress during this period is Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory, published in 1688, which has a section on “terms used by tailors” for men and women’s dress.
Holme was a steward to the Stationers Company of Chester and then an alderman. Along with three other members of his family he was a keen genealogist and heraldist. While his book the Academy of Armory was primarily a book of heraldry, it also contained “Etymologies, Definitions and Historical Observations” of his time, including descriptions of various different trades such as tailoring. Many of his observations correspond with other surviving evidence, indicating that, for the most part, Holme was a reliable source when it came to the terminology used for dress in late seventeenth-century England – at least for his area of England.
In this post I’ve placed Holme’s description of the various components of women’s dress during the 1680s alongside various images from the decade in order to demonstrate what he was referring to and what fashionable 1680s dress actually looked like. Holme’s commentary relates to English dress but many of the images I use below are from France. French styles dominated English tastes throughout the seventeenth century, particularly in the 1680s when French fashion prints began to gain popularity and English audiences were exposed almost weekly to new styles from Paris.
In addition to these images, I have provided my own commentary in dark blue in both the text and the image captions.
The following is taken from:
Randle Holme, The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very usefel [sic] for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences (London: 1688), pp. 94-5.
Terms used by Taylors.
In a Womens Gown there are these several parts, as
The Stayes, which is the body of the Gown before the Sleeves are put too, or covered with the outward stuff: which have these peeces in it, and terms used about it. [Stayes here refers to the bodice of the gown, not a separate garment, although the process and terminology was likely the same when making this undergarment].
The fore Part, or fore Body: which is the Breast part, which hath two peeces in it; as,
The Right side of the Fore-body.
The Left side of the Fore-body.
The two side parts, which are peeces under both Arms on the sides.
The Shoulder heads, or Shoulder straps; are two peeces that come over the Sholders and are fastned to the Forebody: through which the Arms are put.
Scoreing, or Strick iines on the Canvice to sow straight.
Stitching, is sowing all along the lines with close stitches to keep the Whale-Bone each peece from other.
— is the cleaving of the Whale-Bone to what substance or thickness the workman pleaseth.
Boning the Stays, is to put the slit Bone into every one of the places made for it between each stitched line which makes Stayes or Bodies stiff and strong.
Cordy Robe skirts to the Staies, are such Stayes as are cut into Labells at the bottom, like long slender skirts.
Lining the Bodies, or Stayes; is covering the inside of the Stayes with Fustian, Linnen, and such like.
Binding the Neck, is sowing Galloon, at the edge of the Neck.
Eylet holes, or Eiglet holes, little round holes whipt-stitched about, through which laces are drawn to hold one side close to the other.
The Waist, is the depth of the Stayes from the Shoulders to the setting on of the skirts: now it is distinguished by the Back Waist, and the fore-body Waist, which is each side of the Stomacher.
Side Waisted, is long or deep in the Body.
Short Waisted, is short in the Body.
The Stomacher, is that peece as lieth under the lacing or binding on of the Body of the Gown, which said body is somtimes in fashion to be.
Open before, that is to be laced on the Breast.
Open behind, laced on the Back, which fashion hath always a Maid or Woman to dress the wearer.
The Peake, is the bottom or point of the Stomacher, whether before or behind.
A Busk, it is a strong peece of Wood, or Whale-bone thrust down the middle of the Stomacher, to keep it streight and in compass, that the Breast nor Belly shall not swell too much out. These Buskes are usually made in length according to the necessity of the persons wearing it: if to keep in the fullness of the Breasts, then it extends to the Navel: if to keep the Belly down, then it reacheth to the Honor.
Covering the Bodies or Stayes, is the laying the outside stuff upon it, which is sowed on the same after diverse fashions: as,
Smooth Covered. [Ie. outer fashion fabric hides the stitching of the boning channels].
Pleated or Wrinkled in the covering.
The Wings, are Welts or peeces set over the place on the top of the Shoulders, where the Body and Sleeves are set together: now Wings are of diverse fashions, some narrow, others broad; some cut in slits, cordy Robe like, others Scalloped.
The Sleeves, are those parts of the Gown, as covers the Arms: and in these there is as much variety of fashion, as days in the Year: I shall only give the terms of the most remarkable.
The close, or narrow Sleeve; which reacheth from the Shoulder to the Wrist of the Arm, and is not much wider then for the Arm: which were of old turned up at the Hand, and faced or lined with some other sort of stuff.
The Wide,or full Sleeve; is such as are full and long, and stand swelling out: such are tied about the Elbow close to the Arm with a Ribbon.
The open Sleeve, such are open the fore part of the Arm, that their bravery under may be seen whether it be a mock or cheat Waist-coat with Imbrauthery or the like; else their fine Linens and Laces.
The slasht Sleeve, is when the Sleeve from Shoulder to the Sleeve hands are cut in long slices, or fillets: and are tied together at the Elbow with Ribbons, or such like.
The Sleeve and half Sleeve.
The Sleeves with hanging Sleeves, is a full Sleeve in any of the fashions aforesaid, with a long hanging Sleeve of a good breadth hanging from under the back part of the Wing down behind, even to the ground; in the greater sorts of Gallants trailing a good length on the ground.
The half Sleeves with Hounds Ears, are such as extend to the Elbow and there turn up, and being slit or open hang at the Elbow like Dogs Ears.
The Rim of the Sleeve, is that part which is at the Sleeve hand either lined or Edged or Welted: but of these sorts of Sleeves see their figures and shapes, chap. 5. numb. 130.131. &c.
The Skirt, or Gown Skirt; is the lower part of the Gown, which extends from the body to the ground: these are made several fashions, as Open Skirts, is open before, that thereby rich and costly Peti-coat may be fully seen.
Turned up Skirts, are such as have a draught on the Ground a yard and more long; these is great Personages are called Trains, whose Honor it is to have them born up by Pages.
Bearers, Rowls, Fardingales; are things made purposely to put under the skirts of Gowns at their setting on at the Bodies; which raise up the skirt at that place to what breadth the wearer pleaseth, and as the fashion is.
Skirts about the Waist, are either whole in one entire peece with Goares, or else cut into little laps or cordy robe skirts: Gowns with these skirts are called Waistcoat-Gowns.
Wastcoat, or Waistcoast; is the outside of a Gown without either stayes or bodies fastned to it; It is an Habit or Garment generally worn by the middle and lower sort of Women, having Goared skirts, and some wear them with Stomachers.
Goare, is a Cant or three cornered peece of cloath put into a skirt, to make the bottom wider then the top: so are Goared Peti-coats.
Peti-coat, is the skirt of a Gown without its body; but that is generally termed a Peti-coat, which is worn either under a Gown, or without it: in which Garment there are [this marks a slight change in the meaning of the word “petticoat” during the late seventeenth century. Earlier in the century a petticoat often referred to a skirt with an attached bodice called “petticoat bodies” that was worn under a gown or with a waistcoat.]
Peating, that is gathering the top part in into Pleats or folding to make it of the same wideness as the Waist of middle of the wearer.
Laceing, is setting a Lace of Silk, Silver or Gold about the bottom of it; which in a Peti-coat is called the Skirt.
Bodering, is the lineing of the Peti-coat skirt or bottom in the inner side.
Binding, is the sowing of some things (as Ribbon, Galloon or such like) on both sides the Edge of the skirt to keep it from ravelling; sometime it is done by a Hem: the top part of the Peti-coat hath its Binding also; that is, it hath either Incle, Filleting, or Galloon, sowed about the Edges of it, when pleated: which keeps the Pleats in their Pleats, the ends helping to make it fast about the wearers Waist.
Hem, is the turning of the Edge of the cloath in; two fould or more, then sowing it up, keeps it from ravelling.
Tucking, is to draw up the depth of a Peti-coat be|ing too side or long, and that is by foulding a part over another
Pocket, or Pocket holes; are little Bags set on the inside, with a hole, or slit on the outside; by which any small thing may be carried about, or kept therein.
A Mantua, is a kind of loose Coat without any stayes [ie. stiffening] in it, the Body part and Sleeves are of as many fashions as I have mentioned in the Gown Body; but the skirt is sometime no longer then the Knees, others have them down to the Heels. The short skirt is open before, and behind to the middle…
A Semmer, or Samare; have a lose body, and four side laps, or skirs; which entend to the knee, the sleeves short not to the Elbow turned up and faced.
The Riding Suite for Women.
The Mantle, it is cut round, which is cast over the Shoulders to preserve from rain or cold.
The Safegard, is put about the middle, and so doth secure the Feet from cold, and dirt.
The Riding Coat, it is a long Coat buttoned down before like a Mans Jaket, with Pocket holes; and the sleeves turned up and buttons.
More resources on 1680s fashion:
Arnold, Janet, Jenny Tiramani, Luca Costigliolo, Sébastien Passot, Armelle Lucas and Johanne Pietsch. Patterns of Fashion 5: The content, cut, construction and context of bodies, stays, hoops and rumps c. 1595-1795. London: School of Historical Dress, 2018.
Crowston, Clare Haru. Fabricating Women: the seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Hart, Avril. ‘The Mantua: its Evolution and Fashionable Significance in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. In Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, edited by Amy Le Haye, 93-103. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Norberg, Kathryn, and Sandra Rosenbaum, eds. Fashion Prints in the Age of Louis XIV: Interpreting the Art of Elegance. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954; reprinted., Abingdon: Routledge, 1991.
My upcoming book Shaping Femininity will also discuss late seventeenth-century fashions, including those of the 1680s.
What should we call the torso-shaping female foundation garments of the seventeenth century? Were they pairs of bodies? Bodices? Stays? Corsets? Moreover, how were they worn? Were they underwear or were the outerwear?
This post was inspired by a question that I saw written on an Instagram post uploaded by the very talented Morgan Donner about a pattern from the new Patterns of Fashion 5:
“17th Century things are so 😍… one thing I’m curious about is that I’ve seen boned bodices for gowns, and then stays, and then stays with sleeves. I assume the latter are basically worn as “tops”, and that boned gown bodices obviously wouldn’t have stays under them… so are the stays only for under the lovely embroidered jackets and such?”
As I did my PhD on bodies and farthingales, and my forthcoming book Shaping Femininity examines these garments and the lives of the women who wore them, this question inspired me to make this post to clear the air. Not just about terminology, but also in an attempt to answer this question as it is much more complicated than it seems!
Why then do I not use the term stays when so many others do? Well, in my almost six years of archival research I have never seen the term “stays” used in historical documents to refer to these garments until at least the 1680s, which is when Randle Holme was writing.
The term stays does appear in the records from the middle of the century, however, it always refers to the stiffening in the garments that are being made – not to the garments themselves. Artisan’s bills will often quote a total price for the garment and then break down the price of each component of that garment. For example, a tailor’s bill might look something like this:
A pair of bodies of crimson satin bodies with silver lace ______ 00 – 00 – 00
for 1 yard 1/2 of silk at 11s the yard ________ 00 – 00 – 00
for calico to the lining __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for silver lace to them __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for stayes and stiffenings __________ 00 – 00 – 00
for making and furnishing ___________ 00-00-00
Therefore, “stayes and stiffenings” refers to the materials used to stiffen these garments like whalebone, not to the actual garment itself. Additionally, “stays” referring to stiffening does not just appear in women’s clothing bills. I have also found references to “stay and buckram” in tailoring bills for menswear, such as a suit and coat from 1680 on this occasion.
This is why in my own research I use the terminology “bodies” or “pair of bodies” when I refer to these garments that would later come to be called stays and corsets. For me it is important to use the terminology that was used at the time, otherwise we are placing slightly anachronistic modern assumptions onto this clothing. This becomes especially important when it comes to answering the next question of this blog entry regarding the ambiguity of bodies as under or outer wear in the seventeenth century.
Underwear or Outerwear?
As you can probably tell the early modern term “bodies” sounds an awful lot like the modern term “bodice”, and that is because the term bodice is derived from bodies! Anybody who has read early modern English sources before knows that there was little to no standardised spelling at the time, and so words were regularly spelled different ways (even when they were only sentences apart). Thus, these are terms that are regularly conflated and used interchangeably in the archival sources from this century.
Variations in spelling included: bodies, bodyes, bodis, bodice, boddisses, etc. “I” and “Y” were interchangeable vowels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries so “bodys” could be spelt “bodis” and then “bodis” spelt “bodice” (so bodys = bodis = bodice, confused yet?). So there appears to be no rhyme or reason for most of the century as to what a “bodie” is vs a “bodice”, or whether one is an under garment or an outer garment.
In the seventeenth century there was no firm distinction between under and outer wear as we see in later centuries when it came to bodies, or other items of women’s dress like petticoats. So “bodies” could be either outerwear or underwear, it all depended on a woman’s social status, the occasion she was dressing for, or maybe her own personal taste. Some surviving bodies from this century contain detachable sleeves (that are laced on with points), indicating that the uses of this garment were flexible, and its use could be easily manipulated depending on the situation it was worn in. Detachable sleeves were also worn in earlier Elizabethan petticoats (see more about that here).
Detachable sleeves on elaborate bodies may have been worn with a matching skirt to form a gown, but on other occasions the sleeves may have been taken off and the bodies worn underneath what we would now call a jacket (but at the time was known as a waistcoat).
The particular decade of the seventeenth century being investigated is also important. For example, the 1660s saw the rise of the very rigid bodices that were retained for court wear in countries like France well into the eighteenth centuries. The highly boned nature of this garment meant that separately boned bodies were not needed or worn underneath. However, I would be hesitant to claim that this means that under-bodies were discarded during these centuries – as this highly boned style was not universally worn, nor would it have been worn all the time, even by elite women.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to have been any hard or fast rules for how to wear bodies during the seventeenth century, and there definitely was not the major distinction between underwear and outerwear like there is in regards to stays later in the eighteenth century, or the corsets of the nineteenth century. However, there is still a lot to uncover, and I hope to tackle this question in my forthcoming book, so who knows, maybe soon I will have a better answer!
The first reconstruction that I will be making is the effigy bodies of Queen Elizabeth I that are now on display in Westminster Abbey in London. These bodies were specially constructed, probably by the Queen’s tailor William Jones, upon the death of Elizabeth in 1603, for the effigy that would accompany her body to its resting place in Westminster Abbey. As Janet Arnold notes, it is therefore unlikely that the Queen ever wore these bodies, however, their size and construction was probably based on the bodies that Jones had previously made for the Queen. Regardless of whether the Queen really did wear them or not, they are the second oldest pair of bodies in Europe that are known to have survived (the earliest surviving bodies were found on the corpse of Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg, who was buried in what is now Germany in 1598), and the certainly oldest English pair that we know of.
The pattern I’m using for my reconstruction is one that the amazing Janet Arnold made of the bodies when she studied them in 1994, which was then published posthumously in the journal of Costume.
The effigy bodies consist of three separate parts: two front sections that lace together with twenty-nine eyelet holes and a back section. The lining consists of four parts (the back panel lining being divided into two sections). There are a total of six tabs that spread over the hips, two on the back piece and two on each front section. From the pictures and the pattern provided I’m unsure as to whether the shoulder straps are part of the back section, or are attached separately. Arnold’s pattern has them as separate from the back piece, however, in the pictures and other sketches of the bodies they appear to cut into the back piece.
My intention is the make the bodies exactly the same size as the original pair in Westminster Abbey, which by my calculations means that Elizabeth I had a 21” waist (!!). A disclaimer at the start of the article states that “Janet’s full-scale pattern of the ‘pair of straight bodies’ has been scaled down to fit the page size of Costume.” I, however, am working off a .pdf document version of this article printed on A4 paper which may be bigger than the pages of Costume. Although technically if I copy it correctly onto a 1 inch scale it shouldn’t really matter. To double check this though, I’ve also used the pattern provided in the Tudor Tailor.
Unlike the bodies mentioned in the wardrobe accounts of Elizabeth I, the effigy bodies are rather plain. They are made from two layers of twill weave fustian cloth that was originally white, are bound by green leather that had a suede finish and were stitched with linen thread. The term ‘bodies’ during this period could refer to a number of things – from the bodices of gowns, to the undergarment that is visible on Countess Elizabeth Vernon of Southampton in her portrait below, and of course to the effigy bodies.
My archival research has confirmed that bodies that belonged to elites during this period were always made from materials such as silk satins and silk taffetas, sometimes even velvet, and usually lined with sarcenet, fustian, canvas or buckram. Contrary to popular opinion, bodies were not always stiffened with material such as whalebone or bents, and rarely so until the late sixteenth century.
When considering how then I would make my reconstruction, taking into account the effigy bodies, wardrobe warrants and visual evidence such as the portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, an entry in the warrants of Elizabeth I from 1590 caught my eye. It requested:
“Item for makinge of a paire of french bodies of carnacion Taffata Lyned with fustian stiched alouer with whales bone of our greate warderobe.” 
Here was a wardrobe account that not only matches the only visual image of elite bodies from the period, but was made within a close enough time period to the effigy pair that they could have been the same or a very similar style.
Therefore, for my reconstruction I will use a pale pink (“carnacion”) coloured silk taffeta for both the outer fabric and the lining. Although fustian and sarcenet were the fabrics most commonly used as lining in the wardrobe accounts, they are rarely used in modern clothing and so are incredibly hard and expensive to source. There are warrants from Elizabeth’s wardrobe during the same period, such as this one: “Item for makinge of a pair of bodies… of black veluett… lined with Taffata…”, that shows that taffeta was also used as lining, although less frequently. To bind the bodies I will use white faux leather which closely mimics the properties of leather and is easy to source.
The 1603 effigy bodies are completely boned with whalebone and the average width of this boning is 6mm, except for two 12.7mm wide pieces on either side of the front opening. As whalebone (‘baleen’) is, for good reason, not available anymore I will have to use an somehing else. A period alternative would be small bundles of bents (a thin reed), like those used in Hilary Davidson’s modern reconstruction of a sixteenth-century Spanish pair of bodies. However, as the effigy bodies contained whalebone I will use a modern alternative that mimics baleen’s properties. I have chosen modern plastic dress making boning. It is similar in width to the original whalebone (5mm) and contains the same amount of flexibility as traditional whalebone. Although silk bodies probably would have been constructed with a mixture of silk and linen thread, as costs must be considered in my reconstruction, I will use only linen thread to hand construct the bodies and to work the eyelet holes so they don’t fray (similar to the way that modern button holes are done).
Janet Arnold, ‘The ‘pair of straight bodies’ and ‘a pair of drawers’ dating from 1603 which Clothe the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey’, Costume, Vol. 41 (2007), p. 1.
 Arnold, ‘The ‘pair of straight bodies’, p. 1; Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.
 Hilary Davidson and Anna Hodson, ‘Joining forces: the intersection of two replica Garments’, Textiles And Text: Re-Establishing The Links Between Archival And Object-Based Research, [postprints], eds. M. Hayward and E.Kramer, (London: Archetype, 2007), pp. 206-108.