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, Jacobean, Manuscript / Archival Research, Object Research

Bodies or Stays? Underwear or Outerwear? Seventeenth-century Foundation Garments explained.

2003-109-2e
Bodies and Stomacher of Dame Elizabeth Filmer (front), c. 1630-1650. Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester

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 upcoming book looks at these garments and the way they shaped ideas of femininity, 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!

 

Bodies or Stays?

As long-term followers of my blog and my research my have surmised, I rarely use the term “stays” when I talk about sixteenth and seventeenth-century foundation garments, even though museums and other publications almost always do. Randle Holme’s famous 1688 manual most famously makes the distinction between “smooth covered stays” and “stitched stays”, something which Jenny Tiramani emphasises in the new Patterns of Fashion 5: The content, cut, construction and context of bodies, stays, hoops and rumps c.1595-1795.

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?

giphy

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).

2010EB2907_2500
Bodies with detachable sleeves, pink watered silk trimmed with pink silk taffeta ribbons, English, c. 1660-1670. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

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).

1660s_gown_bodies_detachablesleeves_bendall
1660s Gown containing a pair of bodies with detachable sleeves. Reconstruction by Sarah A Bendall

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.

ivory satin bodice vna
Ivory Satin Bodice, English, c. 1660-1669. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

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!