Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Closet Histories #2.3 : Elizabethan Bodies


I have spoken a little bit about the contested existence of bodies (stays/corsets/etc.) before the late 16th century here on Closet Histories before. There are so few extant examples of clothing from the time, let alone extant undergarments! Whether you believe bodies were used before the mid 1500's or not, it is clear that by the later Elizabethan period "pairs of bodies" were worn. I can say this with confidence because there are (remarkably) actually a few extant examples! And not only do a few examples remain, but bodies are also listed in written inventories of wealthy women's wardrobes!

"Queen Elizabeth had several pairs of bodies listed in her wardrobe accounts. The following listings, according to Janet Arnold (author of Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd), most likely referred to a corset-like garment.

A payre of bodies of black cloth of silver with little skirts (1571)
a pair of bodies of sweete lether (1579)
a pair of bodies of black velvet lined with canvas stiffened with buckeram (1583)
for altering a pair of bodies...the bodies lined with sackecloth and buckram about the skirts with bents covered with fustian.
a pair of french bodies of damaske lined with sackcloth, with whales bone to them (1597)" (elizabethancostume.net)

So now that we know bodies had entered the wardrobes of the elite as a separate garment, what then did these garments look like?


The earliest example of a pair of bodies (or stays/corset if your prefer), to my current knowledge, are the pair above. Dating to around 1598, the garment was part of the burial clothes for Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg of Germany. Though not an English example, the stays are a remarkable survivor and excellent record of how the silhouettes of the time were created. The bodies are fully boned with whalebone and consist of three layers of fabric, two of linen and one of silk. They lace in the back and have no boning over the breasts. There are tabs along the side and back waist and also ties to attach a petticoat or farthingale to the bodies at the waist. There is a larger boning channel in the center front were a stiffer bone, called a busk, could be inserted into the garment for maximum straightening.


The second extant example of bodies from around the turn of the 17th century is the 'effigy corset', the bodies from the 1603 dressed effigy of queen Elizabeth I housed at Westminster Abbey in London. The clothing on the effigy of queen Elizabeth was dated to after her burial, but the underclothes, dated by expert Janet Arnold, are thought to be from the queen's own wardrobe from her death in 1603. That such a historically significant garment (queen Elizabeth's actual "corset" for goodness sake!) still exists today boggles the mind really!

Elizabeth's pair of bodies differs greatly from her German contemporary's set. Elizabeth's too are fully boned with whalebone (baleen for those who are unfamiliar with stay making) but are front lacing and therefore have no center front busk. The boning in front also continues over the bust as opposed to stopping short like on the German example. The tabs at the waist are in one with the main body and are boned in line with the rest.

There are several possible reasons that these garments are so different in style though so few years separate them. Firstly, that one set are continental and the other English; different styles for different regions in Europe. Another reason could be that Elizabeth died in her 70's, and Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine was in her 20's when she died. Whether that means different ages had different requirements from their bodies/stays, or that one of them was either more traditional or more forward in their underclothes than the other we will never know. Perhaps too there were just different styles of bodies as opposed to a standard worn by all women of the time. Perhaps one style was more formal than the other, or more comfortable. These are questions that can only be pondered, and never really answered.

Elizabeth's effigy bodies laid flat.
Lucky Londoners can visit Elizabeth's set of bodies anytime, as they are on display on Elizabeth's original effigy next to the later effigy in the museum of Westminster Abbey. Though I myself have visited the Abby twice, I only managed to get down to the museum once and had to rush through. I can't wait to return and study this stunning survivor more closely!

Want more information about Elizabethan bodies? Check out these links and recreations:

I have yet to venture into Elizabethan costuming much myself, except for an ill researched (but really pretty) christmas themed gown for a high school madrigal feast. I hope one day to have a pair of bodies, stays and corsets for each major era of costume history and create ensembles for each, but that is a lifelong goal not an urgent one!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!


Thanks for reading! 

1 comment:

  1. What an admirable lifelong goal that is!!! Along the same vein, I'd very much like to have a complete (or very nearly so - I know that shoes will always be an issue for me with earlier eras) Victorian, Edwardian, 1920s and 1930s outfit (on top of my daily 40s and 50s garb). I have pieces here and there and could put together reasonably good looks from those periods by utilizing repro and modern pieces, too, but it would be rather magnificent to have the real deal for each of them (one day, I hope!).

    ♥ Jessica

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