Saturday, August 30, 2014

New 1950s Yellow Summer Cotton Dress

Last weekend I went to the annual Fifties Fair at the iconic Rose Seidler House in Sydney. For the event I decided to make a summer day dress that was light and functional (as I was rock and roll dancing at the fair). 

I've actually made this dress already and I wrote about it in this blog post. The pattern I used was B5603, which is a Butterick reprint of a vintage pattern in their archives from 1956. Like before, I made option number three. All up it only cost me about AU$50! 


The dress is made from a light cotton fabric and the lining is a pale yellow cotton/poly blend. It has an invisible zip down the side and I placed a separate tulle underskirt underneath to puff out the skirts. If you wanted to you could add as many as these petticoats as your desire (details on where I got the underskirt are in my previous post). 

Without petticoat
With petticoat

Unfortunately I was having so much fun at the fair, I don't really have any good photos of me wearing it. Although I know a few were taken of men by official photographers at the fair so I'll have to see if I can find those. 

Here are some more detailed pics of the dress:

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Inside the Australian Dress Register: Young Girl's Black Dress, c. 1860

Young Girl's Black Dress, c. 1855-65. Dorothy Nicol Historical Fashion Collection, Belmont Victoria

Although very little provenance information regarding this garment has survived it is, nevertheless, a very well preserved example of children's clothing in mid-nineteenth century Australia. What makes this garment even more interesting is that it is believed to have been made and worn in rural Victoria during the mid-nineteenth century.

This little girl's dress is made from black silk taffeta and is dated to around 1855--1865. Entirely hand sewn throughout, the form fitting bodice is unboned and trimmed with decorative glass buttons, black velvet ribbons and black silk-rouleaux with jet bugle beads. The sleeves and neckline are trimmed with white cotton machine-made lace, and blue silk-taffeta edging trims the backwaist peplum which covers the back skirt opening. The bottom of the skirt is decorated with a pleated frill attachment made from the same black silk taffeta.The dress is lined with cotton calico and cotton canvas, and the skirt lining stiffened to give the dress its crinoline silhouette.

The dress was donated to Dorothy Nicol's Historical Fashion Collection by Jenny Barr and her sister Barbara Denness on behalf of their aunt, Janet Dawe. The dress was found in Janet Dawe's family home in Belmont, Victoria. It was stored with a small woman's cape in a trunk. A black and white photograph of a little girl wearing the dress has survived. The portrait was located among Janet Dawe's possessions and was held in a lockable, leather bound album covering the mid-1880s to 1900.

Little girl wearing the dress

Its fine materials and complexity of sewing techniques indicate that the Dawe family must have enjoyed a relatively wealthy lifestyle in a fashionable rural society. Fashion during this period was very class conscious, and the rising middle class in wealthy colonies such as Victoria demonstrated their importance and prosperity through their ostentatious dress. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards well-to-do girls were dressed as miniature versions of their mothers, and as a result fabrics and embellishments that were just as fine and expensive were also used in their dresses. The girl who wore this short-sleeved dress would have been attired in the same style as her mother, except for the dress skirt which was shorter.

This dress also demonstrates the utilitarian nature of clothing in colonial Australia even when attributed to the prosperous middle class. As this dress is made of black silk taffeta it may have originally been made for funeral or mourning wear. The blue silk binding and lace trims may have been added at a later date after the mourning period had ended for another occasion. Studying the inside of the bodice also reveals large seam allowances of 3cms which may have been made for growth and adaptation of the dress as the child grew. Both of these features of the dress would have allowed for maximum use of the garment.

For more detailed information about the manufacture of this garment and to explore others like it please visit the Australian Dress Register by clicking on the logo below.

*The Australian Dress Register is a collaborative, online project about dress with Australian provenance pre-1975. This includes men's, women's and children's clothing ranging from the special occasion to the everyday. Museums and private collectors are encouraged to research their garments and share the stories and photographs while the information is still available and within living memory. The project is facilitated by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. All contents are copyright of the Powerhouse Museum and Contributors. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

To Write a Distick upon It: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England

I'm so excited! As some of you will know, I'm currently a doctorate student at the University of Sydney in Australia researching the social history of undergarments in early modern England and France from 1550-1750.

Although this has been a long time coming (academic reviewing, editing and publishing takes a long time!) my article on busks and sexuality in sixteenth-and-seventeenth century England has been published! Here's a quick abstract:

"In previous academic discussions of the busk (an often elaborately decorated long, flat piece of wood, metal or bone that was placed down the front the early modern bodies and stays) it has often been presented as de-stabilizing: an item of dress that threatened established ideas of gender and sexuality. This article argues that in the vast majority of instances, far from disrupting social norms the busk supported them, opening a discursive space that afforded women a degree of flexibility at the same time as it reinforced their subordination to male authority and erotic desire. By placing the busk within the context of the corset in which it fit, as well as the social exchange (courtship and marriage) in which it was most commonly recorded, this article argues that the busk was not disruptive but rather it reinforced culturally constructed and socially acceptable expressions of male and female desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing."
As it is published in the Journal of Gender & History, and much of it will be incorporated into my completed PhD thesis, I can't put the article on my blog. But if you have access to academic journals you can view it HERE.

This seventeenth-century French metal busk bearing a man's portrait that proclaims:
"He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover, Who would very much like to take my place", is just
one of many that I discuss in my article.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Costume Spotlight | The Devil's Whore: Seventeenth-century Masks and Gender Debates

For a few years now I have loved a mini-series called 'The Devil's Whore' that was released in 2008. As the seventeenth century is my favourite historical period, especially in England, and the main period of my own academic research, it's refreshing to not only see a production that deals with the period (this century is severely under represented), but one that does it well.

Essentially, the mini series details the life and times of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe throughout the period of the English Civil War (late 1630s- early 1650s). Through this fictional aristocratic character (Andrea Riseborough) we are brought into contact with Oliver Cromwell (Dominic West), Edward Sexby (John Simm) and Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), to name just a few. Recently a new series was released which claims to be it's sequel, called 'New Worlds' (although not nearly as well written, researched or as entertaining as 'The Devil's Whore', and very loosely tied to it).

Although some of the characters are a tad under developed and some scenes lacking in background (I read that this was because it was originally commissioned as a 10 part series that was later cut down to four), this series is beautifully filmed and really brings to life the grittiness of war ravaged seventeenth-century England, thanks in part to the production design and costumes.

The costumes are beautiful and what I love most about this production are the bits of detail that have been added - most of which a viewer would not pick up on unless they knew the period in England quite well.

For example, in the first episode when Angelica is being prepared for her marriage to her cousin Harry Fanshawe, and a man is being whipped in the square outside Whitehall palace, we see a masked woman.

This character in the mini series seems to be a direct reference to a famous etching of 1643 called Winter by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).

Wenceslaus Hollar, Winter, an etching, 1643. British Museum, London

 Masks were, believe it or not, worn frequently in the streets of England during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Full faced masks were used primarily to shade the wearer's face from the sun's rays, as the wearers were usually aristocratic women whose pale skin reflected their position in life. Some of these masks have survived and were made from black velvet and silk/leather, such as this one found in the wall of a sixteenth-century building in England. Other masks, such as the one depicted above, and in the film, were used by women to disguise themselves. Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry from 18th February 1667, describes such a woman at a playhouse he attended: 
"And one of the ladies would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find, out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant 'rencontre' I never heard." 
In the film the girl who is depicted as wearing the mask grabs come pamphlet's of Freeborn John Lilburne, who opposed the powerful rule of Charles I in England. Possibly she was a well-to-do wife or daughter of a cavalier and didn't want to be recognised?

Scenes in the film that depict Angelica Fanshawe in men's clothing, whilst crucial to the story line, were probably also allusions by the screen writers to the gender pamphlet debates of the period.


The anxiety that had surrounded boys playing female parts by dressing as women in Elizabethan playhouses spilled over into the streets of seventeenth-century London in what could be termed a ‘gender crisis’ which was debated through popular media.  Pamphlets from the time reveal fears over its construction on the street by cross-dressing women and men.  In the last years of King James I’s reign (this it, the 1620s) women were accused of dressing and behaving like men and the King even took upon himself to call together his clergymen and to have them “inveigh vehemently against the insolencies of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimmed hats… [and] pointed dublets…” Popular Jacobean plays such as The Roaring Girl (1607-10) written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker also reflected these debates.

Front piece to 'The Roaring Girl' by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, 1621

The screen writers of ‘The Devil’s Whore’ were probably more than aware of pamphlets like Hic Mulier (‘The Manlike Woman’), which stated that women had “cast off the ornaments of your sexes” such as “the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cowl, Coif, handsome Dress or Kerchief…  [and]concealing straight gown” and in exchange had taken on a “monstrousness” by wearing “Ruffianly broad-brimmed Hat and wanton Feather… lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet being all unbuttoned to entice…”, and weaved these debates into the story line that concerns Angelica and Joliffe.

Engraving from 'Hic Mulier', 1620, depicting women dressed as men receiving men's haircuts from a barber

Whilst the women's fashions in this film are beautiful, and for the most part, historically accurate, the men are the true peacocks of this mini-series. I love the men's fashions during this period, they were so much more earthy and forgive me, 'masculine', than those of the later eighteenth century.

Van Dyck, 1638 

Men's suit, 1630s, Victoria and Albert Museum

Abraham Bosse 'Valet de chambre' French 1630s

Charles I, 1631

I'd be interested to know how many of these costumes were made specifically for this production, as a lot are usually sourced from costume houses for series such as this.

Anyway, if this hasn't convinced you to watch 'The Devil's Whore' then I'll leave you with a scene from the mini-series!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Artefact Focus: 18th century shoes from the Joseph Box Collection at the Powerhouse Museum

I realised I haven't posted anything on my blog for over a month! I've been super busy with my PhD, but to make up for my absence I thought I'd post some photos of eighteenth-century shoes that are in the Powerhouse Museum's Joseph Box collection. Click the artefact description underneath the pictures to be taken to the museum catalogue.

Embroidered linen tie shoes, England, 1675-1725, Powerhouse Museum - H4448-55 
First we have this pair of shoes dated to the late 17th or early 18th century and were first exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum Shoe Exhibition held in London, England in 1897. 


In curatorial notes from the Powerhouse Museum it is stated that these are: "a women's pair of straight tie shoes of white rand construction with fingertip pointed toes and covered Louis heels. Shoes consist of linen uppers embroidered with pink blue and yellow floral motifs featuring medium high tongue and small open sides with short un-pierced latchets to tie over the tongue. Side seams and edges are all bound with heel covered in matching fabric. Shoes lined in white kid with leather insole arrow shaped and turned over to form toe puff. Leather sole stitched in the channel."

Pair of embroidered linen laced shoes, 1685 - 1735, Powerhouse Museum - H4448-7
Secondly, and similar in appearance to the previous shoes, these are also a pair of women's straight laced shoes of rand construction with visible stitching and upcurved blunt pointed over a needlepoint toe, and with a covered Louis heel. The uppers of these shoes consist of embroidered linen, lined with silk and leather, featuring a high cut vamp with square tongue, under latchets tying in centre front, oblique side seams, centre back seam and leather soles. The edges are bound in pink silk.

Interestingly, although these are believed to have been made in England between 1705-1715, when footwear specialist June Swann was invited to view them at the Powerhouse Museum she noted that: "Although shoes were made "straight" and would normally have been swapped daily to equalise wear, each shoe has been pieced at the bunion joint where wear would be greatest, if worn continually on the same foot. There is no evidence the piecing was done after the present soles were attached. This suggests that the uppers were either made into shoes on a previous occasion (probably not before the late 17th century when women's toe shapes change to a point) or, less likely, that the uppers were pieced during the making of this pair. I suggest testing whether there is enough material in an early 17th century coif, which seems unlikely; they are probably made from a bodice. There is a smaller piece of piecing in the quarters. I am sure that, having been saved for almost 100 years, any embroidery not used in the making of a pair of shoes, would have continued to be saved, and would be available, say, a year or so later to piece and re-make this pair"

So it seems that the uppers on these shoes were possibly made from an older bodice or jacket? When I first saw them I noted in my mind that the embroidery motifs certainly do not resemble those of the eighteenth century. For example, if we take those given in the V&A's Seventeenth Century Women's Dress Patterns, which are taken from Randle Holme's The Academy of Armoury, as well as extant examples from their collection, it seems likely that the fabric used for the shoe uppers was from an older 17th century garment.


The shoe uppers that are decorated with a pattern of silver scrolls and silk flowers embroidered in the centres closely resemble extant 17th century garments such as these below:

Jacket - 1590-1630 - V&A - 919-1873

Jacket - England - 1600-1625 - V&A - 1359-1900
As an historian of the early modern period there are few surviving extant clothing examples, not only due to the age and fragility of these items, but also because many were remade into other items in later centuries (the nineteenth century was notoriously bad for this!). But that's not always a bad thing, as it can lead to garments with an interesting history likes these shoes.

Silk brocade buckle shoe, 1740 - 1749, Powerhouse Museum - H4448-85/1
Lastly, here is a pair of silk brocade buckle shoes dated to the 1740s. According to the Powerhouse Museum files these are "Women's straight buckle shoes of white rand construction with visible stitching, needlepoint toe and covered louis heel, white stitched. Shoe consists of petrel blue, ivory and pink silk brocade upper featuring rounded tongue, slightly pointed straps to buckle over tongue and short dog leg side seams at waist. Edges bound in olive silk with upper lined in linen and white kid and the insole of brown leather continuing into a toe puff. Heel is covered in matching silk brocade. Brown leather sole is flesh out and stitched in the channel."

The show also has some maker's markings. The sole is stamped with 1 + 2 rings: "U.CK", and the maker's inscription is on the liniing, "6 over 2 wharehouse".

Saturday, April 5, 2014

From Bodies to Corsets: A Brief Overview of the Corset

This piece was originally written for a Powerhouse Museum blog called 'Inside the Collection', and it was going to accompanied by items from their collection (hence the reason why many examples post 1800 are Australia-centric). However it was never published, and doesn't look like it will be in future, so I've decided to go ahead and publish it here on my blog. I hope you find the social history of the corset just as interesting as I do! 

From Bodies to Corsets: A Brief Overview of the Corset

During the 1980s feminist author and journalist Susan Brownmiller stated that “no discussion of the feminine body in the western world can make real sense without getting a grip on the corset” for it has played a “starring role in the body’s history.”[1] For more than five hundred years the corset, and its many variants, lay under the clothing of women changing their shapes to conform with the silhouette of fashion. Whether a corset was used by a woman to achieve a desired body shape, for modesty, or simply because it was a standard part of underwear, the corset was an everyday part of life for nearly all western women until the 1920s.

The earliest garments that could be termed ‘corsets’ originated in the sixteenth century and were termed ‘bodies’ in English (and similarly, ‘corps’ in French). However this does not mean that earlier forms of body shaping in Western Europe did not occur.  There is evidence from as early as the thirteenth century that women tried to achieve a slender figure with un-boned bodices called “bliauds” made from materials which tightly fastened around the waist and were laced at the back.[2]  However the greatest evidence for some sort of female body shaping device in the middle ages comes from archaeological excavations of Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol, Austria. During excavations undertaken in 2008, approximately 2,700 individual textile fragments were discovered in the insulation of a vault. On closer inspection, male and female undergarments were discovered and carbon dated to the mid-fifteenth century.[3] Among these undergarments were many female ‘bras’ and a garment that resembles what were would now call a ‘corselet’.  The very design of this undergarment indicates that it must have lent itself to some form of body shaping by women in the fifteenth century; most probably it was used to create a sleek and slender looking torso in the upper body, removing unsightly bulges from where medieval gowns would have hugged the figure.

Add captiLengberg Castle, East-Tyrol: 15th century linen “bra” in comparison to a longline-bra [corselet] from the 1950´s, Institute for Archaeologies, Universität Innsbruck, Austriaon

     Up until the sixteenth century the shape of women’s bodies had been fairly unrestricted.  Despite fragmented evidence of breast binding or medieval girdles; there is very little evidence for boned or the wooden devices that would come to shape women’s bodies from the late-sixteenth century onwards. The rigid shape of dress in the early half of the sixteenth century, seen on ladies of Henry VIII’s court is believed to have been achieved by cardboard or paste on linen which stiffened the bodice.[4]

The earliest references to the corset, during this period called ‘bodies’ (laced on one side, front or back) or ‘pair of bodies’(laced at the front and the back) begin to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. A reference to ‘bodies’ appears in the wardrobe accounts of English Queen Mary I from the 1554[5], whilst in in 1577 the Venetian ambassador at the French court Jerome Lippomano remarked that:
“French women have extremely narrow waists… Over the chemise they wear a bodice they call ‘corps piqué’ which makes their shape more delicate and slender.”[6]
Corps pique was one the many French terms for the corset (this name referred to a quilted corset) which also included ‘corps’ and ‘corps baleiné’. However fashion historians such as Valerie Steele and Christopher Breward have suggested that these devices seemed to have originated in Spain or Italy and may have been transferred from Italy to France with Catherine, and then were adopted in England.[7]

Although the exact origins of the corset may never be known, by the end of the sixteenth century it had secured its place in female dress. These ‘bodies’ consisted “of two layers of closely woven linen or canvas with rows of stitching to form casings…”[8] In these casings were placed the stems of reeds and later whalebone.  The wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I indicate that these bodies were further stiffened by undergoing a starching process or were “lined with canvas styffenid with buckeram [buckram].”[9]  During this century the female torso was shaped into a long and lean cone which extended down past the natural lines of the hips at the front into a point, narrowing the waist whilst flattening the bust, thus producing a small waist but in a geometric way, essentially creating a triangle (shoulder-shoulder-pubis).

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

There are only two known surviving examples of ‘bodies’ from this century, the earliest found on the corpse of Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg who was buried in what is now Germany in 1598. This corset was made from ivory silk, with linen lining and silk stitching which held in place the rigid shaping element thought to have been whalebone.[10] Down the front of the corset was placed a rigid piece of wood or metal called a busk, whilst it was laced up at the back.

‘Pair of Bodies’ or corset of ivory silk worn by Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabin von Neuberg, c. 1598. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich.

Another ‘pair of bodies’ dating from 1603 were worn by the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I at her funeral. On closer inspection of this corset, the whale-boning can be seen to be positioned nearly vertically and quite low beneath the waist, giving the body that very slender conical shape that is so visible in portraits of Elizabeth. Unlike the Pfalzgräfin bodies, this garment was laced at the front.

‘Pair of Bodies’ from the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603. Westminster Abbey, London

The silhouette of the female body changed multiple times throughout the seventeenth century, as waistlines and bust lines rose and fell.  By the 1630s the waistline had risen dramatically, and the small, slender figure that had been so desired years earlier seemed to disappear. Although portraits of court personalities and European monarchs during the same period show this apparent relaxation in style it seems that the heavy shape of the body during this period was the result of superfluous material use rather than a relaxation in corseting. Surviving ‘bodies’ from 1620-1640 belonging to Dame Elizabeth Filmer attests to this showing that women’s bodies were still very much shaped by these devices.[11]  

Stays and Stomacher of Dame Elizabeth Filmer, c. 1630-1640. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester

By the middle of the seventeenth century the torso was a long and lean again with a very straight back from shoulder to waist, which was flexible enough to allow for movement, albeit restricted.[12] However whilst women of the courts, and increasing those in the middle and lower classes, embraced these stays not everyone was pleased. Stays during this period were brought into the heated debates that were waged over court artifice and perceived excess, as these items were essentially products of a court culture where keeping up appearance was key and morals were loose. To critics such as one Englishman John Bulmer, women wearing stays was the equivalent of  “shut[ting] up their Wasts in a Whale-bone prison…”[13]

During this century ‘bodies’ (or ‘stays’ as they were coming to be known) were increasingly incorporated into the gown itself in the form of boned bodices. Busks – long pieces of wood, metal or whalebone placed in a channel in the centre-front of the stays  - seem to have been used in all seventeenth century stays and boned bodices, and their function was to flatten the belly and straighten the posture. Unlike other aspects of stays, they were removable, often elaborately decorated or inscribed and were usually tied in place at the bottom using a piece of ribbon called a ‘busk pointe’.

A Sleeved pair of Stays and Busk of pink watered silk trimmed with pink silk taffeta ribbons, English 1660-1670. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

One surviving boned bodice which depicts the fashionable figure of the 1660s to 1670s and is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These stays with detachable sleeves are made from pink watered silk and linen, and are constructed in ten sections with nearly all of them being extremely finely boned using whalebone.[14]   The front of the bodice extended quite low, even further elongating the length of the torso. A pocket for the busk is visible below the lacing and this busk would have extended right down to the groin area, making it incredibly uncomfortable to sit unless a straight back and rigid posture was maintained.  Other surviving items from the late seventeenth century, such as a ‘Wool, Silk and Linen’[15] stays from the Museum of London also produced a long and slender looking torso which was achieved by the insertion of a busk.

Wool, Silk and Linen Corset, English 17th century. Museum of London, London
Although boned bodices seem to have been preferred to separate corsets throughout the seventeenth century with the invention of the French mantua or ‘sack dress’ in the 1680s, these bodices became undergarments once again and started to resemble the ‘stays’ of the eighteenth century. A women could now wear the same stays with many different dresses rather than having to have an expensive whale-boned bodice incorporated into each dress.

Comtesse de Mailly wearing a mantua, 1698 (Fashion Plate, French)

During the eighteenth century a very straight silhouette was preferred, waistlines rose slightly, busts were lowered and the boning came to be placed on an angle around the torso rather than straight up and down as in the preceding centuries.[16][17] The low, straight cut of eighteenth century stays pushed the breasts upwards making movement sometimes very revealing. Due to the design many women started to wear cotton handkerchiefs to cover the décolletage as evident in an entry from Ms Delany in 1739 which reads, “The stays were while silk covered with a lacing through which a handkerchief (neck wear) was passed." [18]  

In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum there is a pair of English stays dated to ca. 1750. These stays are very typical of this mid-century era with a low bust line, no shoulder straps and centre back lacing. It is made of almost entirely of linen, except for the outer lay which is sateen, and is fully boned with whale bone (baleen). The stays have seen much use and the lining has been replaced multiple times, drawing attention to the fact that garments were often re-gifted and used until they fell apart. The quality of construction of this garment indicates that it probably began life as a high class stays that were then gifted to servants as fashions changed.

Corset, sateen/linen/metal, England, c.1750. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney - A8211-33
Stays during the early and mid eighteenth century were almost always fully boned, however from the 1770s onwards half-boned stays became popular and came to be those that were most commonly used. 

Stays Silk damask, lined with linen, reinforced with whalebone, hand-sewn, English 1770-1790. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

The stitching channels for the boning in the Victorian and Albert Museum example above are clearly visible showing that they were much more lightly boned than the earlier example in the Powerhouse Museum collection, and this boning was placed on an angle which allowed the torso to be drawn in and shaped when laced.

Corset, third quarter of 18th century, C.I.39.13.211. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Many contemporary sources draw attention to the fact that who and how stays were worn was determined by regional variation. According to many visitors to England in the early eighteenth century English women wore stays much more often than their European counterparts, as this commentary from 1733 reveals, “They are always laced, and ‘tis as rare to see a Woman here without her Stays on, as it is to see one at Paris in full Dress.”[19]  Although many of the surviving sources concern women of the courts and other elite, stays were not just reserved for the wealthy. There is evidence that they were becoming more and more common among women of the middle and lower classes who often acquired them second-hand or made their own lighter boned versions from cheaper materials called ‘jumps’. There is also ample evidence from collections that show that lower class women wore unboned or lightly boned leather stays which gave support without restricting bodily movement.

There is also much visual evidence in portraiture to show that children had been dressed as ‘mini adults’ throughout the early modern period, and for girls this meant wearing stays from a young age. By the early eighteenth century this practice of putting children in corsets came under scrutiny, possibly reflecting the blossoming philosophical thought on what constituted the states of ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ which was occurring that the time.[20] Stays also came under scrutiny from those in the medical fields, and a French critic of stays Dr Jean-Baptiste Winslow is reported to have read a paper in 1741 before the Paris Academy of Science in which he described the damaged caused to internal organs from stays.[21]

"Portrait of a young girl seated wearing a white dress and a bonnet, a tame bird resting on the arm of her chair, tied with a blue ribbon" by Christian Lindner, late 18th century

Towards to the end of the eighteenth century the stiff and restrictive fashions of the previous three centuries gave way to more flowing and soft draping forms influenced by Greek and Roman classicism. The French Revolution (ca. 1787 – 1799) is using seen as a turning point in Western Fashions, and like clothing, stays became much less restrictive and more lightly boned. In fact during the Regency period many stays were not boned at all, but simply corded with thick material to give lift and support.

Portrait of Madame Récamier by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard, 1802

These stays were much more modern in appearance and rather than molding the female form into a stiff conical shape embraced the natural female curves with gussets and even contained soft cups to support and lift each breast. The purpose of the Regency corset was to support the breasts and smooth out all the lumps and bumps, not to drastically reshape the body. As a result when they were boned it was very minimally and most contained a busk that was placed down the front of the corset to maintain posture.

Transitional Stays c. 1790. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

In fact during this era much emphasis was placed on supporting the breasts in corsetry, and with the ever lowering necklines of regency fashion it predictably came under criticism from moralists. One conduct book from 1811 called ‘The Mirror of the Graces; Or, The English Lady's Costume’ stated that:

“The bosom… has been transformed into a shape, and transplanted to a place, which deprives it of its original beauty and harmony with the rest of the person… and bosom shoved up to the chin, making a sort of fleshy shelf, disgusting to the beholders, and certainly most incommodious to the bearer.”[22]

Still this did not persuade young women from wearing them and adopting the popular fashions of the time. There are three main types of Regency stays: short stays, which only covered and supported the bust area, transitional stays, which covered the bust and waist to support and smooth, and long stays which covered the entire torso supporting the breasts and smoothing out the stomach.

Long Stays c. 1810, American. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

During the early nineteenth century these garments were still referred to as ‘stays’. It was not until the 1820s that the word ‘corset’ came to be commonly used to refer to these boned shaping devices.

As the long and slender cut of regency gowns changed into the full skirt of the late 1830s and later the crinolines of the 1850/60s, corsets once more became shorter and started to become more heavily boned. Although an example in the Powerhouse Collection from the 1830s is completely un-boned, proving that regency comfort was still often preferred.

Corset, woman's, off-white cotton, handsewn, England/Australia, c. 1830. H6966 Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

It was in the nineteenth century that exaggerated emphasis was placed on the hourglass shape. It is this silhouette that would come to define Victorian corsetry and lead to an increase in the phenomenon of ‘tight-lacing’ (where women laced their corsets tightly to achieve unusually small waists) which seems to have emerged as a practice in the 1830s. In preceding centuries there are sporadic surviving references to women who intentionally laced themselves too tight, however it is not until the nineteenth century that it became a very public issue that was discussed in newspapers, magazines and journals. Although many women believed that corsetry was a necessity, only a small few advocated the practice of tight-lacing and many of their views often aroused anger among ladies of the general public.[23] However this did not stop newspapers from making sensationalist claims about the practice. One Australian article from the Sydney Gazette in 1831 titled “Death from Tight-Lacing’ reported on the death of Miss Betsey Harris aged 22 who fainted and died suddenly. It was explained that "she was removed to the back parlour, and she (witness) assisted in loosing her clothes, which were extremely tight around the body". Upon examination by a surgeon who found the deceased’s brain "in a state of congestion" her death was ruled as being caused by apoplexy "produced by her stays being too tight".[24] Another article from the Ballarat Star in 1859 titled ‘Morality Among Females’ went so far as to blame the higher female death rate from consumption on corsets and the women who laced them tightly.[25]

“A correct view of the new machine for winding up the ladies” by Wiliam Heath, 1828 (British)

Although tightly laced stays probably did aggravate respiratory conditions such as consumption, many modern historians are wary about believing any of these claims, due to the limited Victorian knowledge of medicine and the body. By the end of the nineteenth century and even today, tight-lacing was often eroticised and associated with fetishism, and there were many famous tight-lacers, such as Ziegfeld actress Anna Held and French singer/actress Polaire, who proudly displayed their incredibly small waists.

From the 1850s to the 1880s the shape of stays changed very little. During this century the front opening steel busk replaced the wood and metal ones of previous centuries, metal eyelets were invented in 1928 and metal boning came to be more frequently used, especially in the 1870s and 1880s when whalebone was in such high demand that it became very expensive.[26]

Corset, silk / steel, England, 1860-1870. 90/536. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

As the crinoline disappeared and the bustle came into fashion in the 1870s and 1880s, the corset became longer covering the abdomen not just the waist. A new type of busk that resembled a spoon in shape was also invented with the larger end curving in and compressing the abdomen.[27] These corsets became increasingly difficult to make at home and as manufacturing became relatively inexpensive the corset industry boomed.[28]

Corset, cotton / metal, Australia, 1885-1890.  A8211-1. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
In the eyes of many dress historians the increase in boning and the introduction of restrictive fashions such as the Victorian corset and the crinoline has often been linked with the oppression of women. Feminist historians have long held this belief calling the Victorian corset a construction of a “submissive” and “masochistic” feminine ideal.[29] More recently Australian historian Leigh Summers has also supported this view arguing that The corset… [offered] masculine critics a safe platform to discuss dangerous sexual issues, while ingeniously providing a vehicle to shape and control female sexuality... corsetry operated to construct, maintain and police middle-class femininity.”[30] 

Historians such as Valerie Steele have also rejected the idea that corsets oppressed women by drawing attention to the fact that it was mostly men who rejected corsets, and that all Victorian women were well aware of the ways that the corset could to used to aid female beauty as it gave them a way to achieve the “ideal version of the female body” in order to attract suitable partners.[31] Historians such as David Kunzle have also commented on corsetry in regards to fetishism, stating that ““The socio-sexual symbolism of tight-lacing and its ritual components reveal its essentially ambivalent purpose – to enforce the sexual taboo by objectively oppressing the body, and simultaneously to break that taboo by subjectively enhancing the body.”[32] Therefore the corset actually played a very important role in displays of Victorian female sexuality.[33]

Nana, Edouard Manet, 1877

However the corset also had a utilitarian function, every woman in Victorian society whether in Europe, the USA or Australia, wore a corset. In fact the corset of the nineteenth century was the like brassiere of today, in order to be decently dressed a woman had to wear a corset as most women now feel they must wear a bra.

Corsets in Anthony Hordens department store catalogue, 1895, Australia. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney  

In the early 1900s a new style of corset emerged nicknamed the ‘s-bend’ corset. The ‘s-bend’ created an exaggerated figure:  it sat low on the bust line and forced the breasts forward, whilst the new heavy and straight front busk pushed the adnominal flesh to the sides and behind, forcing the bottom backwards. This new style essentially forced the lower back to arch and as a result the corset created an ‘S’ shape to the body.[34]

Corset, lace-up, pink satin, black silk, France/England, c. 1905. A8389. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The design of this corset was by far the most complex out of any in history, with as many as 10-15 pieces of curved fabric needed on each side. In addition gussets, whalebone and steel were used to shape the body. Unlike previous eras suspenders were now also attached to the corset itself. This style of corset lasted from about 1900 to 1908 until French designer Poiret, whose designs promoted a slim and streamline shape, took over the fashion world.

In just under ten years the fashionable shape changed from those obtained by the ‘S-bend’ corsets above, to the long line corsets of the post-Edwardian period.

1912 Corset Advertisements from Mark Foy's Catalogue, Australian. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Corsets during the teens era were under-bust, long bodied and more lightly boned than their Victorian and early Edwardian counterparts. This change in style is mostly due to the fashions like Poiret’s, where a streamlined and slender body shape was required for the empire waisted, close fitted dresses and skirts. Unlike the styles of the previous century these corsets placed little emphasis on the waist, as they were designed to bring in and smooth out the torso, hips and buttocks. As a result, critics lamented the demise of the waist. In an article titled “The New Figure” one writer explains that while “no society woman will turn herself into a pillow-shaped bundle for anyone in the world” she will have to “renounce her waist-line if she wishes to have the silhouette ‘à la mode’” much to the dislike of most Englishwomen.[35]  As the decade progressed and events such as the outbreak of World War One led women to demand more comfortable clothing, corset manufacturers developed marketing strategies which drew upon constructed ideas of femininity that were so persuasive in the preceding eras, namely those of beauty, of maintaining a youthful figure and the morality of “unrestrained [un-corseted] women.”[36]

Corset, 1915. 1981.518.9 . Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Although World War One did not stop the fashion industry, it did bring design to a halt in corsetry. Women now began to favour even less restrictive fashions and the looser style of clothing that would come to define the 1920s. Slowly a garment called the ‘brassière’, which had first appeared in around 1907[37], came into fashion. Very lightly boned ‘sports corsets’. which had previously been introduced at the beginning of the century, and contained a new elastic fabric, were being more commonly used. These types of corsets existed in one form or another into the 1920s and early 1930s, however garments like girdles and elastic waistbands also became popular replacements to the corset.

Photograph of a model wearing a Berlei corset, 1930. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The corset, in one form or another, played a role in the lives of women for the better part of nearly five hundred years. It was however not without controversy. Many people were opposed to the corset and the influence that it had on women and their bodies. As society changed so to did the shape of the corset. In many cases the shape of the corset reflected the social history of the time, whether it was its armour like appearance in the Hasburg courts of the sixteenth century, its lightly boned form in post French Revolution Europe, to its slow demise during and after World War One. At various points in history the corset could also mean completely different things: a tightly corseted woman in seventeenth century England in the eyes of moralist represented court vice and vanity[38], whilst a tightly corseted woman in Victorian England was virtuous and pure.

Corset/bloomer combination, 1950 - 1960. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Although women today tend to look down on the corset and on those who wore them as prescribing to some sort of archaic form of body discipline, is the reign of the corset really over? Corselets, which came into fashion in the 1950s to achieve the small waists that Dior’s ‘New Look’ promoted, are still available in any lingerie store for consumers to buy today. In recent years ‘spanx’ and other body shaping underwear has become increasingly popular. Although these garments are now made from modern fabrics such as spandex and elastic rather than bone and buckram, their function is essentially the same: to shape the ideal female figure.

The corset was a garment that offered protection for the female body, enabled women to obtain their contemporary ideals of beauty when they did not naturally possess it, and it played a large role in expressions of female sexuality. As the fashion industry and society still continue to promote certain ideals of beauty that for many are unattainable naturally, the corset and its many variations still do hold a place in the wardrobes of modern women just as it did for our ancestors.

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (Simon & Schuster, London, 1986), p. 19
[2] David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 69.
[4] Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism, p. 71.
[5] E101/427/11 f 34 Item 3; E101/427/11 f 38 Items 2, 31, 34, cited in Hilary Doda, Of Crymsen Tissue: The Construction of A Queen: Identity, Legitimacy and the Wardrobe of Mary Tudor, M. Arts Thesis, Dalhousie University (2011), p. 56.
[6] M. Niccolo Tommaseo, Relations des Ammbassadeurs Vénitiens sur les Affaires de France au XVIe sièle (recueillies et traduits par N.M.T., t. II, Paris, 1838), cited in David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 72.
[7] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 7.
[8] Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, v. 3, p. 126.
[9] Wardrobe warrant from 1587 requests “for mending washing & starching of a payer of bodies & slevis of white nettworke layed…”  Quoted in: Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd : the inventories of the Wardrobe of Robes prepared in July 1600, edited from Stowe MS 557 in the British Library, MS LR 2/121 in the Public Record Office, London, and MS V.b.72 in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC (Leeds: Maney, 1988), p. 146.
[10] Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, v. 3, p. 46
[11] Stays and Stomacher of Dame Elizabeth Filmer, c. 16-1640. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, accession number 2003.109/2.
[12] Stays and Busk 1660-1670, <>; Iris Brooke, Dress and undress: the Restoration and eighteenth century (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 14.
[13] John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis: = man transform'd: or, the artificiall changling historically presented, in the mad and cruell gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy finenesse, and loathsome loveliness of most nations, fashioning and altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature, (London: Printed by WIlliam Hunt, 1653), p. 339.
[14] Avril Hart and Susan North, Seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashion in detail (London : V&A Publishing, 2009), p. 12
[15]  Wool, Silk and Linen Corset, 17th Century, Museum of London, London, accession number A6885.
[16] Iris Brooke, Dress and undress: the Restoration and eighteenth century (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 29
[17] Christopher Breward, The culture of fashion : a new history of fashionable dress (Manchester: St. Martin's Press, 1999) p. 114.
[18] 1739, Ms. Delany’s Autobiography.. Handbook of English costume in the 18th century
[19] C.L. Von Pollnitz, Travels from Prussia Thro, Germany, Italy, France, Flanders, Holland, England, etc. (London, 1745), vol. 3, p. 287
[20] I have read this somewhere. I have to follow this further.
[21] Fashion to fet, pg. 86
[22] The Mirror of the Graces; Or, The English Lady's Costume: Combining and Harmonizing Taste and Judgment, Elegance and Grace, Modesty, Simplicity and Economy, with Fashion in Dress.. p. 96
[23] Corset a cultural history, 52
[24] Trove article
[25] ‘Morality Amoung Females’ The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Saturday 5 March 1859, page 4
[26] Nora Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines’ (Routledge New York: 1954)
[27] Corsets and crinolines, corset a cultural history p. 46
[28] Corsets and crinolines, corset a cultural history pg. 46
[29] Helene E. Roberts, “The Exquisite Slave: The Makin of the Victorian Woman” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2, (1977)
[30] Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (London: Berg, 2001), pp. 2-9. 
[31] Valerie Steele, Corset a cultural history, pg. 46
[32] From fashion to fetishism, p. 3
[33] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, p. 35
[34] Corset and crinolines
[35] ‘The New Figure’ in The Queen quoted by Norah Waugh in CC p. 112
[36] Jill Fields, '"Fighting the Corsetless Evil": Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930, in Journal of Social History, VOl 33, No. 3 (1999), pp. 355 & 357
[37] Corset to crinonolines pg. 87
[38] Sarah Bendall, 'Bodies, Stays, Bodices and Busks': The Early Modern Corset and the performance of Gender and Sexuality in Sixteenth and Seventeeth-century England' (University of Sydney: Unpublished Thesis, 2012)