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Welcome to Episode #108 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare’s playing companies were entirely male. Boys were often brought in to play the part of women on stage, and costuming often helped them accomplish this illusion. The actual costumes themselves were often donated by the houses of the playing company’s patron, so the clothes they wore on stage were actual outfits of noble families. Not only does this mean the outer dress of the female character was accurate, but the undergarments had to be correct as well since using rigid corsets, farthingales, and petticoats under your clothes to achieve almost inhuman shapes for women was the fashion for Elizabethan England. 

To examine how this might have worked practically for Shakespeare’s playing company, we are going to explore one of the most famous female undergarments of the 16th century: The corset. 

The first historical written reference to a separate undergarment for women is found in the wardrobe accounts of Mary Tudor. There, the records indicate Mary had 

“Item for making of one peire of bodies of crymsen satin| Item for making two pairs of bodies for petticoats of crymsen satin | Item for making a pair of bodies for a Verthingall of crymsen Grosgrain”

The fashion of using a “pair of bodies”, which clothing historians explain is another phrase for corsets, was a staple item for women in Elizabethan England. Not all women were able to afford the bright red undergarments apparently favored by Mary Tudor, nor the silk and satin she uses in this wardrobe account either. Considering these items were part of a woman’s underclothes, they were intentionally not on public display and that means, with the exception of 1-2 portraits which were rather scandalous for their time, along with only 2 surviving corsets from the time period, it takes a great deal of research to piece together the history of women’s undergarments from Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

Our guest this week, Cass Morris, is and she has done extensive research into the history of corsets. Cass joins us today to set straight some myths about what women wore in the 16th century, as well as to share what she’s learned about how Shakespeare’s playing company portrayed female characters on stage, and whether items like a corset could have been used (or varied) to distinguish between the classes of women in Shakespeare’s stories.

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Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and occasionally moonlights as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. From 2010 to 2017, she worked as Academic Resources Manager at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. During her time there, she composed over 20 full-length teaching guides for Shakespeare’s plays, as well as developing and leading workshops for students of all ages and experience levels, assisting with leadership programming and other professional training, and facilitating the biennial Blackfriars Conference. She has presented at events including the Shakespeare Association of America conference, the Halved Heart conference at Shakespeare’s Globe, Shakespeare Theatre Association teaching practicums, and the Blackfriars Conference. She also contributed essays to Shaping Shakespeare for Performance: The Bear Stage and Shakespeare Expressed: Page, Stage, and Classroom in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010 and earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. Cass reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released in 2018 by DAW Books.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Cass Morris about :

  • What is the difference between a bodice and a corset?

  • What about a farthingale? What were they, and were they preferred over a petticoat when wearing a corset? 

  • There was one piece of the corset which actually became a kind of love token for Elizabethan ladies to give to the men they loved as an expression of affection. Cass, what is a busk-lace?

  • … and more!

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…the firm fixture of thy foot would give an excellent motion to thy gait in a semi-circled farthingale.
Falstaff

Merry Wives of Windsor (III.3)

Once thought to be a portrait of Elizabeth I, the subject is now debated, but the outfit demonstrates what a farthingale looks like when worn c.1600, this painting is called “the Portrait of a Lady”, and was completed around 1595-1605 Today's historians believe it is likely Elizabeth Southwell, granddaughter of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, and the maid to Elizabeth I of England (The same Elizabeth Southwell who wrote the after death accounts of Elizabeth I) Some others believe it could also be of Frances or Margaret Howard, daughters of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham. Unknown artist. Source

The Farthingale

Queen Elizabeth had several “pairs of bodies” –which often describes corsets, listed in her wardrobe accounts including one rom 1571, which refers to “A payre of bodies of black cloth of silver with little skirts.

The farthingale was another clothing item popular in Elizabethan England (and shown in the portrait above). The farthingale's job was to shape a woman's bottom half. It is kind of like a hoop skirt, but not in the same conical/floofy Southern Belle type hoop skirt. Instead, it was designed to create the look of an hourglass in a woman's overall figure. 

The shape stuck out from woman's waist to create this kind of wild, wide-waisted look. 

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

…your old smock brings forth a new petticoat…
Domitius Enobarus

Antony and Cleopatra (I.2)

The above is a slider of three images (Mouse over to see the navigation arrows on either side) Three Images: The one of the man and woman is a sketch of Henry III and Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont. This sketch is being used to demonstrate the Danish cross shown on their garments, but as it is a 16th century drawing it also demonstrates how a corset and farthingale were used in tandem as Lady Louise is wearing this ensemble shown here. The image represents 16-17th c women's fashion, despite being dated by Wikimedia here as 19th c. 1868 is when the image was used by Lord William Barry for a book he wrote on corsets, which is where to user sourced the image. However, the style is consistent with the 16-17th c dress. Source | The image of the iron corset dated between 1580 and 1599 by the York Castle Museum. The photograph of this corset was taken and submitted to the public domain by the museum staff. “Corset of iron with back clasp opening and hinges at either side. The whole is perforated. The front tapers away into a point. A narrow band forms the top front below which are two large holes.Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff. The original image has been rotated here to show the corset aligned more accurately to reflect how it would have been worn, with the waist towards the bottom rather than the top.” Source | The last image of a model wearing the clothes was put together by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art primarily to show the corset, but the farthingale here being used with it demonstrates baleen whale bone being used with twill and linen to provide that hoop skirt effect that would have been popular a century prior. The Museum dates the outfit to 1780. Source

The Corset

1795 Corset arrives as a word in the English language. Before that time, this clothing item was called “Payre of bodies.” The bodice as a fashion statement can thank Catherine de Medici, who so popularized the bodice at French court that the English wanted to copy it. The Corset was generally worn in conjunction with the farthingale so that the skirts stuck out into a cone shape. The 16th century corset was designed like today's pushup bra, in that it pushed up and featured a woman's breasts at the top of her clothing to create a noticable contrast between the curved shape of a woman's breasts and the flattness of the rest of her body. Corsets designed to create the fashion of a small waist would not appear in fashion until the 18th century.

While most Elizabethan corsets were constructed of cloth with intricate lacing, there were a few surviving from the period which were made of iron or metal, though historians Phyllis Totora and Keith Eubanks in their book, Survey of Historic Costume (1989) suggest that these kinds of corsets would have been prescribed medicinally as a kind of othopedic treatment as opposed to worn regularly as a matter of popular fasion.

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Against the hospitable canon, would I
Wash my fierce hand in's heart.

Tullus Aufidius

Coriolanus (I.10)

This image is designed to show you what a busk lace may have looked like, but the designs here are well after Shakespeare. These busks are “From Spriella Corsets Catalog 1913″ but they are similar to the extra piece fastened to the front of a bodice in Elizabethan England, designed to be given away to a lover or special someone. Source

The Busk Lace

Bodies, as corsets were known during Shakespeare's lifetime, were designed to be stiff. There were some which were actually worn on the outside of the garment instead of as striclty underwear, but either way the purpose remained the same: To stiffen the outfit and make the woman appear to have a strict, rigid, shape. Whalebone was frequently used to provide the stiff rigidity, but reeds, rods of wood, ivory, rhinocerous or other animal horn, and even metal could also be used. 

Right at the front of the bodice was fastened what is known as the busk. This was an extra piece carved into a small shape, inserted into a pouch at the front of the bodice, and held in place by a ribbon. The busk was worn for special occasions and was often given as a gift to a suitor or lover.  In some instances, the busk was actually given as a prize in competitions. (Source: Bendall, Sarah Anne (2014). “To Write a Distick upon It: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England”) As Cass mentions, they were worn underneath a woman's clothing, invisible to the outer garment, and once removed, was a long strip of material that could (and sometimes was) worn by the man as a bracelet. 

Often the front of a corset would be covered by a stomacher, which is a piece of V-shaped stiff fabrice to offer someone that final touch of looking like they have a glamourously flat stomach.

For much of the 16th century the corsets actually fastened in the front (Another distinct separation from the kind we see portrayed in Gone with the Wind). 

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Heaven, from thy endless goodness, send prosperous
life, long, and ever happy, to the high and mighty
princess of England, Elizabeth!

Garter

Henry VIII (V.5)

Queen Elizabeth I's Funeral Corset To Go On Show At New Abbey Museum LONDON, ENGLAND – (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) Source

The Effigy Corset

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, her likeness was paraded around in effigy, dressed in full royal regalia right down to her undergarments. These outfits were new and befitting a Queen.

One historian records the events as evoking a passionate response from those who witnessed the day:

The day of her funeral, Elizabeth’s purple-draped coffin was carried to Westminster Abbey from Whitehall on a hearse drawn by a chariot and horses hung with black velvet. The coffin was topped with a painted wooden effigy of Elizabeth holding a scepter in her hands and a crown on her head. The crowds found the effigy of the Queen quite lifelike.

A witness wrote at the time:  “Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads, and gutters, that came out to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.
(Source)

The corset itself is thought to have been created for this purpose by the Queen's tailor, likely in much the same way he had created so many of her clothes while she was yet living. In 1995, when the effigy was disrobed, the undergarments were examined by costume historian Janet Arnold, who discovered the corset had some distinct variations from other corsets of the period, including specific alterations providing an opening lower than was typical, allowing a right handed person (as Elizabeth I is known to have been) to dress and undress herself with ease. (Source)

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Books & Resources Cass Morris recommends:

 

Resources Cass recommends that are not books:

 

  • There are a ton of great online resources as well, including blogs and YouTube channels from costumers. http://www.elizabethancostume.net/ is a great compendium run by a costumer who’s made many replica garments. The site itself has been around for ages, it’s very internet circa 2005 but it’s still full of great information. 
  • Crow’s Eyes Productions (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb1odBsfUVstnlaYW_IiHWw) has a great “Getting Dressed in the [Blank] Century” series. They haven’t done Tudor/Elizabethan England yet, but they’ve done periods before and after, so you can get a sense of the evolution of garments. They also do a lot of work on working women, whose fashions didn’t change as drastically or as quickly. 
  • And then many theatres and museums have online resources as well — Shakespeare’s Globe, the V&A, the Met, and so forth.

Related Books Cassidy thought you might enjoy:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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