Today we’re talking about underwear!! 16th –17th century fashion was rife with gorgeous and elaborate outerwear, but the underwear, hose, and supportive under clothing was just as intricate. Shakespeare’s plays from this period suggest that clothing styles were a way to identify a man’s nationality. In Much Ado About Nothing Don Pedro talks about being able to identify the Dutch, French, German, and Spanish by the cut of their clothes. While slops and short cloaks are called out in Much Ado About Nothing and the Henry plays, women’s clothing and specifically their scandalous undergarments, are mentioned, too, when Shakespeare writes about a pair of bodies, hose and sleeve, and a farthingale. 16th century English men and women had underclothing designed to deal with the practical realities of using the restroom, avoiding body odor, supportive garments like bras & menstrual pads, and there’s even record of 16-17th century lingerie. Here today to walk us through the history of undergarments for men and women in Shakespeare’s lifetime as well as night clothes, and specialty styles of practical linen for Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and clothing historian, Sarah Bendall.
Sarah A. Bendall is a material culture and dress historian at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, ACU. Her work focuses on the role of gender, particularly the place of women, in the production, trade and consumption of global commodities and fashionable consumer goods between 1500-1800. She is author of Shaping Femininity: Foundation Garments, the Body and Women in Early Modern England, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury.
I’ll be asking Sarah Bendall about:
Shakespeare mentions specific kinds of women’s clothing in his plays like a “pair of bodies” as well as a farthingale. Please explain these pieces of underclothing and how they fit into a standard set of under clothes for women in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Were underwear and night time pajamas the same thing?
The outerwear for women in Shakespeare’s lifetime is quite extensive, with multiple layers, thick fabric and a substantial size. How were undergarments designed to allow women (and men) to be able to use the restroom?
Ninya Mihkaila visited with us for Episode 15 of That Shakespeare Life to talk about her book, The Tudor Tailor. It is part of our patron’s back catalog and you can listen now to this episode and all 150+ additional back catalog shows for just $5 on Patreon. Sign up now to listen.
“thou wouldst make an absolute courtier; and the firm fixture of thy foot would give an excellent motion to thy gait in a semi-circled farthingale.”
— Merry Wives of Windsor (III.3)
Farthingale and the Bum Roll
Shakespeare mentions specific kinds of women’s clothing in his plays like a “pair of bodies” as well as a farthingale. Sarah explains:
Farthingales and bodies are terms for foundation garments. They are structured undergarments that created the silhouette of an Elizabethan woman. Farthingales vary, but they are basically structured underskirts. The original one is a Spanish farthingale, very similar to a hoop skirt, and it is shaped like a cone. In Shakespeare’s time, these farthingales in England—the new style are referred to as French Farthingales—they are rolls that sit around the waist. Smaller versions are called bum rolls.
“Nor you nor your house were so much as spoken of, before I disbased myself, from my hood and my farthingal, to these bum-rowls and your whale-bone bodice.”
“Art thou acquainted with never a farthingale-maker, nor a French hood-maker? I must enlarge my bum, ha, ha! How shall I look in a hood, I wonder! Perdy, oddly, I think.”
– Thomas Dekker’s “Shoemaker Holiday” Act III, Scene 4 (Title page shown at left, 1610) Source | Image Source
Sarah Bendall shared with me that bum rolls are also mentioned in Thomas Middleton’s play, Women Beware Women, but I was unable to find a complete play online to search out that quote for you in time for the show notes. If you’re researching bum rolls or would like to chase that rabbit, here are some paid sites where this play is listed:
The bum roll, in particular, was a trendy item for Shakespeare’s lifetime, designed to enhance the bum of the woman who was wearing it. Sarah explains that the trend for big bottoms is not unique to modern times, but that ” the trend for big bums comes and goes and in the 16th century, it was designed to increase the size of your bum, and while not in Shakespeare, Jonson and Middleton make jokes about buns rolls.”
More on “Women Beware Women”: Works dating it to 1612-1627 include Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The Popular School: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1975; p. 71. | The work arguing for the play to have been written between 1623-1624 is Dorothy M. Farr, Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism, New York, Barnes & Noble/Harper & Row, 1973; pp. 125–7.
“That you might still have worn the petticoat, And ne’er have stol’n the breech from Lancaster.”
— Henry VI Part 3 (V.5)
Complimentary to the farthingale were the pair of bodies, which was essentially a bodice:
The Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561–1636)| Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287. | Public Domain | Source
Pair of bodies are complimentary to farthingales, and the early century bodies were the upper part of a woman’s dress, basically a bodice, and that’s where the modern term “bodice” comes from, it comes from bodies, and they start to be stiffened with reeds and whale bone in the end of the 16th century. Elizabeth I’s wardrobe accounts in early 1590s, mentions them and it becomes more and more popular from there. These clothing items compliment aristocratic ideas of what it means to be elite in this period as far as how you stand and the image you need to project.
Shakespeare’s Poofy Shorts
1565 Portrait of Antonio Navagero, featuring an exaggerated codpiece. Painted by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525 –1578) | Public Domain | Source
While these pants weren’t undergarments, so let’s be clear, they are being included here because it is a question about Shakespeare’s clothes that comes up a lot, so I wanted to address it.
These shorts – hose and breeches – were standard lower outer garments worn by men. Men didn’t really wear any undergarments – except their shifts tucked between their legs.
As in women’s clothing, there’s different styles—men on their lower half of their garment, they always had hose, which was later called britches. It came in two parts-the upper and then the nether hose, or the lower hose. Today we would call the lower ones stockings. The upper hose were breeches [britches for those of us in the US] basically, and there are different styles in the period.
Early in the 16th century, you see codpieces integrated into the clothing, but by the end of the 16th century, they are not as common, and the hose we see Shakespeare using….Venetian hose and trunk hose are the big pants, and they get made fun of quite a lot in plays the same way as women’s bum rolls. Men would have also worn a stiff, which is a long linen garment under their clothes and they were quite long, so it would get tucked into their breeches, and there was no waste band or elastic or string, so it was pointed and then tied to the doublet, so it was almost like a onesie by the time it was all fastened.
Undergarments were often changed frequently to prevent disease, due to the Tudor fascination with a largely corrupted understanding of personal hygiene. Sarah explains that changing your underclothing before you went to bed happened in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but not because they were putting on specific items labeled as “pajamas” but more so because they were putting on a clean set of their regular undergarments before getting into bed.
Very little difference between pajamas and what we think of as undergarments. People refer to their shifts as different things—usually there is a daytime one and a nighttime one. Long sleeves that comes down to a square shaped, shapeless appearance down to your knees that appears under your clothing,. Some people may have had separate night shifts with some embellishments.
“What, dress’d! and in your clothes! and down again!”
When it comes to sexual nighttime clothing, the nightie, or the negligee, it turns out that there wasn’t a scanty nighttime clothing for women, but there were love tokens in the form of clothes.
Not really lingerie the way that we think of it now. The basic for a woman’s dress at night—stiff stockings, garters, and some kind of petticoat, a skirt, or an attached bodies that could be stiffened or not and it’s called petticoat bodies, and on top of that you’d have an additional petticoat followed by a waistcoat and that was traditional dress. You could have had a gown over top of that, which was what elite women would have added. The only potential option would be the busk—which was a long piece of wood or horn placed down the front of bodies and men would inscribe sayings of love and other types of devotion on them and gift them to women, so they were a love token, but interestingly, in modern lingerie—bras for example have some ribbon in the middle, that actually dates back to the 16th century when this busk would be tied into the bodies with a pice of ribbon.
Daily Habits, The Monthly Cycle, and the Tudor Bra
The outerwear for women in Shakespeare’s lifetime is quite extensive, with multiple layers, thick fabric and a substantial size. To the untrained eye, it seems as if these clothes, and particularly layers of undergarments, would have made it hard to get around, difficult to use the restroom, and just an outright tripping hazard. Sarah explains that, to the contrary, once you understand the mechanics of how these older dress items were made, they were put together specifically to be both comfortable and practical.
It is a lot more clothing than we are used to wearing now, so hinge what we’re about to say on the idea that comfort expectations today are very different form the past, but people look at a farthingale and think it was impractical, but it was quite practical because the layers of clothing when you are walking would get tangled especially if you are trying to dance at court, the skirts get tangled around your legs and the farthingale stops that from happening so your legs move freely under the layers. Reconstruction experiments she’s done with farthingales show that they are very light and flexible. The materials they were using at the time, for example, a Spanish farthingale early in her reign is made from ropes (hoops) of reeds and they are incredibly flexible and lightweight. Bodies can be impractical than others, but you get used to them. There was a dance called the Volta and the busk would help in that dance.
Elizabeth I’s Rainbow Portrait | Attributed to Isaac Oliver has also been attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561–1636) Painted between 1600-1602, In the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, on Display at Hatfield House. | Public Domain| Source
When it comes to understanding how a woman dealt with her monthly blood flow in Tudor England, there’s previous little archival evidence to inform how this would have worked. Archaeological finds, however, point towards rags or clothes being used in a very straightforward method of blocking the menstrual flow.
This is a neglected area of study and it’s because the sources don’t really exist. We know that the main way women. There are references to rags, and that’s where the slang term for menstruation can come from, because we know women used rags, but we aren’t sure how they managed this process. Where we think women may have done is some sort of —similar to 20th century—-there was a belt they used to wear. We know by the 18th century there’s a court case where a woman (Abby Cox on YouTube has discussed this) may have used her apron, putting them under their shift or under their clothes to tuck it between their legs to soak it up that way.
Many paintings from Shakespeare’s lifetime show women bare chested, which a symbol of virginity, purity, and designed to show a woman’s overall high virtue. The general desire to show off one’s breasts made me wonder if women in 16-17th century England even had bras, or supportive clothing for the purpose of carrying the boobs when necessary. Sarah explains:
In the medieval period we do have garments that are called breast bags and for a long time historians didn’t really know what this garment was until 2008 when an archaeological investigation in Austria uncovered textiles and they uncovered long line bras, but they aren’t around in the 16th century—so the modern bra is forgotten and then reinvented at the 19th/20th century.
Comment and Share
If you like our show, please leave us a comment and a rating on the podcast platform you’re listening from today. Taking the time to rate us on Apple Podcasts or other platforms really helps our rankings and lets other people hear about the show. If you can drop us a rating and review, we’d really appreciate it!
If you’re listening right here in the show notes, please leave us a comment down below. We’d love to hear from you!
You can share this episode on social media to help more people hear about our show and the great history we talk about each week! Tweet this episode using this link or share the website on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIN.
If you want even more episode of That Shakespeare Life, be sure to check out our Patreon page. There’s over 150 additional episodes there that aren’t available on public listening platforms. PLUS there’s some great bonuses just for patrons.
That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!
William Shakespeare's Place in English History
This illustrated timeline shows Shakespeare's life from 1564-1616 overlapped with major events from England and around the world during those years. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get a free copy of the entire 3-page timeline.
Step into the 17th with games, recipes, and crafts straight from the life of William Shakespeare that you can do yourself at home.
That Shakespeare Life (Cassidy Cash) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn a commission by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Books, products, and resources throughout the website are linked to Amazon products, where available.