Handcrafting 400-year-old corset designs made me really understand how they impacted women
In this new series, Remaking History, academics take a look at how they recreate historical practices and how this impacts their research today.
Although I have been sewing as a hobby for many years, making and wearing historical clothing was not something I envisioned when I began researching the history of corsets and hoop skirts.
But many years later – and many corsets later – the experimental process of reconstructing 400-year-old garments has taught me many things about historical manufacturing practices, women’s experiences, and not to believe everything you read.
In my research I deal with women’s clothing from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are very few sources from this period where women themselves describe what it was like to wear “bodys”, “bodies” and “farthingales” – the names for corsets and hoop skirts at the time.
The philosopher Michael de Montaigne depicted these garments as instruments of torture used to slim women, reflecting their innate vanity.
Other men blamed women deform their own bodies and those of their children, for causing infertility or miscarriage, and even for concealing sexually transmitted infections.
But in the face of this criticism, corsets and crinolines went from elite garments worn by a few aristocrats in royal courts to common attire of many different classes of women in Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, women led the way in purchasing these garments and dictating to their tailors what they wanted and why.
Despite the proven popularity of this clothing among women, many myths persist. Without physical or historical evidence to question whether these garments were as restrictive or painful as they were claimed, such myths are difficult to disprove.
This is where rebuilding comes into play.
Read more: Rewriting history: How recreating early daguerreotype photographs gave us a window into the past
Reconstruction of early corsets
My work follows other approaches that have reconstructed preserved historical clothing.
I focus on making my corsets from the patterns and dimensions of surviving garments.
All my corsets (except one) have been sewn entirely by hand using techniques and stitches visible in the originals.
I have one on many of the reconstructions online diary of the manufacturing process, noting both my successes and failures as I attempted to replicate the work of master craftsmen with many more years of experience than myself.
Reconstructions of historical garments can never be exact replicas, it is always an act of interpretation. Informed Compromises between modern and historical materials is necessary.
All of my reconstructions are made from natural fiber fabrics that were available in the past, such as silk and linen, but differences in modern fabric manufacture make it impossible to accurately recreate historical fabrics.
Historical corsets often got their shape and stiffness from whalebone. Commercial whaling was Banned in 1986 and so I used modern synthetics specially designed to mimic the properties of baleen.
Despite these challenges, making historical corsets has taught me to think like a tailor, to understand why certain materials or techniques were used, and to appreciate the craftsmanship knowledge that we have lost.
lessons in wearing
Once the corsets were made, it was time to wear them. I’ve worn them both myself and watched other women wear them.
I had the models sit, bend, and reach up to test how these garments restricted or impeded movement. I found that corsets cover a wide spectrum of comfort and restraint depending on the design of the garment: cut, length, and boning.
Early modern corsets can be uncomfortable if not fitted to individual measurements or manufactured correctly. This shows the importance of well-tailored garments in times before modern standard clothing made of stretchy ready-made fabrics.
Most 17th-century clothing is laced at the front, giving women control over how they wear the garment at different times of the day. A woman could wear it loosely or tightly laced. She may also have worn it every day or only on formal occasions.
My experiments also showed that the slimming effects of these early corsets observed by Montaigne were largely due to the optical illusion of their cylindrical shape. My corsets didn’t significantly reduce body measurements. I found the most restrictive feature of 17th-century corsets to be their strapless straps, which restrict arm movement, but that’s not something unique to corsets.
One of my reconstructions was a late 17th century maternity corset. Placed on a model with a simulated pregnancy belly, the design showed how the design accommodated pregnancy: it supported the breasts and back without constricting the abdomen. This is far from the image that sensationalist male moralists warn of the dangers of pregnancy.
We may never know exactly how a 16th or 17th century woman felt when wearing a corset, or accurately reflect her physical experiences. However, reconstructions can help us assess to what extent written sources do or do not reflect the lived experiences of historical women—and go a step further to show how many myths about early corsets written by men are exaggerated.
READ ALSO: Long before Billie Eilish, women wore corsets for form, function and support