Pondering corsetry…

While I have been waiting for the fabric to arrive I have been putting together a plan of attack for the order in which I want to tackle the gown.  My first thought had been to do the skirt first, but in order for the pattern to flow evenly from the bodice to the skirt the pattern would need to be transferred to the bodice first, then the skirt.  And in order to know the proper size bodice to transfer it to, I need to know the proper measurements on which to draft the pattern.  AND to get to that, I need to know what size I will be when corseted.  Which seems to suggest I will have to start with a corset.

And thus comes my confusion.  I know that there has been much in the way of discussion in regards to using hemp cording for “stays” versus heavier corseting versus bust taping versus no corseting at all in Italian clothing of the 16th century.   In Jen Thompson’s excellent tutorial on using hemp cording for boning corsets/bodices/bodies/stays (I am going to use the term ‘stays’ to maintain consistency in this post) she details who should use hemp cording alone, who should use it with additional rigid boning as reinforcement, or who should not use it at all.   According to her suggestions, as a person of larger proportions and a larger bust I would need to use corded boning reinforced with additional rigid reinforcement, which certainly sounds like it would work for me if I still wanted the curved front appearance of many Italian portraits.  Taping my bust would likely give me the same look. 

In Moda a Firenze in regards to Eleonora’s clothing that was worn “in the upper part of the figure, the bust” it is noted that “usually the upper part of the petticoats and gowns was stiffened with felt and sometimes cardboard, while the stays recorded in the Guardaroba (a catalog of the items in Eleonora’s closet that began in 1544) are without any kind of substructure -like that found in her tomb.”  Janet Arnold notes in Patterns of Fashion that “It is not certain if this (the velvet bodice worn underneath Eleonora’s funeral gown) was a ‘pair of bodies’ or corset with bents to stiffen it set in the linen lining or a ‘petticoat bodies’ to support a petticoat, or under-skirt, of matching velvet.” 

However, the portraits of Eleonora show a flatter more conical shape that seems to be more indicative of later portraiture of the 16th century.  Moda a Firenze also states “…the Duchess also possessed two very hard steel bodices, made for her by a cuirassier in Feb. 1550.”  Apparently this was after she started to become ill, and these bodices were supposedly worn by her to allow her to continue to engage in the physical activities that she enjoyed, such as horseback riding.  There is no notation anywhere of how often they were worn, and thus we don’t know if they were worn also with more formal gowns, as in the two Bronzino portraits.  It is also noted in Moda a Firenze that “the stiffening of the bodice…made the use of the stays superfluous, except in winter.”  Stays might have been more properly used by Eleonora not to correct her posture, but instead to stay warm. 

The red velvet petticoat bodice, or what is assumed to be stays in Moda a Firenze are made with flat surfaces, leaving no gussets or shaping for the bust.  In the Guardaroba there are 13 sets of stays listed that are presumed as belonging to Eleonora, and all are made of velvet, lined with linen and interlined with a similar linen.  None of the sets included “…felts or other systems of padding, such as hide or cardboard, or cane ribs or other…” 

Consequently, Eleonora most likely wore stays, but it is less than likely that they were meant to give her the conical shape seen in the portraits or to support her posture, with the exception of her metal stays.  One could assume, then, that in reality she would have had the slightly curved bodice shape of so many other women in Italian portraiture of the time.

Because my measurements are much larger than Eleonora’s (mine are 43 bust and 37 waist versus her funeral stays measurement of roughly 34 bust and 32 1/2 waist as per the drawings of Janet Arnold) I need to have some sort of support.  I could do hemp stays with some additional reinforcement as per Jen Thompson, or I could go with strictly rigid support.  Is it better to go with the more comfortable option of the hemp (or even just plain old slightly reinforced canvas with binding of the breasts) that was likely more commonplace or should I go with a rigid set of stays so as to give my shape the smooth conical look seen in the portraits?

If I am indeed trying to recreate the portrait based on how it appears, then I would have to go with more rigid stays, similar to those seen here at Demode.  While the other option might be more comfortable, it would not mimic the dress in the portrait.  Consequently I am planning on that method.  I am not sure whether I will try to actually use reeds (the idea of them makes me nervous) or whether to use a synthetic whalebone to bone the stays.  Thoughts?  Reeds?  Synthetic whalebone?  And if anyone has experience with using hemp cording and added reinforcement in making the bust more conical in appearance, let me know! 

So now that I have settled on a corset plan I just have to get a pattern drafted and start on that while I wait for fabric delivery.  I am considering making them with an outside fabric of a thin red velveteen in homage to Eleonora’s stays, but I am afraid that might get too heavy and too hot.  It would be pretty, though!

5 thoughts on “Pondering corsetry…

  1. Kimiko says:

    “I am not sure whether I will try to actually use reeds (the idea of them makes me nervous) or whether to use a synthetic whalebone to bone the stays. Thoughts? Reeds? Synthetic whalebone?”

    What about reeds make you nervous?

    And maybe zip ties? It’s cheaper than synthetic whalebone, and similar in support. I’ve worn stays with those two, zip ties and reeds.

    I’ve pondered making a hemp corded stay for my early Tudor, as I need a little more support than fabric alone provides – but fabric alone can work if done in the Gothic Fitted Dress manner – but that’s a different time frame.

    • Laura says:

      Reeds make me nervous in the idea that A) I will break them by wearing them because I am not a particularly delicate person, B) I am not sure how to deal with the ends poking out since I have never used it and C) know nothing about their longevity. Am willing to learn, though! As to synthetic whalebone, I would certainly use zip/cable ties if they look to be comparable to the synthetic whalebone, as all of my prior corsets have been boned with cable ties. They hold up very well – my first corset is still holding up after 4 years. Will you be posting progress on your Tudor stays (whether done in hemp or not) on your website?

      • Kimiko says:

        A) I will break them by wearing them because I am not a particularly delicate person, B) I am not sure how to deal with the ends poking out since I have never used it and C) know nothing about their longevity. Am willing to learn, though!

        A. I am not a delicate person either. You learn to move in them, as you learn to do so with a steel boned stay. They are surprisingly flexible, and similar to zip ties – even molding with the heat of your body after a bit.

        The only issue I understand is that over time they will disintegrate in the channels, which is why Plymouth Plantation uses steel bones for their stays – but they also machine wash their garments at the end of the year and the reeds wouldn’t wash well. I just let mine air dry and they’ve been ok so far – but I don’t wear them every day either.

        If I do add in hemp stays, yes, I’ll be blogging about it.

  2. Raveness says:

    I totally agree. While the other forms of corsetry may be period, the stiffer form would give you the look you desire. I just don’t see how you could get that completely straight front otherwise.

    • Laura says:

      That is what I was thinking. And while my torso is long it isn’t quite as long as the elongated look in the picture – so I need to do something else to give the illusion that it is. I think the more rigid boning should help.

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