Corsets might sound like old-fashioned undergarments or perhaps a novelty, but let’s remember that they were worn regularly even into the 1950s. And while nowadays we have swapped the steel clasps and tight lacing for Spanx, the goal is the same: to “help” that malleable flesh into more fashionable shapes. 

Long before the curvaceous corset of the 1800s there was the bodice, or “a pair of bodies” as it was called in the 16th century. At the time, it was in fact the stiff outer garment, worn over layers of linen underclothes, that controlled the lines of the body and gave the desired shape. Various shapewear can be seen in Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, an exhibition organised by the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris and now at the Bard Graduate Center in New York through 26 July.

The bodice was originally made up of two triangular pieces of stiffened fabric (hence “a pair”), placed on the front and back and secured at the sides with stitching or often just with pins. The fabric of the bodice was reinforced with vertical seams, forming channels at intervals that were filled with whalebone or dried reeds. Whalebone (actually baleen, the tough, bristly material inside the whale’s mouth) was ideal for this purpose since it could be heated and bowed into a permanent shape. Whalebone also had the advantage of being flexible, though that rather depends on your definition of the word. 


A PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG LADY AGED 21, POSSIBLY HELENA SNAKENBORG, LATER MARCHIONESS OF
NORTHAMPTON, FROM THE BRITISH SCHOOL, 1569.

gareth-pugh-spring-summer-2015A SPRING/SUMMER 2015 LOOK BY GARETH
PUGH. COURTESY OF KARLA OTTO © TATE,
LONDON 2015.

In most paintings, artists would omit fastenings and unsightly seams so as not to detract from the overall image. Yet there were those who were unfailingly dedicated to realism; in the portraits of Hans Holbein the Younger you can often detect rows of minute pinheads and dimples where they catch the fabric along the seams.

The ideal 16th-century silhouette certainly demanded a tiny, defined waist, but cast from your mind the hourglass figure popularly associated with corsetry. Think instead of the young Englishwoman depicted in this portrait from 1569. The Latin inscription tells us the sitter was aged 21 and she is thought to be the Swedish-born Helena Snakenborg, later Marchioness of Northampton, who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest aides. Lady Snakenborg wears a red polka-dot damask bodice and has squeezed her torso into the conical form that was the paradigm from the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries. From the painting, we can clearly see that the early bodice had no darts to allow for even the humblest of bosoms; its aim was to squash the bust into its flattest possible form. To achieve that triangular look, the bodice was shorter at the back and extended past the waist and into a point at the front. A sharp-lined gown in Gareth Pugh’s folkloric Spring 2015 collection seems to nod at this convention. Pugh’s gown might not be tight enough for Tudor tastes but he’d certainly get approval from the laundresses for that starching.

This geometry elongated the body and made the waist look even smaller. Miss Snakenborg’s gown doubles that effect with its red, black and gold trim appliquéd in diagonal lines. Her ensemble is flawless, but she bears a faintly pained expression – if your ribs were crammed into half their intended space, you might, too.  


A LOOK FROM VALENTINO’S SPRING/SUMMER 2015 COLLECTION IN PARIS. CATWALKING /
GETTY IMAGES.

These days, corseted dress shapes are more often associated with traditional bridalwear, but occasionally a designer will reference the formal or historical aspects of the corset. Valentino’s Spring/Summer 2015 runway show featured numerous flat, sheer bodices with diagonal decorative seams. Some corsets were even layered over embroidered white linen smocks and fine, gauzy partlets in true Tudor style. Although Valentino’s transparent bodices would have been outrageous for even the most fashion-conscious lady-in-waiting, some early bodices were more than a little suggestive. Take Queen Anne of Denmark, painted around 1605: With pearls draped over her breasts and pouring into her cleavage, her figure encased in that long, pointed bodice, Anne’s outfit is rather risqué. And lest your eye not follow the symbolism, the rosettes and ribbon girdle looped round her waist are forming an arrow. The message?
This lady is a dynasty maker.  

Those not wishing to bare quite so much flesh could opt for a partlet – a triangle of fine linen draped over the shoulders, its corners tucked into the front and back of the bodice. For an even more modest look, you could wear a high-necked bodice like Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford. While encasing her up to her neck, Diana’s bodice still forms that narrow point, which is echoed by the long folded sleeves at either side, proving you can be suggestive without showing much flesh.


DIANA CECIL, COUNTESS OF OXFORD, CIRCA 1615 BY WILLIAM LARKIN, FROM THE KENWOOD
 HOUSE (SUFFOLK COLLECTION). COURTESY KENWOOD HOUSE (SUFFOLK COLLECTION)
© ENGLISH HERITAGE PHOTO LIBRARY.

The final touch for the flat-as-a-board look was a busk: a long strip that was pushed down the front of the bodice to help keep it straight. It was also useful for positioning your wheel farthingale, the cylindrical skirt that Anne is sporting. The wheel farthingale was tilted forward, resting on a bum roll at the back (yes, really) and pushed down by the busk-reinforced bodice point at the front. Anne was
a huge fan of the wheel farthingale, so much so that she made every woman at court wear them, years after they had gone out of fashion. 

Busks could be carved with decorative motifs or messages and were often given to ladies as gifts from their lovers. It must have been a pretty saucy thrill, wandering about at court with your lover’s ardent declarations of devotion, wedged so symbolically against your . . . heart.


Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.