Historical Sew Fortnightly ’14 Challenge #5: Bodice (and What is a Bodice?)

The Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #5 for 2014, due March 15,  is Bodice.

It’s pretty simple.  Make a bodice – a garment that covers the upper body.  You can either abide by the strictest historical sense, and make a ‘pair o bodies’ for earlier periods, or a matching but separate upper half, in later periods, or can explore the idea of bodices in a more general sense.

I’ll leave the ‘more general sense’ interpretation of bodice up to your judgement, but will explore the more historical sense, and how the definition and style of bodices have changed over time to give context and inspiration.

The word ‘bodice’ dates back to the mid 16th century, and comes from the term ‘pair of bodies‘ (or ‘pair o bodies’).  The ‘pair’ was referring to the two sides of the stiffened garment which laced together.

Extant stays (Queen Elizabeth's effigy 'pair o bodies') ca. 1603

Extant stays (Queen Elizabeth’s effigy ‘pair o bodies’) ca. 1603

In the 16th century a bodice could refer either to the boned under-stays, or to the boned and stiffened garment that went over it.  Ben Johnson conveys a sense of how the word arose in his 1601 satiric play The Poetaster, when one character  complements another on their “strait-bodiced city attire” which will “stir a courtier’s blood, more than the finest loose sacks the ladies used to be put in.”

16th century uses of the word bodice predominantly refer to women’s garments, but there are occasional descriptions of fitted, stiffened up garments for men as bodices.  Early usage of the term also almost always refers to a garment with separate sleeves, whether it was stays, which would have a full sleeved garment put over them, or a garment with detachable sleeves.

As the 17th century progressed a wider distinction arose between women’s outer garments for the upper body that were boned and stiffened in their own right (such as robe de cour bodices) and women’s boned and stiffened garments that were worn specifically as underwear under un-boned robed gowns (the mantua).  As the fashions progressed, ‘bodice’ became used only for the garments that were boned and stiffened in their own right, and not for the undergarments – the stays, nor for soft, unboned outer-garments, whether mantua or jackets.

Bodice, German, 1660s

Bodice, German, 1660s

This distinction was still being sorted out at the end of the 17th century, as demonstrated in 1688 by Randal Holme, in his Academy of Armory describing women’s dress as consisting of:

The STAYES, which is the body of the Gown before the Sleeves are put too, or covered with the outward stuff.

He also describes:

BONING THE STAYES, is to put the slit Bone into every one of the places made for it between each stitched line which makes Stayes or Bodies sitff and strong.

And:

COVERING the Bodies or Stayes, is the laying the outside stuff upon it…

This meant that by the 18th century a robe de cour – literally called a ‘stiff bodied gown(or stiff bodiced gown, since the words were essentially interchangeable) was a bodice, but that a soft jacket such as a caracao or pet-en-l’air, worn over a set of boned stays, would not be considered a bodice, and the term bodice almost always referred to an outer-garment, where stays would be used for an under-garment.

According to a 1733 description:

The Princess of Orange’s dress was the prettiest thing that ever was seen – a corpse de robe, that is in plain English, a stiff-bodied gown.  The peers’ daughters that held up her train were in the same sort of dress – all white and silver, with great quantities of jewels in their hair and long locks’

Court Bodice, 1761, Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, FIDM

Court Bodice, 1761, Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, FIDM

This distinction morphed as fashions changed at the end of the 18th century.  Late 18th and early 19th century fashions were so exclusively focused on full gowns, with even court dress, though it retained the proscribed hoops and feathers in England, made as one gown, that there were few things that were described separately as bodices.  There are occasional sleeveless spencers that fit the 18th century definition of a bodice, albeit one without boning, and one which would be worn over a full gown.

Bodice (sleeveless spencer), silk, ca. 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.38.48.9_F

Bodice (sleeveless spencer), silk, ca. 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.38.48.9_F

Instead, it is in this period that bodice begins to be used as a generic term for the upper half of a women’s outfit, so that in the 1820s a  fashion plates might describe a dress with an ‘Anglo-Greek Bodice’ to indicate a style made with fichu-robings for day or evening wear.

Between 1810 and 1820 ‘bodice’ made a brief return in menswear, in the form of the ‘Brummell bodice‘ – the men’s stays worn by fashionable dandies, after Beau Brummell.

Lacing a Dandy, 1819

By the mid-19th century, bodices were once again woman’s exclusive provenance.  While the generic description of bodice as anything in the upper half of the garment was here to stay, the term did was more commonly used to refer to a separate but matching upper garment, which would be attached to the skirt with hooks when worn, creating the appearance of a one piece garment.

Ball gown bodice, 1865-66, Musees

Ball gown bodice, 1865-66, Musees

These garments were usually boned, and can be seen as a descendent of the stiff, laced 18th century bodices.  However, unlike their earlier counterparts, the new distinction between day and evening fashions allowed dresses to be made with one skirt, and two bodices: a low necked one for evening wear, and a high necked one for day wear.

Dress (evening bodice), 1860s Jessie Benton Fremont, American, MFA Boston

Dress (evening bodice), 1860s Jessie Benton Fremont, American, MFA Boston

Dress (afternoon bodice), 1860s Jessie Benton Fremont, American, MFA Boston

Dress (afternoon bodice), 1860s Jessie Benton Fremont, American, MFA Boston

Fashion magazines gave suggestions for both full ensembles, and for bodices which might be paired with any skirt design.  It was possible for a skirt to have a matching bodice, and for a woman to then purchase other, separate, unmatching bodices to go with it.

A "Low Bodice for Gown" from 1889. "This pattern can be carried out either in silk, moiré, plush, velvet, brocade or satin.  The sleeves and folds may be either lace, gauze Aerophane, or China crepe"

A “Low Bodice for Gown” from 1889. “This pattern can be carried out either in silk, moiré, plush, velvet, brocade or satin. The sleeves and folds may be either lace, gauze Aerophane, or China crepe”

It was only with the development of the waistline-less ‘Princess Dress’, and the return of one-piece gowns worn for anything but the most informal wear, which began in the late 1870s, that the bodice began to see a decline.  It lasted until the early 20th century, but with the revolution in fashion in the 1910s and 20s the bodice as a separate garment disappeared almost entirely as a fashion term.  Instead, we wear dresses with bodices, or shirts and blouses.  Only in the vocabularies of seamstresses (“I took the bodice from pattern A and the skirt from pattern B”), the occasional special-occasion garment with a separate bodice, and in specialised regional dress (dirndls etc.) does the bodice remain relevant.

 Sources: 

Buck, Anne.  Dress in 18th Century England, B.T. Batsford Ltd: London.  1979

Cumming, Valerie and Cunnington, C.W.; Cunnington, P.E, The Dictionary of Fashion History (Rev., updated ed.). Oxford: Berg Publishers. 2010

Hart, Avril and North, Susan.  Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Fashion in Detail.  V&A Publishing: London.  2009

O’Hara, Georgina, The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.  1986

Riberio, Aileen.  Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe 1715-1789.  B.T. Batsford Ltd: London.  1984.

Riberio, Aileen.  Fashion in the French Revolution.  B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1988

Mansel, Philip.  Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II.  Yale University Press: London.  2005.

Waugh, Norah.  The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930.  Faber and Faber: London.  1968

Terminology: What is a reticule or indispensable?

Since I don’t want my HSF-marathon posts to get monotonous, I’ve come up with the clever idea of combining them with other thematic posts, for double-goodness.  Today I have a cute finished project, and a long overdue terminology post.

First, some terminology:

A reticule is a small drawstring bag carried as a purse by a woman in the 18th and early 19th century.  It was also used as a synonym for any kind of purse or handbag carried by a woman.

The name comes from the latin reticulum, meaning a net or mesh bag (the same word has given its meaning to reticle – the cross-hairs (or net) in a firearm scope or telescope).  It entered English, as so many fashion words did, from the French, in this case, réticule.

Fichu de Velours, Redingote de Merinos, Costume Parisiene

Fichu de Velours, Redingote de Merinos (and a tasseled reticule), Costume Parisiene

The word was first used in the 1730s, but remained relatively uncommon through the 18th century.  The Memoirs of the Reticule states ” I am not aware of any mention of the reticule until after the French Revoluton.” At the end of the 18th century, as fashions changed from full skirted dresses that could easily conceal pockets, to slim garments of light fabrics that would show unsightly bulges over pockets, that reticules came into their own.  Easily made, easily carried, they were the indispensable accessory of the last decade of the 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th.  They were, in fact, so very indispensable that they were also known as indispensables.

Reticules might be indispensable useful, but they weren’t beyond reproach.  Older women continued to prefer pockets, and reticules were seen as being almost risqué, because they were essentially pockets, and thus an undergarment which was suddenly carried on the outside.  One could liken them to corsets in the modern world – while it is acceptable to wear a corset as evening wear, it’s still a bit suggestive, and certainly not appropriate for conservative dress.  Reticules were also condemned for being masculine, because men carried their money and other items outside their dress, in pocketbooks and bags, and women hid their items away in pockets.  Now women had a purse of their own that could literally be passed from hand to hand (and the obvious metaphor of pockets vs purses especially when your purses are the usual reticule shape all becomes a little well, obvious and weird about this point).

Reticule, 1818–30, Mexican, glass, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 2009.300.1902

Reticule, 1818–30, Mexican, glass, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 2009.300.1902

Even if not scandalous, the idea of women carrying their private belongings externally, in their hand, was considered ridiculous.  The Almanac des Ridicules, 1801, begins with a little rhyme about reticules and their riduculousness to the effect that a woman looses her reticule, and wants to post a sign “don’t do a thing, says her husband, you will always have enough ridiculousness.”  Reticules were already widely known as ridicules by this time.

Walking outfit, Ackerman's Repository, Vol. 5, Feb. 1, 1811

Walking outfit, Ackerman’s Repository, Vol. 5, Feb. 1, 1811

Although reticules ceased to be as important as fashion accessories once styles changed, and stiffer handbags, and full dresses with pockets, came into fashion as the 19th century progressed, reticules were still used, both as fashion items, and as a term to designate a specifically feminine carry-all.  In 1867 a small dictionary was entitled: ‘The Reticule and Pocket Companion, Or, Miniature Lexicon of the English Language’.  A male user would carry his edition in his pocket, but a woman, rather than having a purse, would have a reticule to carry hers in.  

One of the many advantages of reticules was how easy they were to make.  Stiff leather purses required special tools and strong hands, and were the provenance of leather workers, but any seamstress could make a reticule. The 1831 American Girl’s Book: Or, Occupation for Play Hours, has a whole chapter devoted to reticules, with instructions on ten different varieties, from a ‘melon shaped reticule’ to a ‘pocket book reticule’ (instructions for making all the reticules, with illustrations, begin on page 262 for those who are interested).

While the drawstring bags were never at the height of fashion again, reticule was used to describe small handbags and drawstring workbags into the early 20th century.

Sources:

Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011

Monroe & Francis, The Spirit of the English Magazine.  1831

Riberio, Aileen.  Fashion in the French Revolution.  B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1988

Waugh, Norah.  The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930.  Faber and Faber: London.  1968

Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection

Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection

One of the most famous, and certainly most charming, reticule fashions was for pineapple shaped reticules.  Many sources credit the trend to a fashion for exotic fruits inspired by Joséphine de Beauharnaises homeland of Martinique, but pineapples had been a symbol of ultimate exoticism and luxury in European arts and fashion since their introduction into Europe in the 17th century.  They were grown in greenhouses across Europe from the 1720s, and in the late 18th and early 19th century you could even rent pineapples for your dinner party centrepieces, to give your event that final touch of wealth and elegance.

Historical examples of pineapple reticules were usually knitted or crocheted, but in my usual “I can’t knit, but how can I replicate this style” way, I’ve been working on sewn versions of the pineapple reticule for years now.  American Duchess won my first one in a giveaway, and I was thrilled to see in a recent photo that she still carries it.

For the HSF, to cross a few more challenges off my list, I’ve made another pineapple reticule.  This is my fourth attempt, but I’ve misplaced at least two along the way.

Pineapple reticule thedreamstress.com

Pineapple reticule thedreamstress.com

It’s not as cute as the crocheted versions, but I like it!  So what challenges does it cover?

#1: Bi/Tri/Quadri/Quin/Sex/Septi/Octo/Nona/Centennial – pineapple reticules were most fashionable in the first decade of the 19th century, but there are examples from as late as 1830, so this one is definitely plausible (or as much as it can be in its inaccuracies) for 1813.

#7: Accessorize - It’s a reticule!

#9: Flora and Fauna – It’s a pineapple!

#11: Squares, Rectangles & Triangles - Two rectangles and 11 triangles = one pineapple reticule.

#21: Colour Challenge Green – The green leaves and bottom should make it qualify, right?

#22: Masquerade - This ones a teeny bit of a stretch, but since it’s not perfectly historical, and it is quite fantastical, I think it works.

#25: One Metre – Clearly not a lot of fabric in it!

#26: Celebrate – Since pineapples were so celebratory, I think I can count this one as well.

Pineapple reticule thedreamstress.com

The Challenge: #24: Re-Do

Fabric: scrap of orange-gold silk with pintucks, scrap of green silk (both from stash, and free)

Pattern: my own

Year: 1800-1830

Notions: Ribbon (icky poly satin, so I need to find a better alternative

How historically accurate is it? The idea of a pineapple reticule is accurate, but the materials (despite being silk) and execution are not.

Hours to complete: 2ish.  Fun little evening project.

First worn: Not yet, but it will make appearances with Regency gowns.

Total cost: $0

Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection

Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection

Tutorial: How to sew flat lining

One of my favourite sewing techniques is flat lining.

Flat lining is used extensively in historical (particularly 19th century) sewing and couture sewing, but it’s a technique that is not frequently taught or used in modern sewing books or patterns, which is a pity, because it’s awesome, and opens up many possibilities for design techniques and fabric use.  I used it to make thin, flimsy fabrics strong enough to make corsets and jackets out of, and to make bodices that shape and hide squish without adding bulk and weight.

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, flat lining is not quite the same thing as interlining.  These days (according to Shaeffer’s Sewing for the Apparel Industry) interlining is used to mean the same thing to as interfacing, whereas flat lining is an underlining, and is never fused.  According to the Singer Sewing Book interlining is meant to add warmth and bulk, while flat lining or interfacings adds strength and support, but bulk and warmth should be avoided.

When picking a flat lining fabric, pick a fabric that, when it is combined with your outer fabric, will have all the qualities that you want the finished piece to have.  The best flat lining fabrics are very strong for their weight/bulk, and very stable.

If you want a to add strength to a thin silk for a summer wedding dress, while keeping it light and cool, flat line with silk organza.  If you need to stabilise a ‘squidgy’ and moveable piece of fabric (one with a high sheer rate) pick a very stable, but thin fabric.  Coutil can be used as the flat lining to an attractive but not-strong-enough-for-corsetmaking fashion fabric, so that you can make a corset out of the fashion fabric.  If your outer fabric is strong and stable on its own, but you still want a layer of fabric between your outer and you without a traditional lining, a soft, fine muslin/calico is ideal

Victorian bodices, from Worth creations to those made by humble local dresmakers, are almost always flat lined.  One of the most common flat-lining materials seen in Victorian bodices is a thin crisp-but-soft polished cotton, often in an unbleached brown:

Bodice of Yellow Silk Crepe and Brown Velvet with Embroidery, 1897-8, Antique Textile

Bodice of Yellow Silk Crepe and Brown Velvet with Embroidery, 1897-8, Antique Textile

There are also many examples flat lined in what is essentially a fine, soft cotton muslin, and many examples flat-lined in silk – usually a thin taffeta.

Dress of French Blue with Wide Gray Stripes Silk Taffeta with Two Bodices C 1860, via eBay

Dress of French Blue with Wide Gray Stripes Silk Taffeta with Two Bodices C 1860, via eBay

Emily's dress (bodice detail), 1903, Te Manawa Museum

Emily’s dress (bodice detail), silk with cotton lining, 1903, Te Manawa Arts & Cultural Centre

For my example of how to flat-line, I’ll be flat lining the bodice of Rowena’s 1840s evening gown.  Because Rowena needed to wear the bodice without a corset, I used a very strong, very stiff flat lining of cotton, to add as much shape and support as possible to the silk of the gown.

So how do you flat line?  It’s really simple.  Basically you are just sewing your outer fashion fabric to your flat lining pieces, so that they become one piece of fabric.

First, cut out your flat lining pieces the same as your outer pieces.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Pin each piece of your flat lining to the corresponding piece of your fashion fabric, WRONG sides together:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

You want to smooth out your pieces and make sure that they fit exactly, with no possible folds or bubbles.  Sometimes I iron the pieces and pin as I iron to ensure that they match perfectly.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Once you are pinned, sew around all of the outsides of your pinned together flat lining and pattern pieces.  I use a slightly-longer-than-normal stitch (3 rather than 2.2-2.5), and a 1cm seam allowance.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

When I come to corners, I just sink my needle, lift the foot, turn, put the foot down again and keep sewing.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Here is my front bodice piece, with the silk now firmly sewed to the flat-lining.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Of course, my bodice front has darts in it.  How do I manage to catch both layers of fabric when I sew those in?

First, mark your dart placement.  I’ve used green transfer paper and and a rolling maker to mark it into my flat-lining:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com
Then, using your slight-longer-than-normal stitch length, sew a line of stitching just inside the line of your dart, through both layers of fabric.  At the top point, sink your needle, lift your foot, and pivot the fabric, so that you can sew back down the other side of the dart.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

You can see clearly in this photo how the line of my stitch is just inside the marked line of the dart:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

And here is what the sewn-in lines of stitching that mark the dart and hold the two layers of fabric together look like from the outside:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

And the inside:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Now, carefully matching both sides of the dart, pin your dart together:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Using a normal (2.2-2.5) stitch length, stitch your dart, stitching directly on to your marked-on dart line, which will be just to the outside of the line you sewed around the dart.

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

Here are the two lines of stitching – the lower one is the initial stitching line around the outline of the dart, the upper one is the actual stitching line that holds the dart together.
How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

And here is what the dart looks like from the outside.  Both layers of fabric caught perfectly, no lines of stitching visible!

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

And here are the darts from the inside:

How to flat line a garment thedreamstress.com

 

The rest of the flat-lined pieces were then stitched together, just as if they were only the outer piece of fabric.

With modern sewing, the raw edges visible on the inside can be finished in any way you want: hong-kong seams, overlocking, zig-zag stitching, pinking, etc.  In 19th century sewing, I’ve seen examples of hong-kong seams (though I’m sure they weren’t called that in-period!), pinked seams, seams that were left raw, and, most frequently, seams neatened with hand-stitching.

Emily's dress (bodice detail), 1903, Te Manawa Museum

Emily’s dress (bodice detail of hand-stitched seam neatening), 1903, Te Manawa Arts & Cultural Centre

And here is the finished project:

 

1840s inspired evening dress thedreamstress.com

 

1840s inspired evening dress thedreamstress.com

 

It’s not the same as wearing a bodice over a corset, but the flat lining does help to add support and structure.  If I were making a more period-accurate 1840s bodice, I’d still use a flat lining, but I’d use a much lighter, softer flat lining, as the corset would provide a shape for it to sit over.

I hope that was understandable, and useful!

 

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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