I thought it was a corset. What's this "bodies" thing?
Most re-enactors, SCA and otherwise, are used to thinking of a corset as an undergarment. For Elizabethan women, this was not always the case. The corset, known to them as "bodies" or "a pair of bodies" was a part of their visible clothing. The only real underwear was the chemise - known to Elizabethans as a "shift" or "smock".
Upper body garments could be stiffened with canvas, buckram, and later, boning to give them more shape. The extreme pointed waist at the end of the 16th century is impossible to obtain without some form of rigid support. This kind of support shows up in some surviving garments. Whalebone (baleen), horn, reeds, and bents (a kind of beach grass) were all used. A wooden busk was sometimes, but not always, used to make the front more rigid.
Evidence shows us that bodies were worn under other garments, but not in the way that 19th century corsets were worn. The Victorian corset is the thing most people think of when they think of a "corset" bodice, which was considered underwear, usually white/off-white sturdy fabric, and never meant to be seen. The word "Corset" was used in France as early as 1611, but it was not used in England before the 19th century. In the 16th century, sleeveless and sleeved bodies were made of fine and attractively coloured fabrics, decorated, and intended to be seen.
The few existing garments have skewed our perceptions somewhat - they are faded with age, worn out, making them appear very different from how they would have appeared when new. The Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg corset in Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620 that most people use as documentation was made of pink satin and would have been worn indoors as casual dress. The rich wore multiple richly decorated layers, and it is likely that a rich woman would have worn a stomacher and doublet over the corset when receiving any but the most intimate visitors. The middle classes, on the other hand, wore the bodies more visibly even when out, though it would have been unthinkable to wear them without sleeves or a covering doublet or coat; wearing bare shirt sleeves marked someone as being from the low classes. The only example of a woman out in the streets wearing just bodies that I have ever found is from a 1590s broadside that depicts various street sellers, including a woman selling mutton pies. Her shift sleeves are rolled up to her elbows, and she carries the pies in a basket on her head.
The Victorian idea of underclothes that is so pervasive has influenced us to expect such things as corsets, hoop skirts, rolls and petticoats to be made of practical white fabric; indeed, we feel more correct when they are, even for Elizabethan clothing. To the Elizabethans, this would have been a wasted opportunity to show off. Excess in clothing was expected for the rich; there were few better ways to show off your status (or the status you hoped to achieve) than by wearing your riches on your back, but even the lower classes tried to dress in bright colours. Bodies were not made of canvas. They could be made of silk, linen, wool, or a combination of the above.
The two corset examples used by the serious re-enactment community are the previously mentioned pink satin bodies, and the "effigy corset" on the funeral effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, dated by Janet Arnold to 1604-5. For most interpretations, I recommend the first one, since most pictures from the period show bodies with a line that matches the pink bodies more closely. The effigy corset is very late period, resembling the bodies and fashionable body shape of the 17th century more than the 16th. There are many inaccurate "corset" patterns out there - anything without sleeve straps is incorrect.
Keep in mind that the Victorians thought that the discomfort of a corset was necessary to restrict the figure, but the Elizabethans, especially those who had to work for a living, did not. Therefore, your bodies should be supportive, not uncomfortable. The biggest mistake most beginners make is to make the boning go all the way around, and the sides too long. This combination guarantees that the bodies will dig into the hips and become increasingly uncomfortable to wear. Since the purpose of the bodies is to support and flatten the front, the boning only needs to go partially around the body, no further than the front of the arm. The section of boning in the center back will assure a straight figure and provide more support.
There are a number of sites that detail the construction of bodies - rather than re-invent the wheel, I recommend Drea Leed's excellent Elizabethan Costuming Page. She has pictures of both the corsets mentioned, her sources are good, she covers both the early and the effigy bodies, with lots of information about how she made them fit, plus links to other attempts.
Any bodies you make will take about a yard and a half of material for a size medium, but I always buy 2-3 yards in case of mistakes. If you want to make matching sleeves, add another three yards. Depending on your class level, silk (satin), velvet, wool, and linen are all good fabrics - silk will need to be interfaced (done with coarse linen or hemp in period) to create the weight needed for the boning. Choose a fabric sturdy enough to stand up to the wear of reeds or steel boning - the more delicate fabrics will deteriorate sooner unless reinforced. Don't forget lining material - stay away from cotton muslin, and choose a complimentary fabric (I usually line in linen) and colour. If the lining fabric and the outer shell are substantially different in bias stretch, you will have issues with fitting the two together. Keep this in mind when you choose fabrics.
Colours can be quite bright and intense, even for the lower classes.
wool bodies hand-stitched by the author
In the spirit of historical accuracy, I am obligated to say it is well worth taking the time to sew the garment by hand (it's true!). Use linen thread (keep beeswax on hand), and overstitch/finish all your seams and edges - this will give the finished garment a crisp look (be sure to keep your stitches small, and on the edges, stay close to the edge). It will take a little longer, but hand stitched casings for boning look wonderful, especially when stitched in a contrasting colour. Lacing holes are easily created with the aid of an awl and a good sturdy linen thread. My favourite boning material is 1/8" round reed; reed gently conforms to the curve of the body without losing its shape, is machine washable (gentle cycle!), doesn't lose its overall shape, rarely snaps, and moves wonderfully. Be sure to soak the reeds before working with them.
Good books to work from:
Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620, Janet Arnold, MacMillan, 1985 - the Pfaltzgrafina bodies pattern is in this book.
Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Janet Arnold, V&A Publications, 1988 - the Appendices list all sorts of colours available.
Historical Fashion in Detail, Avril Hart and Susan North, V&A Publications, 1998 - the red wool bodies stitched in contrasting thread are well worth studying.
Sean Shesgreen. Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press. 2002. Pp. Xi, 228. $30.00 paper. ISBN 0-8135-3152-7. - contains the broadside "The Belman of London" Anonymous, c. 1590s, which includes the shirt-sleeved mutton-pie seller. (You should really buy this book if you're interested in lower-class clothing.)
Bad, bad books:
Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550-1580, Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy, Other Times Publications, 1979 - this book was written for people who work Renaissance festivals, and is not a period or accurate source for corsets. Please don't use it if you're trying to be historically accurate. If all you want is a cute Faire outfit, by all means, use it - it's a great source of costume ideas.
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.