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History of Lingerie Part V: The Renaissance

The Renaissance, a period that began in about 1450 and ended about 1600, was a time of change on many levels. From technology to art to social policies, the world was evolving at a rapid pace. Fashion was no different. In fact, when it comes to fashion, the Renaissance was easily one of the most important eras in history, as it acted as the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era.

Boticelli's "Primavera" is the perfect showcase for fashion of the time.

With the increase in trading along the Silk Road, the world came to discover that not all cargo was best shared. Between 1348 and 1350 the Black Death plague ravaged Europe. Some historians believe the disease was spread by rat fleas making their way onto merchant ships and trade caravans, and the pandemic claimed the lives of between 75 and 200 million people. While devastating, many believe this tragedy propelled the forward thinking of the Renaissance era. Having taken about 150 years for Europe’s population to recover, the early years of the Renaissance era were among the first that were back on track.

A piece of woven silk velvet from the 15th century.

Once a status symbol, clothing evolved quite a bit over the centuries spanning the Renaissance. While the Middle Ages experimented with detailing on garments for the wealthy, the Renaissance was truly the time when fashion crossed the lines from functionality to frivolity. Colors and detailing on clothing became not just an option, but a regular expectation for everyone - the wealthy, the lower class, and everyone in between. Opting out of the styles of the time was considered old fashioned and slovenly dress became less acceptable for all social rankings, especially among women, who dressed well to attract future husbands and even better to keep husbands faithful. Despite the fun people were finally beginning to have with dressing up, however, it was still socially unacceptable for older people to be as playful with their clothing.

This fascination with fashion reached beyond Europe. Worldwide writings of the time suggest that hair, accessory and clothing styles were changing rapidly and without warning. With the availability of new colors and the combinations of different clothing elements, innovative color combinations were constantly coming into play. Detachable sleeves, slits in fabric, and layers of clothing created endless combination possibilities and for the first time, fashion became a true means of expression. People used it to represent their personalities and otherwise hidden interests.

Camicias were often exposed through slits in the sleeves of outer garments.

Women built the foundation of their everyday fashions with a camicia, or chemise - a linen long sleeved dress worn as their primary undergarment. As the Renaissance progressed, women’s necklines took a plunge. This factor changed the way a chemise was worn. For years, necklines on outer dresses were high with a rounded cut, but as years rolled on necklines got lower and more square. The chemise, which had previously been hidden under the outer layer dress and worn like a slip, began to peek out at the bosom and slits in the sleeves as part of the completed look. No longer left in the dark, the chemise, too, got the renaissance treatment with embroideries and fine linens.

A camicia from the 16th century.

The camicia was not the only undergarment worn by women. In the late 15th century, dresses were worn in two pieces including a bodice and a skirt. The silhouette of the time consisted of a stiff flattened bodice with the breasts pushed upward, while hips were emphasized with a full skirt. Flattened breasts and small waistlines were part of a much sought after look. To achieve this, women wore laced corselets, a one-piece girdle-like item, or a dress bodice stiffened with paste or boning. Because more women wore stiffened bodices than they did corselets, very few of these garments have survived history.

A bodice with flattened bust and low neckline was a popular look during the Renaissance.

The bodice of Eleanor of Toledo's funeral dress from 1562.

By mid 16th century, these undergarments were replaced by the newly invented corset, which featured much more sturdy materials and reinforcements. Supposedly made fashionable by Catherine de Medici who is said to have enforced small waists among the women of her court, Renaissance corsets were frequently stiffened using horn, wood, ivory, or buckram, among other materials. A long busk was inserted in the front to keep the garment straight, creating a desired conical silhouette for women. Corsets extended the entire torso, stopping just above the pelvis and lacing in the front - a detail that would later move to the back as the garment evolved through history.

A 16th century painting featuring a stiffened bodice retaining shape even laying on the floor.

Catherine de Medici is widely attributed as the woman who popularized the corset.

While many believe that wearing metal corsetry was a common practice during this time, most evidence actually points to these pieces being used for medical purposes, rather than in fashion. While this case is commonly debated, some writings indicate that metal corsets were used to hide ailments such as scoliosis and aided many in going about their daily activities. Such devices may have been padded with fabrics to allow comfortable wear, and made with holes or woven into a cage-like design to alleviate the weight of the metal. Additionally, if these really were used for medical purposes, it would explain why those which still remain are so small, as they would’ve been intended for growing children.

The use of metal corsets during the Renaissance is still a highly debated topic.

Both men and women wore hosiery, but unlike men, women’s hosiery was much more elaborate. Ladies wore stockings made of wool, linen or silk, depending on their social class, of course. Theirs came in a variety of colors and embellishments, and were held up by intricate garters made of decorative ribbon. Although their underthings went largely unseen, renaissance women kept them as ornate as the rest of their clothes.

A lovely pair of 16th century garters.

The Renaissance was a long and slow transitory period for fashion. Pulling clothing from boring and purely functional to beautiful and artistic, the 15th and 16th centuries changed the world of fashion forever and urged people to not just wear their clothes, but truly love them. Although garments did not change drastically over the era, they did set the stage for years to come. The underthings of the Renaissance would soon evolve in a way that showcased a new feminine silhouette for Elizabethan women.