History of Lingerie Part VI: The Elizabethan Era

The Elizabethan Era is regarded as the Golden Age in British history, and is determined by the reign of one of Britain's most brilliant sovereigns, Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign, which lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603, Britain saw a renaissance enjoying international expansion, and naval success over the Spanish. There was also a rise in artistic expression and pursuits, including the fine arts, poetry, and of course the theater, as William Shakespeare delivered his famous plays during this time. Women’s clothing and undergarments during were quite extensive. Most notably, it was during the Elizabethan Era that Catherine de Medici enforced slim waistlines via the help of new shapewear known as corsets.

Queen Elizabeth as painted by Robert Peake.

For both genders, garment colors, fabrics and trims were regulated due to Sumptuary Laws, which were intended to clarify social ranking and privilege. The many layers of clothing worn were actually quite similar between the sexes. Women’s fashion during the Elizabethan period was deeply rooted in masculine silhouettes. Women aspired to flatten and raise bustlines, but maintained femininity with exaggerated waistlines. Like always, the mystique of the female figure was highly sexualized no matter how hidden it was.

An elaborate Elizabethan dress with stomacher and high collar from 1599.

The primary piece of underwear for women during the Elizabethan Era was the smock, otherwise known as a shift or chemise. It was the first undergarment put on when dressing, and was meant to protect outer garments from being stained by sweat and body oils. Some smocks were trimmed with lace if it could be afforded, otherwise all smocks had the same basic look. While smock sleeves were loose and full, the wrist areas featured cuffs to keep the undergarment in place. Its neckline was square and often showcased a good portion of the chest. Though the smock body was also loose, it could be easily maneuvered to fit comfortably under a corset. Smocks were made of linen and were washed much more frequently than other clothing items made out of more expensive fabrics. The smock or chemise could also be pulled through slashes on outer sleeves to create high or wide shoulders, which was fashionable at the time. Eventually padded and jeweled shoulder rolls took the slashed sleeve/smock's place to create the high, square shoulder look. For lower class women, the smock was frequently worn alone with just a wool or linen skirt on top of it.

Chemise belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots from 1587.

Another staple of Elizabethan underwear was hosiery, or stockings. These items were generally made of wool and women often owned several pairs as they were worn every day. Stockings also came in assorted colors and varied depending on social rank. Upper class women owned stockings made out of silk in addition to wool. Stockings were held on the body via garters as well as thin ribbon strips wound around the knee.

A set of garters from the 17th century.

The farthingale was an assortment of iron wire, whale bone, padding and occasionally wood or wicker that created a certain, if unnatural, type of female figure. This item was cinched to a woman at the waist and was used to spread an Elizabethan's many skirts to form a wide-hipped, slim waist silhouette. Unlike other previous examples of undergarments, which could deceive the observer into thinking a woman had a more shapely appearance than she actually did, the farthingale deceived no one, as it spread a woman's hips as wide as her body was long in right angles. The farthingalecreated a new type of female shape, one that disguised the buttocks and stomach, with the latter previously celebrated as the epitome of femininity during the Middle Ages. Instead, the waist was emphasized along with highly-exaggerated hips. Though undergarments in the Middle Ages sought to create a natural female shape, the Elizabethan Era created an artificial female form. The dramatic size of the skirt kept clothing away from the lower half of the body, which made it much easier for a man to advance on a woman, unlike during the Middle Ages, where female underwear created a thick barrier between the two sexes.

An exceptionally ornate Farthingale.

Perhaps the most important part of the Elizabethan silhouette, the corset, made its first real appearance during this era. The popularity of the undergarment is commonly credited to Catherine de Medici, the Queen Consort and wife of King Henry II of France, who famously restricted waist sizes among her court.

Catherine De Medici.

The use of corsetry also links to early sexual fetishism. The busk, a rigid dagger shaped piece inserted into the front lining of the corset to retain stiffness and shape, was a highly sexualized item in Elizabethan times. With the masculine silhouette women took on flattened breasts and a more streamlined torso. The removal of a busk often gave women their natural shape back, hence it was seen as a powerful object of apparel to both men and women.

Some records of the time indicate that early busk use was associated with prostitution, due to the belief that it could protect against pregnancy by deforming the body. Additionally, busks were typically made out of materials like whalebone, ivory, wood and even silver and could potentially be used as a weapon. It’s even been recorded that some women kept daggers in sheaths in their corsets, rather than traditional busks. That said, a well made busk was frequently a prized possession and sometimes given as a gift by men to women of interest. Coquettish women would sometimes remove the piece to fan themselves.

Corset from the Sittingbourne cache dated between 1620 and 1630.

Finding definite references to corsets during the Elizabethan Era has often proved somewhat difficult for historians as the Elizabethan corset is also referred to as a pair of bodies, or payre of bodies,though this could also refer to a gown bodice. If the clothing in question is called a pair of bodies with sleeves, it is most likely a gown that is being discussed, while an item mentioned in conjunction with whale bones or other stiff material is probably a corset. One of the first mentions of a separate corset was found in the wardrobe accounts of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's older half sister and predecessor. Elizabeth herself also makes reference to the corset in her wardrobe accounts, and notes that her corsets were made with items such as leather, buckram, and eventually whale bones. By the middle of the 16th century, the corset was a staple clothing item for women of all classes.

Queen Elizabeth I effigy corset.

Though usually not used as an undergarment, the triangular stomacher was occasionally part of a corset. If not, it was used to cover the corset as Elizabethan gowns often featured a sizable opening in the front. When the stomacher was part of a corset it featured bones, if not it was pinned or stitched into place over the front of a gown. It could also be kept in place by corset lacings, and sometimes featured jewels and other embellishments. The stomacher enjoyed trendy periods from the 15th through 18th centuries in Europe and North America, though men also wore versions of stomachers during the 15th and 16th centuries.

An ornate stomacher.

The sleeves of an Elizabethan gown were separate items that were laced to the corset or bodice. Sleeves were tight around the wrist but otherwise loose in fit. A piece of clothing that generally matched the sleeves in color and fabric was the partlet, a piece of linen or other lightweight fabric that covered low-cut necklines. Though it was originally worn outside of the gown, the partlet was used as an undergarment during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods to protect the skin from the winter cold and from the summer heat. Though partlets could feature lace detailing and jewels, they were commonly worn with no adornments and instead had a plain, gathered appearance. Ruffs were another adornment that could be added to the partlet. White and black were the most common colors.

An open gown featuring a stomacher.

The petticoat was another undergarment worn fashionably during the Elizabethan Era. It could be worn as as a type of underskirt for warmth, to create bulk underneath the kirtle or other outer skirts, or as a decorative item peeking out from an open front dress. Many times the petticoat was used for all three things at once. The wearing of petticoats was well established during Elizabeth's reign and were usually full or stiff enough to further create exaggerated shape with the outer skirts or gown, giving the appearance of a small waist. It wasn’t unusual for women to pile on two or three petticoats to achieve their desired silhouette.

A depiction of a peasant woman in her kirtle.

The aforementioned kirtle is another clothing layer between the smock and formal outerwear. The piece was invented during the late Middle Ages and was a hugely popular item during the mid-16th century. This tunic-like garment was sported by women as well as men. It was constructed as either a bodice and petticoat combination or as a loose garment that did not feature a defined waist, depending on the fashion trends of the time. It generally laced up the side or up the back, especially if worn with gowns that laced up the front. It is interesting to note that Elizabethan women did not wear white when they married, rather they wore their best gowns and kirtles. Kirtles worn by Queen Elizabeth and other royalty were usually heavily embroidered.

The bodice on a peasant woman.

In addition to making corsetry a fashionable necessity, Catherine de Medici is also credited with introducing Italian women to the concept of trousers, or drawers, which tied around the waist and covered the thighs and knees. Garters were used to attach drawers to stockings and some say she got the idea from breeches-wearing peasant women. Catherine and her friends were able to get away with wearing drawers based on a new way of riding horses that exposed the knees, which was considered indecent exposure during the time. The wearing of drawers was to protect a woman's decency. The validity of this historical note is up for debate, however, as women continued to mount horses the same way, sans drawers, during the 17th century.

Women's clothing was perhaps at its most complicated to date during the Elizabethan Era, though like the Middle Ages before it, there were virtually no, well, panties. Drawers are arguably the closest thing women had to panties. Though smocks covered the entire length of the body, they could easily be pushed out of the way. A woman might be wearing a smock, farthingale, petticoat and other skirts or a gown, but underneath the many layers she was virtually naked. How this affected the men of the era would be interesting to explore, as the Western world was experiencing a time of Puritanism, though sex was rampant among all classes. Henry VII might have closed the brothels in England, but his son Edward managed to open them back up during his short reign.

An elaborate woman's smock from 1610, and a man's shirt from the late 1500s.

Female Elizabethan clothing did not cling to the body they way gowns did during the Middle Ages, and instead focused on right angles and square shoulders. One could argue that the distinction between the sexes, which was so clear during the Middle Ages, was beginning to blur during the Elizabethan Era, and was subsequently more or less annihilated during the Italian Renaissance. This lack of distinction marked the beginning of a period of sexual confusion as well, as the free-thinking scholars and artists of the Italian Renaissance celebrated sexual ambiguity. This ambiguity resulted in a new approach to lingerie and underwear.