WHAT'S IN A NAME? - WARDEROBE ACCOUNTS &
What's in a name?
The corset as we know them today may or may not have existed in
the middle ages. We do know that there was an item of clothing
referred to as the corset, but the exact nature of it remains
sketchy at best. The garment that we know today as a corset was
known in early renaissance times as a body or pair of bodies,
not a corset. Later, it became known as stays, then much later,
as a corset.
Warderobe accounts and descriptions
Stella Mary Newton's book, Fashions in the Age of the Black
Prince has more than most to say about this unusual garment.
The corset appears as an item
in the Great Warderobe accounts from 1327 to 1333 for the King,
his two sons and distributed also to the Queen and certain ladies
of the court. It appears that the corset may have been an over-garment,
quite possibly ceremonial. It was usually fur lined and a great
deal of gold embroidery, pearls and ribbons were used at times.
Sometimes it was made of velvet and was mi-parti; half one colour
and half another. Corsets were made for special occasions- the
more spectacular ones were made from velvet, exchequer, with
gold and silver, lined with miniver. Cyprus gold thread was
used to make the ribbons as ties. The fabric cost 60 pounds
for one alone, a huge sum.
Given that the corsets were made
out of such expensive materials and was fur-lined with ribbons
and pearls, it seems unlikely that it would be a small, restrictive
undergarment for body-shaping. The French term ront is
often used to describe a garment which slips on over the head
without the need for opening, lacing or buttonings, and in one
case in the Great Warderobe account, items of clothing
are described as corsets ronts which indicate that the
corset is a garment which is able to be put on over the head and
did not require unbuttoning. Again, this does not sit with our
modern idea of what a corset is.
Another interesting indicator of
the garment's size is given when a corset is made for the Queen.
The number of bellies of miniver required to line it for her was
only very slightly less than the number required to line her surcote,
which was ample in cut and had a small train, thus indicating
that is a substantially sized garment.
Regardless of exactly what kind of
garment the corset was, we know by household accounts that it
was worn in high circles by members of both sexes all through
the 14th century. Stella Mary Newton also says at one point that
"it was suitable to be worn on the dancefloor" by
In 1333 Queen Phillipa of Hainault
had corsets made for all her ladies in waiting. An English account
from 1343-1344 has an entry for two corsets made of silk, buttoned
and with silk laces and points. We also know that the corset of
the Duke of Normandy was embroidered. In France, corsets for the
princes were not only embroidered but worked with pearls on the
surface. All of these accounts seem to point to a garment worn
externally. It seems unlikely that such effort, embroidery and
pearl details would be used on an undergarment to shape a man,
let alone the king's seven year old son. The use of buttons also
hints that it is a garment designed to be on display, not to be
Even in other languages, the corset
fendu is the phrase which describes what we call a sideless
surcote today. It is quite possible that the corset which
was worn in the 14th century was an overgown with large armholes
either with or without a train.
The most telling of all, is that
when the undergarment we know today as a corset first appears
in texts, it is referred to as a body or a pair of bodies
and then later as stays. Only after that, corset becomes
the popular word to mean the laced up, tight bosom-enhancing garment
we know today.
It appears that the corset was generally
a garment worn by the upper classes and restricted from the
lower. In a poem by Froissant, we learn that a man from the middle
classes may wear a pierpont (which is a protective garment)
and not a corset (hinting that it is decorative and not
in the least practical).