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The Medieval Corset
WHAT'S IN A NAME? - WARDEROBE ACCOUNTS & DESCRIPTIONS



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 a man.

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 concealed.

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).

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