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 only much later, as a corset.
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
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
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
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.
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
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).