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The Time of the Medieval Corset

Medieval Corsets

Many things were happening during the time of the medieval corset. “Centuries of Roman rule in Western Europe came crashing to an end in 476. The emperor was driven from his throne by barbarian invaders from the north. Soon after, hundreds of tiny kingdoms began to form in once Roman lands. Subsequent invasions by Vikings, Goths, Moors, and infighting between neighboring kingdoms began to change the nature of European life”.   From Medieval-Life.net

Clothing Worn During The Medieval Period

The medieval time period is known as the Middle Ages, and the Dark Ages. This time period lasted from approximately 500 AD to 1500 AD. By all accounts, this was a thousand years of war, famine, rigid class systems and rampant superstition mixed with religion. These were serious times, and accordingly, women of stature wore serious clothes. The fashion attire had many layers which included, a smock, hose, kirtle, petticoats, gown and surcoat, girdle, cape with hood and bonnet.

Mary Queen of Scots lived and died in the 16th century, but her wardrobe style was still medieval. (Did the Renaissance skip Scotland?). Mary was a threat to the throne and a staunch Catholic besides. Mary was beheaded on the order of  Queen Elizabeth in 1587. She was reportedly wearing only her undergarments. These were said to have been a velvet petticoat, a pair of sleeves in crimson-brown, and a black satin bodice with black trimmings.

Question: Notice anything missing from these lists?
Answer: Underpants! That’s right, medieval women actually went commando.

Considering the sheer number of layers worn at the time, going bare from the waist down beneath the medieval corset and petticoats was a practical idea. There was nothing to get in the way of a quick in and out, with the cuckolded spouse none the wiser. After all, secret trysts by their very nature have to be brief.  Just think about how long it would have taken for the eager lover to peel off all those layers!

The Medieval Corset

Medieval women sometimes wore “cotes,”. This was made of two stiffened layers of fabric and worn as an outer garment. Sometime around 1300, women’s styles began to be more revealing; the medieval corset was still in use but changing. Clothing was beginning to fit closer to the body. Fashion changed, necklines were lowered and the desired silhouette now had more curves.

In the desire to show off the waistline, steel, wood, whalebone or cane, were slipped into the seams. This part of the medieval corset was the ‘busk’. A busk is a piece of hardware placed into the center front of the corset that could be made of steel, wood, whalebone.

These busks fulfilled another function, as well: they served as love letters. The wooden or bone busks were often inscribed or carved with messages of heartfelt love. These busks were then given as gifts from the men to their lady loves. The ladies returned the favor by giving the laces from their medieval corset to their lovers. So far, we’ve got no underpants, wood stays inscribed with sexy messages and long laces to work with – hmm. . .

Factoid: a 12th-century illustration shows a demon wearing a medieval corset.

The outerwear medieval corset would end under the breasts, whether the corset was a straight, bust-to-waist design or an outerwear one that had shoulder straps and looked like a tight little vest that laced beneath the bust. Fabric choices for the medieval corset grew so that women of stature could choose ermine, taffeta or brocade and colors such as crimson and purple which denoted aristocratic lineage.

Petticoats in Medieval Times

Petticoats – the more the better – came into popularity sometime in the earlier 1500’s. These petticoats, worn under massive skirts to expand them outward,  were often attached to the medieval corset by laces. 

Around this time, too, the farthingale became a popular shaper. The farthingale was a hoop skirt made of metal banding. This metal skirt served to expand the outer skirt being worn.

“The French farthingale was introduced in England in the late 1570’s. Modern costumers conjecture that it probably consisted of one or more large hoops with horizontal stiffeners which radiated from around the waist in order to produce a flat platter-like shape when supported underneath by the “bumroll” or “French farthingale”.  these rolls were made of: they were stuffed with cotton and rags and stiffened with hoops of whalebone, wire or ropes made of bent reeds. Buckram (stiff canvas) is the most commonly mentioned material. Other references describe the rolls as being starched with a form of stiffener.” (Wikipedia Farthingale, post-2018)

Eventually, this style led right into the increasingly, impossibly tightened waist. 

Edmund-Leighton-God-Speed-medieval fashion

The Dark Ages

“Medieval times often evoke images of knights battling on muddy fields, dank and dreary castles, hunger, plagues-in general, a lot of rather depressing scenes. But these Dark Ages also witnessed the birth of a romantic movement. 13th Century conventions of chivalry directed that men should honor, serve, and do nothing to displease ladies and maidens. 

Secret rituals of Romance developed where women-long the loser in a double standard of adultery condoned among men-found champions who would fight in their honor. Courtly love became the subject of some of the most famous medieval poems, and where we get today’s word, “Courtesy.” Through these centuries, Europe was slowly waking from a harsh slumber, and begin to sow the seeds of a Renaissance”. Medieval–Life.net

Scotland Medieval Castle