To Corset, Or Not To Corset

...that is the question!

(Updated March 22, 2007)

So far I have found no solid evidence that Venetian ladies attempted to change the natural shape of their bodies prior to 1540 or so. The "evidence" available is visual only. The study of portraiture of the 1540s - 1580s seems to indicate a slightly flattened bustline in portraits, but curves are still in evidence in less formal sources - engravings such as Dirck Barendsz's "The Venetian Ball" (a scene of Venetian celebration at a private home), circa 1584, show ladies with decided curves.

There is a possibility that a lined garment similar to a bodice may have been worn under the gown. Eleanora de Toledo wore one under her gown when she was buried in 1562, and pictures of it can be found in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560 - 1620. Although Eleanora was Florentine, the flattened torso of Venetians of the mid to late 16th century seems to point to the possibility that a similar item was worn in Venice. The question of how they could hide the shoulder straps of such a garment under the typical low-cut, very wide-necked dress bodice creates a problem though, and I feel that it is much more likely that corset-like properties were built in to the bodice prior to 1560 or so. The bodice of this time does not look stiff enough to suggest reeds or whalebone were extensively used, but do look like they may have been stiffened by the use of extra, stiff, interlining, or perhaps several layers of fabric.

After 1560 the torso looks even more stiffened, flattened, but it's not really until after 1590 that the corset is essential to the look, and silhouette changes to a much stiffer, padded peas-cod form. It seems likely, given the evidence, that prior to the 1590s, corsets may have only been worn for special social and state occasions. Much depends on your particular body shape/size. Luckily the corsets of the late 16th century weren't designed to cinch the waist in, but rather to flatten the torso to give a smooth, clean line. They were worn over the camicia, which afforded both the wearer and the corset protection - the wearer from discomfort and the corset from sweat and body oils.

The Great Corset Cover-Up

For a long time the problem of the Venetian front laced dress has hovered at the edges of my mind. Not the feat of engineering that is required to achieve the right look, does one wear a camicia as the first layer, then put on a corset and manage to hide it under one of these? That a camicia must be worn under the corset is very apparent to anyone who has worn one against the skin. No matter how comfortable to begin with, by the end of a long day it does start to feel uncomfortable. But wear it over a camicia, and not only is it comfortable, but it is also protected from body oils and sweat. This means that your corset won't need washing as often as it would if you wore it against the skin.

Now, the theory that something was, and is, needed to hide the corset when wearing a front laced dress makes practical sense. Either something that was attached to the corset, or something that was worn on the body over the corset like a camicia. So we are left with a theoretical 'corset-cover' or 'over-camicia'. If we then take this theory a little further we come up with the question of how early something like this may have been worn, and also whether it meant to look like a regular pleated camicia or perhaps evolved into something more decorative. Theories being what they are we are left to look for evidence of both.

It was this picture that first made me think a garment specifically designed to hide a corset may have been worn. Despite the fact that the lady is obviously a larger lady, her torso retains a flat look that is impossible to achieve unless that torso is flattened and smoothed in some manner that a camicia alone is unable to achieve. If you click on the picture to see the larger image, you will notice that the "camicia" is made up of many, many deep pleats, all perfectly aligned - this is really difficult to do over all those curves and bumps. Even if that camicia were back smocked, which it may be, the very wide expanse of white would show the natural undulations of breast and tummy we all know exists, if it were not smoothed by some means not visible.

So, still with me so far? Good. Now, were these 'corset-covers' or 'over-camicie' ever decorated in any way? I think so, and the evidence we have of decorative 'something' under the lacing of front laced dresses, whilst limited, is further weight to the theory of their existence. The picture on the right, Vecellio's "winter dress of Venetian women at home and outdoors", shows just such a decorative something under the lacing. (Click on the pic for a close up). It is possible that this is an embroidered camicia worn over a corset, but it is just as plausible that it could be a decorative 'corset-cover'.

Here you can see a small part of a drawing from Racinet's Historical Encyclopedia of Costume, which Racinet claimed is from a painting by Paolo Caliari, known as Veronese. The lady in the centre is wearing a pink/peach dress with a blue decorative 'something' under the lacing of her gown. As a redrawing it is not a good source of information on any element of Venetian clothing design, unless it backs up elements seen elsewhere. Leaving aside the question of the dubious origins of the hair accessories and jewellery (which in many respects resemble French examples in portraits) this one re-affirms previously seen elements of Venetian fashion in many respect bar one pertinent one: the mysterious blue 'something' under the lacing. If I could find the original painting the trustworthiness of this element of the drawing could be established once and for all, but so far if it exists it eludes me. But another, almost identical, drawing did not.....

This was a lucky find. It is a detail from a 1584 engraving by Henrick Goltzius called The Venetian Ball, which, according to the museum it is housed in, is itself a re-drawing from an original by Dirck Barendsz which he gave to Goltzius. Fascinated yet? I was! The lady shown in this detail is exactly the same lady that appears in the above Racinet drawing. The complete Racinet drawing is itself only a detail of the larger Goltzius engraving, which is a wonderfully detailed scene of a Venetian celebration and is definitely worth a closer look.

Since I first wrote this article I have found several more images showing something that might be this corset cover-up. The second image shown - Lady with an Egret by Veronese - is my all time favourite Veronese portrait, simply because I love her red dress! It is easy to tell that there is a decorative/embellished fabric beneath the lacing in these images - what's difficult to tell is exactly what it is we are looking at, either because of the low resolution or because it is from a fresco. I believe these 'corset-covers' were embroidered (and in one case it looks like lace over a red backing fabric or the corset itself), but it could also be a patterned fabric, although I feel this is less likely.

Francesco Montemezzano 1550s(?): Portrait of a Lady

Paolo Caliari (Veronese), c1550s: Portrait of a Lady with a Heron

Giovanni Cariani, c1560s (?): Portrait of a Lady

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, c1565: "The Banquet" (Fresco detail)

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, c1565: "Games" (fresco detail)

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, c1565: "The Concert" (fresco detail)

Paolo Caliari (Veronese), c 1570: Portrait of a Gentlewoman and Gentleman

Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto), c 1570s (?): Portrait of a Lady

Having worn Venetian gowns with both narrow (earlier 16th century) and wide (later 16th century) front lacing openings, and being a well-padded lady myself, I am fairly confident in the theory that at least in the case of very late in the sixteenth century, something was worn to hide the corset when one was worn with a front lacing gown. It is possible that a very utilitarian camicia was worn under the corset. Something that perhaps looked like this 14th century one (Kohler), coupled with either a stomacher of sorts worn over the corset, at first camouflaged to look like a pleated camicia then becoming more decorative. The other possibility is that another camicia, which I will call an over-camicia, was worn over it.

What's my theory? Well, it makes sense to wear a regular camicia under the corset, and hide it with something completely separate from the garment - something that does not touch the body and thus will need washing much less often. All the 'placket' possibilities that we have seen - finely pleated fabric, embroidered fabric or expensive piece of damask or brocade, would need both very particular care and to be washed less often. Making this a separate piece of the outfit would enable such special care to be taken of it. It also makes for a versatile item that can be worn with many different dresses because it is not dependant on which camicia happens to be clean at the time.

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