The Effigy Bodys
Reconstructing History Style
|RH203 – The Effigy Bodys
The so-called Effigy Corset has intrigued me for some time. This corset, preserved on an effigy of Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey, is in excellent shape due to the fact that is wasn’t worn by a dirty, messy human being. We tend to sweat in our clothes and tear them and die in them and cause untold amounts of damage. This corset has been lovingly preserved by the carekaters at Westminster for argueably 400 years.
In 1995, the effigy’s clothing was removed for cleaning and renown costume researcher, Janet Arnold, was allowed to examine the corset and paniers. Since the Westminster Effigy’s outfit dated to the mid-18th century, a date of 1760 was assigned to both corset and paniers 4. Waugh shows pictures of both pieces in her work, Corsets and Crinolines but comments upon neither. This is presumably because she was not allowed to examine them.
While the paniers are decidedly 18th century in form and construction, Arnold’s examination determined the corset to date from the end of Elizabeth I’s life, therefore circa 16031. Having no extant English corsets from the period with which to compare the Effigy Corset, this dating is based upon Arnold’s extensive knowledge of the shape of women’s clothing in that era.
When I first saw the Effigy Corset and heard people pronounce it “Elizabethan”, I strongly disagreed. The shape of the corset and full boning greatly resembles mid 18th century stays (corsets). The notable differences were that the boning in mid-18th century stays changes direction often. In the front of the stays, it is either vertical or radiates diagonally from the centerline. On the sides, it tilts, sometimes drastically, to form the body into the desired V-shape. This continues around to the back where the boning returns to true vertical on either side of the eyelets.
The Effigy Corset, by contast, it boned in a similar direction all the way around the corset. The bones run parallel to the front edges and center back line. The only divergence is where the two front pieces meet the back piece; at this seam, the bones appear to vere from the vertical. In fact, this appears so because the seam is slanted, not the boning.
The most notable difference between the Effigy Corset and mid-18th century stays is that there is no rear closure. Most of the 18th century stays extant, even those that also have lacing center front, have a back closure. The front closure is usually assumed to be decorative and often holds a stomacher in place. The rear closure takes the real strain. Although many 18th century gowns and jackets were front-closing, stays were not. Perhaps these two go hand in hand. But I digress.
The straps and their tying position at the front of the armpit are also reflective of 18th century corsetry. However such strap positioning was seen in the mid-17th century as well. It seems to be indicative of a wide-necked gown style more than a particular time period.
Before I attempt to make a replica of an original piece, I gather as much information as I can from as many sources as I can find. Great assistance was provided by Drea Leed and her Elizabethan Costume Page. Additional information was found on Marthe Munch’s Corset Page. Thank you, ladies, for hosting such informative websites.
After gathering as much information as I could, I set out to determine how to scale the corset so that my replica would fit me. I have made a number of 18th century stays that resemble the Effigy corset, but I didn’t want my preconceived notions to influence my reconstruction. Instead of digging out my 18th century pattern drafts, I decided to start from scratch. I made a mock-up on bristol board based on my bust, waist, and back waist measurements. I cut this out and laid it aside. [NOTE: Bristol board can be obtained from any art supply store and from many retailers online. Poster board or any other thin cardboard works just as well.]
Next, I blew up the picture in Waugh4 of the Effigy Corset laid flat and printed it out. I carefully cut out this minature and marked the seams and other features on the opposite side. I creased the picture at center back so I could check if it was symetrical. It was. Then I snipped the tabs so that they would open properly.
Next, I curled the little minature around so that the fronts touched. I held the straps in place with my fingers and gave it a good look. Not surprizingly, it resembled the Effigy Corset on the mannequin, pictured above. It also resembled the female human form which is something I wanted to check before continuing this project. I do not know if it is known whether this corset was specifically made for the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I or if it was donated by a patron who wore it in life. If it were made for the effigy, it may not have been in a wearable shape. Although I do not know the original measurements of the Effigy Corset, I am convinced it is of a shape appropriate for a living woman to wear.
Next, the mock-up in my measurements. I laid the bristol board mock-up I made earlier on another sheet of bristol board aligning the front edges and pushing the busk point to within an inch of the bottom of my 19″ x 24″ sheet. In this position, I traced around my mock-up and removed it. Then I folded my little minature Effigy Corset in half and laid it on the table above the bristol board so I could see it as I drew.
First I measured my back waist, from T-1 (the first thoracic vertebra, or that little bump at the base of your neck) to the small of my back. Call this measurement “A”. I aligned my ruler with the bottom back corner of the pencil line representing my mock-up back waist and made a mark A inches straight up the back. I then drew a slight curve upwards from this line to mark the back neckline of the corset. Guessing the shoulder seam to be about 3½”, I drew a slanting line from the edge of my neckline and stopped after 3½”. Then I made a U-curve for the armhole. I added triangular straps to the “shoulder seams” of my mock-up and slanted the front top edge down as in the photo of the corset on the mannequin. I traced tabs onto the bottom edge of the corset and cut two identical halves out of bristol board. None of these figures was precise. I just worked by eye and would adjust later.
I taped the two halves together at center back with duct tape and prnounced my mock-up ready for a trial. After trying it on, I added another inch to the center front and cut the armholes a little wider so the front corner wouldn’t poke me in the underarm. Everything else seemed to fit very well. Even my wild guess on the shoulder straps turned out right they fit snugly and made the upper back follow my shoulder curve perfectly. I drew the back seams in and it was finished. My final mock-up is pictured below.
I want to make my replica as close to the original as possible, so I aquired some linen twill from Fabrics-store.com The original corset was made from fustian, a linen/cotton blend, woven in a twill pattern. While linen/cotton blends are also available, I chose to go with 100% linen for one reason: modern linen/cotton blends usually involve chopping up the linen fibres so it can be spun on the same machines as the cotton. This substantially changes the structure of the fabric. 16th and 17th centuries fustians were woven with a linen warp and cotton weft, giving great strength to the material. Modern linen retains that strength, and Fabrics-store.com had a twill on sale. So I purchased this:
The original was boned with ¼” strips of baleen (whalebone) which is also not available. But reed was in use at this time as well. I prefer reed to the plastic approximations of baleen because it breathes. All my 18th century stays are boned entirely with basket reed and I find them incredibly comfortable. I purchased a roll of ¼” reed: Get Some Here. To sew it together and to sew the boning channels, I used 40/2 linen thread from The Mannings.
Taking the Leap
Cutting the Fabric
First, I cut apart my bristol board mock-up along the penciled-in seams to make a pattern. I laid the front piece on my fabric, aligning the front edge of the mock-up with the selvedge of the material. I also laid the back piece of the mock-up on my material, aligning its edge parallel to the selvedges. I did this because I had no reason to suspect that the fabric of the corset was cut on the bias or across the grain. Cutting a garment with the grain gives it greater stability that is desireble in a garment such as a corset. Using this layout, I cut two fronts and one back from my twill linen and two fronts and one back from the plain linen I’ve chosen as a lining. I removed the “straps” from my mock up to use as a pattern. I did not line up the edge of the straps with the selvedge because that would cause the strap to be cut on the bias. This would lead to stretching which is undesirable in a shoulder strap. I aligned the point of the strap mock-up “due North” (i.e. towards the top of the fabric) and cut two from the twill and two from my lining material.
Sewing the Channels
The type of sewing thread used for the channels was not specified, so I used medium weight linen thread. I’ve read about one pair of 18th century stays whose boning channels were sewn with backstitches at 10 stitches to the inch. I did not stitch so obsessively, but my stiches counted up at an average of 8 to the inch. I did use backstitches for the boning channels as they are best suited to withstand the stress of pushing in the boning later.
Assembling the Corset
Like most 18th century stays, the pieces of the Effigy Corset were assembled separately and then joined together by whipstitiching. In the 18th century, the joins were covered by linen tape or leather binding. This does not appear to be the case with the Effigy Corset.
Arnold does not describe how many layers of fabric went into each piece. Extant 18th century stays sandwich boning between two layers of linen with the outer fabric sewn to this at the same time, the boning channels therefore visible from the outside. The lining fabric is not sewn in channels usually but sits on top, therefore easily removed for cleaning or replacement. The photo of the Effigy Corset in Waugh shows the interior of the corset and boning channels are clearly visible. We must therefore assume that a lining was not present or at the very least, the lining was included in the boning channels. This would argue for fewers layers than a 18th century corset which may indeed have been the case.
The weave of the twill linen I was able to obtain was not very tight, so I experienced fraying at the edges of the pieces. To correc this, I bound all the edges with 3/4″ linen tape. This stabilized the fraying edges.
This edge treatment allowed me to whipstitch the pieces together at the sides without worry about fraying or pulling.
I whipstitched around 1″-spaced awl holes at center front and put a pair at the point of each shoulder strap.
The Author in Her Effigy Bodys
- Janet Arnold. “” in The Funeral Effigies of Westminster Abbey. Harvey Anthony & Richard Mortimer, eds. 2003: Boydell & Brewer, London.
- Baumgarten, Linda, et al. Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790. 1999: The Colonial Willaimsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.
- Burnston, Sharon Ann. Fitting & Proper. 1998: Scurlock Publishing Company, Texarkana, TX.
- Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954: Theatre Arts Books, New York.
© 2004, 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.