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RH203 - Elizabethan Corsets

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Buy this easy-to-make Elizabethan corset pattern!

Get our full size paper patterns for late Elizabethan corsets based on two extant English examples. View A, based on the pair of bodys belonging the Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg in 1598 are front-boned, five piece bodys featuring a static front busk, integral shoulder straps, back laced closure, and separate tabs at the waist. View B, based on the corset worn by the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Cathedral, features a front opening and integral waist tabs. Historical notes. All Sizes in one envelope. Fits bust 30½"-48" and waist 23"-41". Embellishment suggestions included.

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Suggested Fabrics:
plain or twill weave linen or silk
silk or fine linen for lining
stiff linen or buckram for yoke interlining

Yardage Requirements:
outer material " 1 yd at least 45" wide
lining " 1 yd at least 45" wide
interlining (optional) " 2 yds at least 45" wide

40/2 linen thread or equivalent
7mm or ¼" half oval or round reeds or ¼" corset boning
silk ribbon or leather for binding
44 metal rings (View A, optional)
wood or horn busk (View A)
2 - ½" corset bones (View B)
corset lacing

Let us help you! At Reconstructing History, we want to see you wearing the best garments you are capable of making. Call us Monday through Friday from 9am until 4pm Eastern Time (or email us at info@reconstructinghistory.com) and we will answer any questions you might have.


Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:

The History of the Elizabethan Pair of Bodys or Corset


A Very Brief History of Corsetry 

No one really knows when the first corset came into existence.  There are theories relating to the famous Minoan snake goddess and Roman "bikini"-wearing gymnasts.  Yet no one knows for sure.  However, textile historians believe that the tradition of corsetry began as early as the 11th century.  Around the time of the Norman Invasion (1066), women laced their gowns tightly in order to support their figures (and because it was "The Style").  This is evidenced by the wrinkles around the torso of the figures — a sure sign that the fabric is laced tightly down the back.  But the fashion appears to have been a fad and soon clothing returned to its former flowing lines.

In the High Middle Ages, a tightly-fitted garment was adopted by both men and women — the cote or kirtle.  Much to the disappointment of Church leaders, this style of clothing was extremely body-conscious and revealed much that heretofore had been covered.  Clothes were closed with buttons or lacing.  However, no bones or artificial stiffening was known to be used yet.   The structural integrity of the fabric alone shaped the wearer.

In the Tudor period (16th century), the long, flowing gowns of years gone by were being replaced by garment with more structure.  Gowns were divided into two halves — bodice and skirt — joined by a waist seam.  This allowed the top of the gown to be shaped differently from the bottom and the V-shaped bodice was born!  We believe the corset began as a bodice stiffened with coarse linen or glue, but lacking extant examples, no definitive answer exists.

Was the first corset invented because of this trend or was the style change cause by the appearance of the first boned bodice?  We may never know.  However, the earliest extant corset appears at this time.  It was part of the funerary dress on the body of the Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg who died in 1598.  This lightly boned bodice shows the roughly conical silhouette of the Tudor period.

Although the word “corset” is used in France at the beginning of the 17th century, it was not used in England until the 19th century.  The supportive undergarment was called “a pair of bodies” by Englishwomen during Elizabeth’s time but came to be termed “stays” in the later 17th century.  A pair of bodies could designate a boned bodice (what we think of as a corset) or it could mean the bodice section of a dress.  This lack of distinction makes identification of early corsets difficult, but Elizabethan era wills and wardrobe accounts contain many references to “paires of bodys” (various spellings) without any mention of gowns or kirtles.  These we can assume were the first corsets.

Waistlines rose and fell during the 17th century, and bodices changed with them.   For the most part, the bodice of the dress was boned instead of a separate pair of bodys being worn underneath the garment.   This changed by the end of the century.   After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1666, corsets really started to become what we think of today.

Sabina’s Bodys

The earliest extant example of Elizabethan corsetry is a pair of bodys worn by Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg when she was interred in 1598.  They are housed today in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich.  These front-boned, three-piece bodys feature a static front busk, integral shoulder straps, back laced closure, and separate tabs at the waist.  The outer layer of finely-corded ivory silk shows lines of back stitching in heavy silk thread ¼” apart.  The looseness of the stitching indicates that there were originally two layers of linen lining.  In Patterns of Fashion, Janet Arnold conjectures that one layer of linen was sewn to the silk and boned and the other layer was laid on afterwards, turned under at the sides and caught down only at the seams.  This is the manner in which many later extant corsets were made so the lining could be easily removed and replaced when soiled.

The side and back pieces are joined together with an overhand stitch and appear to be boned first and then assembled later.  A vertical join following the grain of the fabric appears under the arm.  This is not a separate piece but rather an addition of fabric in an area where it was needed.  It is not understood why the front panels could not be cut out of a solid piece of fabric.

The neckline and armholes of the bodys are bound with ½” wide heavy silk ribbon.  Eleven pairs of eyelets close the back and these are formed by whipstitching over a pair of metal rings between which the fabric is sandwiched.  There is a pair of eyelets at center front at the bottom of the busk pocket to secure the busk, another pair of eyelets is located where the boning stops, and a third pair straddles the side seam.  These eyelets do not contain metal rings and are believed to be the means by which the petticote or farthingale was suspended.  A ribbon point remains in the pair on the left next to the boning.

The waist tabs are bound with the same silk ribbon as the rest of the bodys but appear to have been bound first and then sewn onto the waist.  Conjecturally the tabs were inserted between the two layers of linen that made up the bodys and stab-stitched for an invisible line.  As a result the tabs sit above the ribbon binding at the bottoms of the bodys.  There are three pairs of tabs:  two at center back, and two more at each side abutting the back tabs.  The tabs neither overlap nor continue around to the front of the bodys.  They may have once been interlined with linen or buckram but they are not boned.

A one-inch busk stiffens the center front of the bodys.  The ¼” boning channels run parallel to the busk but do not cover the bust.  Instead they leave two breast-shaped areas unboned.  The boning tapers into a V-shape, the bones still vertical, and disappears before the underarm.  Four ¼” bones flanks either side of the center back opening.  There is no other boning in the bodys.

The boning pattern on Sabina’s bodys is curious.  The lack of boning over the breasts and the absence of bones at the sides are unexpected in a garment designed to shape the body into the latest fashionable silhouette.  Remember however that the Pfalzgräfin was only 22 years old when she died and was interred in these garments.  According to the measurement of this bodys, her bust was 28” and her waist 20”.  Such a slight figure obviously did not need the support afforded by a fulled boned bodys.  The lack of bust stiffening remains perplexing, though.  The gown worn with this bodys is high-necked and has the typical flat front of the period.  Without further examples, we cannot say if this feature was common or served a particular purpose for these bodys alone.

The Effigy Bodys

This pair of bodys, preserved on an effigy of Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey, is in excellent shape due to the fact that was never worn by a dirty, messy human being.   This bodys has been lovingly preserved by the caretakers at Westminster for arguably 400 years. 

In 1994, the effigy's clothing was removed for cleaning and renowned costume researcher, Janet Arnold, was allowed to examine the corset and panniers.  Since the Westminster Effigy's outfit dated to the mid-18th century, a date of 1760 was assigned to both corset and panniers.  Norah 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 panniers are decidedly 18th century in form and construction, Arnold's examination determined the bodys to date from the end of Elizabeth I's life, therefore circa 1603.   Having no extant English pairs of bodys from the period with which to compare the Effigy Bodys, this dating is based upon Arnold's extensive knowledge of the shape of women's clothing in that era and corroborating documentary evidence.

In 1603, a funeral effigy of Queen Elizabeth I was commissioned from John Colte for the price of £10.  Mr. Colte was to provide “...the Image representing her late Majestie with a paire of straight bodies...”1  It is believed the bodys was made by William Jones, tailor to the Queen in life, or tailors in his workshop.  The records indicate that Jones made many of the other garments for the Queen’s effigy.  There is no reason to think the bodys was an exception.  The bodys was probably specifically made for the effigy and not worn by Elizabeth in life.

The bodys is constructed of two layers of what Arnold pronounces “fustian”, a popular fabric woven with a linen warp and a cotton weft.  The fabric is of a simple twill weave and probably was originally white.  Twenty-nine pairs of eyelets are worked in linen thread down the center front opening.  The front opening diverges from the straight grain by 1½” at the top but a ½” bone keeps to the straight.  This bone is held in place by two rows of backstitches worked in linen thread.  All the bones from this point to the side back seam run parallel to it.  In front of it, the bones parallel the front edge.  Except for this one large bone, the rest of the boning in the bodys is a ¼” wide.

The narrow back of the bodys is cut on a fold and the ¼” bones run parallel to the straight grain.  Curved side seams join it to the front pieces.  It appears that the three sections of the bodys were boned and then sewn together with an overcast stitch. 

Unlike the Pfalzgräfin’s bodys, the tabs of the Effigy bodys are integral.  Two tabs are formed on the back piece by means of cutting a slit to waist level at center back.  Two additional tabs flank either side of these and are cut in the same manner.  A pair of eyelets are worked at the top of each slit, presumably to attach petticotes or a farthingale.  There do not appear to be any metal rings in the eyelets.

Triangular unboned single-layer pieces of fabric are attached at the shoulders, the points of which tie to either side of the front neckline.  The front of the bodys dips down in a gentle U shape to cover the wearers abdomen.  The edges are bound with green leather with a suede finish.

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 Bodys, by contrast, is boned in a similar direction all the way around the garment.  The bones run nearly 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 veer 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 we 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. 



For more, purchase this pattern.

This information © 2005 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History


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