The 17th-Century Breastoration: A Time Before Bras

by Lili Loofbourow

If you’ve ever been to a Renaissance Faire (I have), you know that the concept is less Queen Elizabeth and more Don Key-Ho-Tee’s Medieval Potlucke WITH BREASTS. Or at least it was 10 years ago when a Ren-friend and I ate shepherd’s pie, looked at chain-mail, and — once we’d soaked in enough of the Worlde and its high freckled bosoms — tried some boob-hoisting ourselves.

Putting a corset on is tough, and the instructions I received at the Faire went as follows: Lean down, shove your boobs into it, straighten up, then pop them up so they’ll show through the dress. It may or may not surprise you that a) these instructions came from the amiable sales-fellow, and b) I walked around the booth with a nipple on display until my friend came out of her dressing room.

If this story has a moral, it’s that cleavage-wrangling is complex. My God! I thought. How did the ladies of yore do it?

I’m finally in a position to find out. Picture it: It’s the seventeenth century. Bras don’t exist yet. As a typical woman, what do you do?

Option 1: Consult a Reference Work! You might turn to the Ladies’ Dictionary. Published in 1694, here’s the entry marked “Breasts”:

how to make them Plump and Round: Breasts that hang loose, and are of an extraordinary largeness, lose their charms, and have their Beauty buried in the grave of uncomeliness, whilst those that are small, plump and round, like two ivory globes, or little worlds of beauty, whereon Love has founded his Empire, command an awful homage from his vassals, captivate the wondering gazer’s eyes, and dart warm desires into his Soul, that make him languish and melt before the soft Temptation.

That there’s your goal. Now, what to do if you’re saddled with large breasts whose beauty is buried in the grave of uncomeliness? The Ladies’ Dictionary is here to help.

Therefore to reduce those Breasts that hang flagging out of all comely shape and form, that they may be plump, round and smaller, bind them up close to you with caps or bags that will just fit them, and so let them continue for some nights. Then take carrot-seed, plantain-seeds, aniseeds, fennel-seeds, cumin-seeds, of each two ounces, virgin’s honey an ounce, the juice of plantain and vinegar two ounces each. Bruise and mingle them well together. Then, unbinding your breast, spread the composition plaster-wise and lay it on your breasts, binding them up close as before. After two days and two nights, take off the plasters and wash your breasts with white wine and rose-water.

Got that? Basically, fashion a fitted homemade bra out of caps or bags, stuff it with seeds and honey, and marinate in the fruit of your loom for two days.

Then what?

In so doing for twelve or fourteen days together, you will find them reduced to a curious plumpness and charming roundness. Wash them then with water of Benjamin, and it will not only whiten them, but make their azure veins appear in all their intricate meanders, till the Lover in tracing them loses himself.

Whew. Right? Plastic surgeons, take note: This is what those “After” photos you wallpaper restrooms with should convey. (Minus the veins, which you will no doubt recommend cauterizing because circulation is so 1694. Oh, and get better fonts.)

Now that you have your breasts tight, round, and full of blue veins, you might notice that there’s a tad too much pink in your skin tone. Tricky, this. If your complexion happens to be on the ruddy side, the Ladies’ Dictionary must regrettably advise against the widespread practice of exposing your face and naked breast to the moon at night, “as if the Moon (because pale herself) would make them so, or by spitting in their Faces, scour off the Crimson dye.” This is a silly thing to do, ladies. Dew is moon-spit. It won’t wash your color off, and moontanning isn’t a thing. So ease up on those half-naked midnight strolls.

Option 2: Go Elizabethan or Go Home!

Before we consider Option 2, we probably need to clarify a few things, since our collective understanding of corsets, bodices, busks, stomachers, stays, smocks, petticoats, and chemises is probably a remix of The Tudors, Shakespeare in Love, and Blackadder.

So here’s a Ladies’ Dictionary of our own:

1. Bodice

Foundation garment, sometimes the top part of a dress. Think of it as the foremother of the corset. It literally means “pair of bodies.” If you’re John Donne, you pun dirtily on what that pair of bodies can do. If you’re Nehemiah Grew, you use the bodice to explain plant anatomy: “A Flower without its Empalement, would hang as uncouth and tawdry as a Lady without her Bodies.” Oh, Nehemiah.

By the same token, bodice-makers are body-makers. True story! There was a whole debate about how dishonest ladies were being by wearing bodies that weren’t their own. Pictures of surviving bodices (or bodies, but blech) are here. Oh, and sometimes there’s a fancy stomacher that covers up the lacing of the bodice if it’s in the front. Here’s a 1630s bodice without a stomacher. Here’s a picture of a bodice with a busk.

2. Busk

Busks were straight, hard, and erect (!). They were sometimes made of steel or whalebone. Here’s a close-up of one with a portrait (in case you wanted a young man in your bodice). The busk went between the breasts, sometimes down below the waist, to keep the whole body straighter. The twentieth century had those jeans that said “Lucky You” in the fly; busks said things like “Love joins them” or “The arrow unites us.” (Get it? The busk is the arrow that unites the boobs.)

Some busks were downright filthy: “How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory. You will be here the day and I shall be there the night.”

People weren’t too happy about busks, partly because they made women hard and man-like — sort of like putting on a carapace of man-body, and partly because they were sexy. Stephen Gosson writes in 1596: “The bawdy busk that keeps down flat / The bed wherein the babe should breed,” by which he meant that it caused abortions.

3. Whalebone Stays

Whalebone usually isn’t whalebone. It’s baleen, obtained from north right whales. It was especially useful because it was hard and durable but also flexible and strong, even when cut into narrow pieces, which were sometimes called stays.

Those bits, the stays, could be used on children as young as two or three. Boys and girls. Didn’t matter. Their bones were softer, so they were easier to shape at that age.

Okay, back to option B: Elizabeth!

Depending on when you were born, fashion was probably cycling through a love-hate relationship with geometry. They might try to flatten you into a triangle or turn you into a cone. Under Elizabeth, busks that flattened your chest and breasts were all the rage. (The eighteenth century was really into hip rectangles for some reason.)

Under your bodice you might wear a smock. Or drawers. Over your bodice you might wear a dress. Or your bodice might be fancy enough to stand on its own. Add a busk or stomacher and a skirt, probably with a fardingale to shape your hips properly, and you’re good to go. Separates!

That’s the theory, and it’s mostly right. But we’re interested in the practice, right?

The crazy thing about Elizabethan fashion is that it did a lot more gender-bending than it ever gets credit for. Sandy Feinstein points out that under Elizabeth: “women’s fashion was in fact little different in style and design from men’s fashion. Women attempted to imitate the contours of male dress and in so doing wore the same garments as men, including undergarments — and this before the advent of trousers. To mention only the most obvious, stockings, ruffs, and stomachers were worn by both sexes; less obviously, corsets or bodices.”

It makes sense if you think about it: Elizabeth had to assert authority, and girding herself in a way that deemphasized feminine curves seems like one way to do it. For her subjects to follow suit is not surprising: see Kate Middleton for examples of how we plebes respond to royal fashion.

People’s reactions to these whiffs of androgyny were mixed. Barnaby Rich points out that the function of the busk was “to straighten a lascivious body.” Others were less convinced that the lasciviousness was in check. Take Viscount Francis Boyle Shannon, who’s miffed that ladies have taken to wearing young men’s doublets: now they’re coming for the breeches too:

“And for the breeches most of our young Sparks, and some of the old Fops have lost them also, being generally given by our Gallants to their Mistresses, and by the mere Country Gentlemen to their Wives, which by the by, is a new Mode that contradicts the old law: to confound the Habits of several sexes. So that if our women increase thus in power, and our men continue so in folly, ’tis very probable that those of the next age may see our English modists pictured as they do Truth, that’s naked.

In short, having tried on a little androgyny, women were going all the way and starting to wear men’s clothes. And swords. And cutting their hair short. These were the roaring girls. (There’s a play about one, and it’s awesome.)

Now, if you’re wondering about the male side of fashion, the male version of the busk/bodice was the doublet. The Elizabethan peascod was designed to make men’s stomachs look sexily huge and round. They usually had to stuff a bunch of fabric in there to fill out the silhouette, and sometimes they had to stuff their hose with bran to make their thighs look less skinny. This all started in the sixteenth-century, when the gents followed the ladies’ example and busked themselves on up. Partly, Feinstein thinks, because they saw the new lady-silhouette as a masculine “outer shell”:

The corset as a protective device embodies masculine associations; morally in danger of man, it is as if woman puts on the man over her vulnerable womanhood, which is, however, preserved — indeed exaggerated — beneath. The very act of hardening and stiffening herself, which is on one level defensive, becomes a militant form of transference to herself of masculine eroticism.

So the bodice was a way for you to put on a man-carapace. Feinstein also says that “while busks may have been associated with sex appeal, and … prostitution, it was apparently also feared that they enabled women not only to look like “gallants” but act like them as well: that is, women might have felt freer to have sex if they thought they could guard against pregnancy.”

The Elizabethan torso, in other words, wasn’t just conical and restrictive (which it was). It was also badass and a form of built-in birth control. Elizabeth took clothes and what they signified seriously. Fun fact: she empowered officers to break swords that violated the length limit and trim runaway ruffs. Here’s Anne Hollander’s description of the Elizabethan female body (OMG “very little width of beam”):

Broad hips were apparently of little interest in the erotic conception of the female torso; the sixteenth-century nude shows very little width of beam, just as she shows very little swell or droop of breast. Vertically extended expanses of belly and thigh were still the favorite nude- female landscapes, and breasts and buttocks were seen as subsidiary attendants of these. In general the female body of the High Renaissance appears to have been conceived as a long, large stomach stretching from the collarbone to the crotch, with breasts the shadowiest of swellings visible chiefly because of the placement of the nipples.

Option 3. Embrace the Curvy Seventeenth Century.

In the seventeenth century, things started to move away from the “straight” Elizabethan fashion and toward serious curves. This is the beginning of the corset fashion we know. Here’s how the Ladies’ Dictionary describes what ladies do in the mornings after fixing their hair:

Then they begin to commit their body to a close Imprisonment, and pinch it in so narrow a compass that the best part of its plumpness is forced to rise toward the Neck to emancipate it self from such hard Captivity. And, being grown of her liberty, appears with a kind of pleasant briskness, which becomes her infinitely. As for her fair Breasts, they are half-imprisoned and half free; and do their utmost endeavour to procure their absolute liberty by shoving back that which veils the one half, but they are too weak to effect it, and whilst they strive to free themselves they cast over a veil, which perfectly hides them. The desire they have to be exposed to view, makes them beat it back.

If you’re surprised by how hard these breasts are fighting to procure their absolute liberty, don’t worry. [Spoiler alert!] They shall overcome.

In the meantime, let’s absorb a little more crankiness about womanly artifice. Here’s the Ladies’ Dictionary entry for “Pride”:

Our men are grown so effeminate, and our women so man-like, that (if it might be) I think they would exchange genders. What modest eye can with patience behold the immodest gestures and attires of our women? No sooner with them, is infancy put on, but impudency is put on: they have turned Nature into Art; so that a man can hardly discern a woman from her image. Their bodies they pinch in, as if they were angry with Nature, for casting them in so gross a mould: but as for their looser parts, them they let loose, to prey upon whatsoever, their last darting eyes shall seize upon. Their breasts, they lay to the open view, like two fair Apples, of which whosoever tasteth, shall be sure of the knowledge of evil, of good I dare not warrant him.

Ladies. Those ivory globes aren’t flattened any more. They’re pushed up and on display, they’re apples, and the waists, they’re pinched way in, and now all the wobbly bits are extra-wobbly and you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t! A hundred years after Elizabeth and still the men are woman-like and the women are man-like, except for their aggressive apples, with which they will damn your immortal soul.

The men aren’t the only ones distressed by the new trend towards tiny waists. The writer of another guide, The Gentlewoman’s Companion (we think the author was Hannah Wooley), argues that mothers would never do it if they understood the consequences.

Did they know how speedily and willfully they destroy you by girding your tender bodies, certainly they would prove kinder Mothers than be your cruel murderers. For by this means they reduce your bodies into such pinching-extremities, that it engenders a stinking breath; and by cloistering you up in a Steel or Whale-bone-prison, they open a door to Consumptions, with many other dangerous inconveniences, as crookedness: for Mothers striving to have their daughters’ bodies small in the middle, do pluck and draw their bones awry, for the ligatures of the back being very tender at that age, and soft and moist, with all the Muscles, do easily slip aside. Thus Nurses, whilst they too straitly do lace the breasts and sides of children on purpose to make them slender, do occasion the breast-bone to cast it self aside, whereby one shoulder doth become bigger and fuller than the other.

Don’t get any ideas, though. The Gentlewoman’s Companion isn’t saying you shouldn’t have any laces at all. You need some whalebone, or else you’ll let yourself go loose like the fake-fat Venetians who don’t lace and want to be fat and stuff their garments so they’ll look fatter.

Though I would not have too great a restriction laid on your bodies, yet I would not have them by inconsiderate looseness run out into a deformed corpulency, like the Venetian-Ladies, who seldom lace themselves at all, accounting it an excellency in proportion to be round and full-bodied: and that they may attain that (merely supposed) comeliness, if Nature incline them not to be somewhat gross or corpulent, they will use art, by counterfeiting that fulness of body, by the fullness of garments.

There is a happy medium, the Gentlewoman’s Companion says. And you might be thinking to yourself that you know what that looks like. Maybe it looks something like this:

Or like this:

And you’re probably guessing that all the gents who objected to the Elizabethan fashion, which they found overly “manly,” would be pleased with the new rage for curves. And you’d be right. But you’d also be wrong.

There is a new development, you see.

Invasion of the Booby-Snatchers

“We find by lamentable, if I may not say fatal, Experience, that the the world too much allows nakedness in Women.”

That’s the first line of the “Naked Breasts” entry of the Ladies’ Dictionary.

Uh oh.

“There is always danger in attentively looking upon a Naked Breast, and there is not only a great danger, but a kind of Crime in beholding it with attention in the Churches.”

Well, indeed.

“If we cannot prevent this disorder, let us strive with him to make these women know how great their fault is in coming to church in such undecent habit, and if I may presume to say, so as it were half naked. Do you come to the house of God as to a Ball?”

Well? Do you?

As you’re probably gathering, there’s a crisis in the offing. Breasts were scary when they were strapped down, but now, instead of carrying swords, the ladies are just using their Dementor-boobs, which is so much worse. And they know it, the hussies.

“Surely then they cannot be exempt from blame who do show their breasts and shoulders at so extreme a rate, since they cannot possibly be ignorant that that nakedness must needs be much more powerful than words to excite the motions of Concupiscence. For who does not know that the eyes are the Guides of Love, and that it is through them that it most commonly steals into our souls?”

It gets worse, guys. Your boobs? They can talk.

“A naked breast and bare shoulders are continually speaking to our hearts, in striking and wounding our Eyes; and their language, as dumb as it is, is so much the more dangerous as it is not understood but by the mind, and the mind is pleased with the understanding it.”

Necks talk too!

“The beauty of a neck which is presented to our eyes hath nothing but what attracts and allures us, and as it does not cease speaking to us in its way and manner, nor cease soliciting us, and being pleasing to us, it at last triumphs over our liberty, after it has abused and betrayed our senses.”

Dangerous things, necks. But not as dangerous as bosoms:

“Men do very well know how dangerous it is to look upon a naked bosom, and your vain and light women are sensible how advantageous it is to them to show it.”

What’s worse, the ladies are thinking of their own breasts, and the men — well, the men get hypnotized into thinking that the breasts are a sort of shorthand for the entire body.

The idea of their breasts does not less enter into their imagination than into that of the men, who consider it attentively, and commend it, [Ed. I love that they consider the breasts attentively and commend them] and … join the idea of all the Body to that of their breasts, being persuaded that they shew the beauty of the one to make that of the other be better judged of.

Things get weirder, guys. I give you The Address to the Nipple for the Sake of Your Immortal Soul:

“Dainty Nipples (said that excellent Moralist to a wanton Gallants) why do ye so labour to tempt and take deluded eyes? Must not poor wormelins one day tug you? Must those enazured orbs for ever retaine their beauty?”

Your beauty will fade, nipple! Your spectacular blue-veined breast will someday decay, and worms will eat you! REPENT!

If you’re like me, you were surprised to see the address to the nipple. For obvious reasons. But also because, for all this talk of “naked breasts,” you assumed that was hyperbole. The prudery of the age. Naked breasts. Ha. That’s just cleavage, clearly. Right?


I give you the Duchess of Monmouth:

I raise you the Buxom Virgin:

I’ll add the Countess of Somerset:

Mix it with a pinch of:

a drop of:

and a dollop of:

And you will see a hitherto unsuspected option emerge (ahem).

Option 4: Go bare.

Behold the seventeenth-century moment in which it was the fashion to let the nips fly free. The real moral of my Renaissance Faire experience is that I did it right. If you’re a fashion-forward seventeenth-century woman, you pull ’em out of the dress and enjoy.

Images courtesy of the English Broadside Ballad Archive and the British Museum. Spelling and punctuation has been modernized.

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Lili Loofbourow writes about 17th-century ideas of reading and digestion, cognitive science, Chile, and femscularity. She blogs for Ms. Magazine and as Millicent over at Millicent and Carla Fran.