The aim of this project is to demonstrate the use of unstiffened supportive undergarments (for the purpose of this paper, I shall refer to the garment as “stays”) rather than relying on conventional modern corsetry techniques to achieve the fashionable Florentine silhouette in the 1580s and 90s.
The fashionable Florentine silhouette in the last twenty years of the 16th century is unique in European fashion during this period. Contrasting with the increasingly extreme conical shape favored by the major European courts at the time, Florence’s women opted for a softer, more natural shape. (Image 1 & 2)
Contrast between the Florentine fashion on the left and French fashion on the right. Left: Alessandro Allori, “Portrait of a woman”, 1580-90(1); Right: Franco-Flemish School, “Portrait of a Lady”, c. 1580.
The inspiration for this project came from a fresco painted by Alessandro Allori, dated 1575-1578, depicting a woman at her toilette. Key characteristics about the way the woman is dressed argue in favor of the outfit being the supportive layers to an overgown:
- Visible chemise sleeves rolled up to the elbow;
- Skirt is pointed (tied) to the bodice;
- Pocket is visible hanging from the waist;
- Subject is barefoot;
- Subject is shown dressing her hair.
The overall line of the bodice, referred to as “stays”, conforms to the contours of the body as painted in Figure 1, complete with V-neckline.
Given the similarities in silhouette and the date range, I hypothesize that the Allori fresco depicts a woman wearing a pair of stays.
Materials and Patterning:
Roberta Orsi Landini and Bruna Niccoli, authors of Moda a Firenze, describe Florentine bodices as having an internal felt padding, doppia, applied between the outer layer of the bodice and the lining.(2). Examining the Allori fresco, I surmised that an internal felt layer in the stays was possible, allowing for the contoured fit of the stays and enabling some smoothing out of wrinkles. I wanted to achieve as smooth a fit as possible with my recreation, but reasoned early on in the process that Allori was likely using some artistic license in his painting, omitting any sign of wrinkles. I selected a100% wool felt, obtained from my local Joann Fabrics for the doppia. For added structure, I used an interlining of fustian, or cotton/linen canvas(3). The outer fabric is a vintage peach silk satin. The lining is unbleached linen.
I draped the pattern for my own body, using a dress form. Leaving the center front open, I waited until the very last to fit the bust curve, opting to place the center front on a seam in order to achieve a contoured fit over the torso.
The Eleonora di Toledo Burial Stays:
The red velvet stays buried with Eleonora di Toledo in 1560 bear only minor similarities to the style of the stays depicted in the Allori fresco, most likely owing to the twenty-year lapse in time between the death of the duchess and the painting of the fresco. At the time of Eleonora’s death, the Florentine silhouette was conical, with the breasts flattened against the chest. By the 1580s, the silhouette had become more natural, conforming to the female form, rather than shaping it. All the same, there is one significant similarity between the burial stays and the stays in the painting: The waistline of the garment does not end at the natural waist, but follows the contour of the body over the top of the hips. In order to achieve that close fit, I referenced the pattern and construction of the burial stays. In the end, I needed to conserve the silk satin and I opted to cut the back in four pieces to allow for minimal fabric consumption. In contrast, the extant burial stays are made in three sections: one back piece and left and right front pieces. Two small triangular gussets are sewn into the side seams to allow for the fitting between the waist and the hips. Judging by the stress lines still visible in the burial stays, this garment did indeed wrinkle at the waist when worn. In my experiment, I opted to pattern more seams into the garment, hoping to control the fit of the stays over the contour of my body with greater precision and minimal wrinkling.
Reproduction of stays with petticoat
Reproduction of stays with petticoat
1. Moda a Firenze, p. 101
2. Moda a Firenze, p. 84
3. Obtained from Burnley & Trowbridge, suppliers of historical reenactment goods and reproduction historical fabrics.