Corsets and Codpieces: A History of Outrageous Fashion, from Roman Times to the Modern Era

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By Karen Bowman, Guest Blogger

Karen Bowman dressed in Tudor attire

Thinking of my book Corsets & Codpieces I am reminded of the ‘chicken and the Egg’ scenario, namely what came first the writing or the dressing up. On reflection both were a childhood dream and both have come true I’m grateful to say. Two books ago, I found I could blend my love of both by giving talks on my work in costume. ‘Essex Girls’ leant itself to the practice quite well, my illustrations of women’s lives’ down the ages was better achieved by being able to sartorially engage with my audience. ‘Essex Boys’ however, did not induce me to don doublet and britches and fared just as well without. But these early entertainments did get me thinking about just how clothes were worn and how men and women accommodated some of the more outrageous aspects of fashion down the centuries. That’s when the idea for ‘Corsets’ started taking shape and after a really interesting couple of years research my observations are now in print.

To write about history is one thing but to live it is quite another, and I have been lucky to do both. Re-enacting on the back of my previous books introduced me to two important concepts firstly, how to wear the beautiful gowns correctly and secondly just how uncomfortable they can be – though I would never stop, – trust me, I’m a firm believer in suffering for ones art. Thus the idea for Corsets & Codpieces seemed a great way of exploring historical clothing from the inside so to speak, personal experience in the shape of my 21st century figure squeezed just as tightly into my form fitting dresses as were my findings crammed into the pages of my book. Knowing firsthand what women thought and felt about what they wore was an eye-opener and if all us ladies could spend just twenty four hours dressed as their great, great grandmothers we would never again doubt the freedom and comfort we have in our clothing today.

Since the early days of the twentieth century we think of women’s fashion as being defined by the highs and lows of our hemlines. It was curious to consider then, that the deciding factor in the fashions of previous centuries was essentially the whereabouts of the waist. That the only times it wasn’t migrating above or below where it belonged was in the medieval and regency periods.

Thankfully, as a primarily Tudor re-enactor – though my bosom is usually hoisted high under my chin, my corset seriously restricts my breathing and I cannot raise my arms above shoulder height due to tight sleeves and heavy fur trim – my waist, at least, is where it should be. Historical clothing is such a meticulous mistress. It reminds one that to step backwards is to trip on your train, which you are effectively deaf when you wear a French or Gable hood and that you are not at liberty to move quickly in any direction or at any speed. Oh, but they are a joy! To be able to walk with poise and elegance the lengths of historic corridors and within panelled rooms I’ll wager is many a woman’s romantic dream. For this author at least to step into a historic gown is to truly step into the past.

Headshot Credit: Tessa Hallmann

Karen Bowman is in her final year of her degree in Early Modern Social & Cultural History and is the author of three books to date. She lives with her family on the east coast of England and re-enacts with the ‘Tudors’ at Hever, Berkeley and Sudeley Castles.

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