Renaissance Clothing and Corsetry

Women of the Renaissance — the years roughly between 1450 and 1650 — were a fashionable bunch. The kings and queens of Europe were making lavish fashions popular with those who could afford them, and the result is that we now look back on that time and its rich beautiful dresses, Renaissance inspired corsetry, and headpieces with romantic awe.

Our fascination with this time period shows itself in televisions shows like Reign and movies like The Other Boylen Girl, Ever After, and Elizabeth I. There is something undeniably sexy and beautiful about the elaborate modes of dress practiced during this era, when great puffed sleeves and ruffed collars and sumptuous fabrics decorated the courtiers and the common folk alike.

vixen ren corset

The styles of this era are marked by their extravagance — how over the top and outlandish they could be — literally larger than life as in the case of such trends as the wide skirts and funneled sleeves that women adopted. So it feels glamorous now to mimic some of those styles and channel the aristocrats who used to wear them.

And, as is still the case today, beneath all these beautiful clothes were undergarments that were just as intricate and lovely on their own. Although the Tudors were a bit more shy about showing off their underthings than we are!

The Shift

An ankle-length shift or chemise would be put on first. Outer garments were not washed very often, and the shift acted as a soft, comfy barrier between the skin and the clothes. It also provided extra warmth during cold weather.

Detail of a shift worn beneath the outer dress
Detail of a shift worn beneath the outer dress

The cuffs and sleeves would very often be gathered up into billowy mounds or embroidered with intricate patterns, the better to accentuate the jackets and bodices that would be worn over them.

And something was always worn over the shift. It was as much like underwear to the Renaissance lady as a bra and panties are to us today. A simple sleeveless bodice at the very least would have been put on over the shift before a woman even thought of going outside the house.

The Corset

Corsets of this era were first worn underneath the dress, and it wasn’t until the 1530s that they began to make their move into the spotlight. By late in the 16th century it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see an elegant lady dressed in an elaborate gold patterned skirt with a green corset and matching jacket.

Corsets were referred to as a “pair of bodies” by the English ladies who wore them; it is the French term “corps pique,” meaning “quilted bodies” that we take the word corset from.

During the Renaissance, reeds, whale bone, and even strong lengths of cord would have been used to achieve the stiff shape that the corsets were valued for.

It wasn’t the style in the Renaissance to have a tiny waist and hourglass figure, so corsets were not tied as tightly as they would be later by the Victorians. Because of this they weren’t as painful as their reputation has made them out to be, and in fact the boning and stiffened boards that gave the corsets their shape could actually help give support to well-endowed ladies suffering from back pain.

ren corset 1

Materials like satin and velvet were popular for all types of garments at the time, in lush, deep hues such as crimson, gold, emerald, and black. In addition, a stomacher — a false covering decorated with ornate designs — was often place over the bodice in order to accentuate it even more.

The Headpiece

Both men and women wore hats as part of their every day dress during the Renaissance, with one or two styles becoming the most popular due to their use by the reigning kings, queens, and royals of the time.

The Gable headdress and the Stuart cap were two of the most popular options for women, both of which served to mostly conceal and protect the hair. Men often wore berets made of velvet that were adorned with feathers and jewels.

Renaissance corsets were very different from their more famous Victorian sisters, but there were just as lovely and intricately made, and, yes, just as sexy!  And though our lingerie may have changed quite a bit since those times, a gorgeous corset never goes out of style. We still love a sculpted body shape and corsets are a stylish way to get that look while also adding some sizzle to our wardrobe.