Friday, March 29, 2013

Queen Elizabeth's Bodies: The Effigy Corset

The author as Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a reproduction of the effigy bodies. The reproduction bodies/corset was created on commission by The Very Merry Seamstress. Photo by L.Jensen.

As a first-person historical interpreter of Queen Elizabeth I, it is of the utmost importance to me that I commission and wear replication pieces of  clothing and jewelry that actually belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. My 'pilgrimage' to Westminster Abbey in the summer of 2007 not only brought me into the presence of Queen Elizabeth I via her impressive tomb, but also through her effigy, on display in the Undercroft Museum. 

An effigy of Queen Elizabeth I alongside her 'effigy corset' in the Undercroft Museum at Westminster Abbey. Picture acquired from TheTudorTutor/Barb Alexander on Pinterest .

The bodie (to uses the appropriate 16th century term) worn by Queen Elizabeth's funeral effigy is known in costuming circles as the "effigy corset"; it was a a piece that I knew I had to have a reproduction of. In 2012 I finally had it made by the incredibly talented and pleasant-to-work-with Heather Piper, also known as The Very Merry Seamstress.

Another photograph of the author as Queen Elizabeth I, this time without the farthingale, wearing a reproduction of the effigy bodies. The reproduction bodies/corset was created on commission by The Very Merry Seamstress. Photo by L.Jensen.

The so-called effigy corset was found on an effigy of Queen Elizabeth I. Based on its design and construction, clothing historians originally assumed that it was 18th century in origin. However, costume historian Janet Arnold, who is the definitive authority on the extensive wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I, reached an entirely different conclusion. After examining the garment, Arnold was able to verify that not only did the bodie date from the late 16th-early 17th century, (Elizabeth died in 1603) but that it was made specifically for her funeral effigy after her death. Therefore, the dimensions of the bodie that clothed Queen Elizabeth's effigy, which was paraded through the streets of London as part of her funerary procession was, in all likelihood, based off of a pair of bodies worn by the Queen when she was alive (Arnold, The Funeral Effigies off Westminster Abbey).

The 'effigy corset' of Queen Elizabeth I.

The effigy bodies are made from fustian and fully-boned with whalebone, though I, of course, opted for the more humane boning material of steel for my reproduction! The bodie has shoulder straps that are attached to the back piece of the bodie and fasten over the shoulder with ties, allowing for a slight adjustment in the arms, if need be. I personally like to keep my straps fastened as tight as possible, in order to provide extra support. The bodie is spiral laced at the front, and does not feature a busk, which would have been characteristic of an earlier Tudor corset.

All formal Tudor and Elizabethan attire required the use of structured, and in some cases restrictive undergarments to shape an individual's body in order to provide an agreeable canvas for their clothes. Today, most people follow the exact opposite rule, preferring to dress in clothing styles that are flattering for their unique body type. When I wear my pair of effigy bodies, the boning takes several inches off my waist and greatly reduces the size of my bust, (which I consider no small miracle) and it does indeed conform my body to the appropriate shape for my Elizabethan clothes.

After more than seven hours of wear, any bodies or corset will start to gnaw on your stomach and lower back, and this is especially true of the effigy bodies, since it has tabs that extend down your side and back.

But I consider pain a small price to pay for historical accuracy. And I take comfort in sharing in the knowledge that all women have known since the dawn of time, which is that "beauty is pain".


Arnold, Janet. The Funeral Effigies of Westminster Abbey. Ed. Harvey Anthony and Richard Mortimer. London: Boydell & 
     Brewer, 2003. Print.