The small waists of the 13th century. The Corset and the Crinolin.

Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras (Abradale Books) by Beatrice Fontanel.

Thoughout the ages, women’s breasts have been subjected to the endless whims of fashion.

From the ancient Greeks to Mae West and Madonna, this light-hearted book charts the changing shapes of female beauty. The elegant and amusing images – including fashion drawings, paintings, photographs, and film stills – illustrate the often surprising history of the garments women have worn for support – and seduction.

small waists, ornament, medieval, decoration
Chapter III.

The Ladies of Old France. The Corset and the Crinolin.


The ladies of Old France – Their fashions during the reign of King Pepin – Revival of the taste for small waists – Introduction of “cottes hardies” – Monkish satire on the Corset in England in the year 1043, curious MS. relating to – The small waists of the thirteenth century – The ancient poem of Launfal – The Lady Triamore, daughter of the King of the Fairies – Curious entry in the household register of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, date 1265 – Corsets worn by gentlemen at that period – The kirtle as worn in England – The penance of Jane Shore – Dress of Blanche, daughter of Edward III – Dunbar’s Thistle and Rose – Admiration for small waists in Scotland in the olden time – Chaucer’s writings – Small waists admired in his day – The use of the surcoat in England – Reckless hardihood of a determined tailor – The surcoat worn by Marie d’Anjou of France – Italian supremacy in matters of dress – The Medici, Este, and Visconti – Costume of an Italian duchess described – Freaks of fashion in France and Germany – Long trains – Laws to restrain the length of skirts – Snake-toed shoes give place to high-heeled slippers.

small waists, Medieval, costume, Middle ages,  clothing
Women in 9th century.

The Ladies of Old France. Fashions during the reign of King Pepin.

Research fails to show us that the ladies of France in their simple Merowingian and Carlovingian (Carolingian dynasty) dresses paid any attention to the formation of the waist or its display.

But during the ninth century we find the dresses worn extremely tight, and so made as to define the waist and render it as slim as possible; and although the art of making the description of corsets worn by the ladies of Rome was no doubt at that time lost, the revived taste for slender figures led to the peculiar form of corsage known as cottes hardies, which were much stiffened and worn extremely tight.

Queen, King, France, Medieval, costume, Middle ages, clothing
French Queen and King Xth century

These took the place of the quaint, oddly-formed robes we see draping the figures of Childeric’s and Pepin’s queens (Basena of Thuringia, also: Basina (* before 466) was the wife of the Merovingian king Childeric I. Queen of the Franks. Bertrada of Laon born between 710 and 727 – 12 July 783. Wife of Pepin the Short and the mother of Charlemagne, Carloman and Gisela.).

Carolingian Queen, France, Medieval, costume, Middle ages, clothing,
French nobility costume in 752-987

Introduction of “cottes hardies”

The “cottes hardies” were, moreover, clasped at the waist by a broad belt, and seem pretty well to have merited their martial name. Very soon after this period it is probable that a much more complete description of corset was invented, although we do not find any marked representation of its form until 1043.

France, Medieval, costume, Middle ages, clothing, Burgundy, Hennin, small waists,
Woman of Rank, Reign Of Charles VII, 1460

A manuscript of that date at present in the British Museum bears on it the strange and anomalous figure represented in the annexed illustration. Opinions vary somewhat as to whether its origin might not have been Italian, but we see no reason for adopting this view, and consider it as of decidedly home production. It will be seen that the shoulder, upper part of the arm, and figure are those of a well-formed female, who wears an unmistakable corset, tightly laced, and stiffened by two busks in front, from one of which the lace, with a tag at the end, depends.

Orsini, medieval, costume, Middle ages, clothing, Burgundy, Hennin, small waists,
Young noblewoman in 1420 of the Roman noble family of the Orsini.

The head, wings, tail, feet, and claws are all those of a demon or fiend. The drapery is worn so long as to render large knots in it requisite to prevent dragging on the ground. The ring held in the left claw is of gold, and probably intended to represent a massive and costly bracelet. Produced, as this MS. appears to have been, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there is little doubt that it was a severe monkish satire on the prevailing fashion, and a most ungallant warning to the male sex that alabaster shoulders and slender waists were too often associated with attributes of a rather brimstone character, and that an inordinate love of long, trailing garments and ornaments of precious metals were snares and enticements of a sinister nature.

Further reading

The small waists of the thirteenth century. The Lady Triamore, daughter of the King of the Fairies.

Many of the figures to be found on ancient MSS. after this period show by their contour that the corset was worn beneath the drapery, and Strutt (Joseph Strutt 1749 – 1802 was an English engraver, artist, antiquary and writer.), whose work was published in 1796, thus writes of the customs relating to dress in the period following shortly after: “In the thirteenth century, and probably much prior to that period, a long and slender waist was considered by our ancestors as a criterion of elegance in the female form.

We ought not, therefore, to wonder if it be proved that the tight lacing and compressing of the body was practised by the ladies even in early times, and especially by such of them as were inclined to be corpulent.” He then, in order to show at what an early date of the history of this country a confirmed taste for small waists existed, quotes from a very ancient poem, entitled Launfal** in which the Lady Triamore, daughter of the King of the Fairies, and attendant ladies are described. Of two of the latter it is said:
“Their kirtles were of rede cendel (A rich description of silk.),
I laced smalle, jollyf, and well,
There might none gayer go.”

In the French version of the same poem it is, we read, more fully expressed. It says, “They were richly habited and very tightly laced”. The Lady Triamore is thus described: “The lady was in a purple pall, With gentill bodye and middle small.” Wharton quotes from an ancient poem, which he believes to date as far back as 1200, in which a lover, speaking of the object of his admiration, thus throws down the gauntlet of challenge, and exclaims: “Middle her she hath mensk small.”

Corsages, Middle Ages, clothing

Corsets worn by gentlemen at that period.

The word mensk or maint being used instead of very or much. Some differences of opinion have existed among writers as to the origin of the word corset. Some are of opinion that the French words corps, the body, and serrer (to tightly inclose or incase), led to the adoption of the term. Madame La Sante gives it as her opinion, however, that it is more probably a corruption of the single word corps, which was formerly written cors, and may be taken as a diminutive form of it.

Another view of the matter has been that the name of a rich material called corse, which was at one time extensively used in the manufacture of corsets, may have been thus corrupted. This is scarcely probable, as the word corset was in use at too early a period to admit of that origin. Perhaps as early an instance of the use of the term corset as any in existence may be found as a portion of an entry in the household register of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, which bears the date May 24, 1265: “Item: Pro ix ulnis radii. Pariensis pro robas aestivas corsetto et clochia pro eodem.” (Item: For nine ells Paris measure, for summer robes, corsets, and cloaks for the same)

The persons for whom these garments were made were Richard, King of the Normans, and Edward, his son, whose death occurred in the year 1308. So that corsets were, even in those early days, used by gentlemen as well as ladies.

The kirtle as worn in England.

The term kirtle, so often referred to, may not clearly convey to the mind of the modern reader the nature of the garment indicated by it, and therefore it may not be amiss to give Strutt’s description of it. He says, “The kirtle, or, as it was anciently written kertel, is a part of the dress used by the men and the women, but especially by the latter.

It was sometimes a habit of state, and worn by persons of high rank.” The garment sometimes called a “surcol“ Chaucer renders kirtle, and we have no reason to dispute his authority. Kirtles are very frequently mentioned in old romances. They are said to have been of different textures and of different colours, but especially of green; and sometimes they were laced closely to the body, and probably answered the purpose of the bodice or stays-vide Launfal, before referred to: “Their kirtles were of rede cendel, I laced smalle, jollyf, and well.”

To appear in a kirtle only seems to have been a mark of servitude. Thus the lady of Sir Ladore, when he feasted the king, by way of courtesy waited at the table: “The lady was gentyll and small, In kirtle alone she served in hall.”

Medieval, costume, Middle ages, clothing, Burgundy, Hennin, corset,  crinoline
Lady of Rank of the 13th century.

We are further informed that at the close of the fifteenth century it was used as a habit of penance, and we read that Jane Shore, when performing penance, walked barefoot, a lighted taper in her hand, and having only her kirtle upon her back. John Gower, however, who wrote at about the same period as Chaucer, thus describes a company of ladies. They were, says he, “clothed all alike, in kirtles with rich capes or mantles, parti-coloured, white, and blue, embroidered all over with various devices.”

Their bodies are described as being long and small, and they had crowns of gold upon their heads, as though each of them had been a queen. We find that the tight-laced young ladies of the court of the Lady Triamore “had mantles of green-coloured velvet, handsomely bordered with gold, and lined with rich furs. Their heads were neatly attired in kerchiefs, and were ornamented with cut work and richly-striped wires of gold, and upon their kerchiefs they had each of them a pretty coronal, embellished with sixty gems or more;” and of their pretty mistress it is said in the same poem, that her cheeks were as red as the rose when it first blossoms.

Her hair shone upon her head like golden wire, falling beneath a crown of gold richly ornamented with precious stones. Her vesture was purple, and her mantle, lined with white ermine, was also elegantly furred with the same.

Dress of Blanche, daughter of Edward III. Dunbar’s Thistle and Rose.

The Princess Blanche*, the daughter of Edward III. (1345 – 1368 mother of King Henry IV of England.), the subject of the annexed illustration; appears to have copied closely the dress above described, and, like the maids of honour of the Lady Triamore herself, she is not only richly habited but thoroughly well-laced as well. Thus we see, in the year 1361, the full influence of the corset on the costume of that period.

There is another poem, said to be more ancient than even Launfal**, which, no doubt, served to give a tone and direction to the fashions of times following after. Here we find a beautiful lady described as wearing a splendid girdle of beaten gold, embellished with rubies and emeralds, about her middle small. Gower, too, when describing a lover who is in the act of admiring his mistress, thus writes:
“He seeth hir shape forthwith, all
Hir bodye round, hir middle small.”

That the taste for slender figures was not confined to England will be shown by the following quotation from Dunbar’s Thistle and Rose. When the belles of Scotland grouped together are described he tells us that: “Their middles were as small as wands.”

Princess, Blanche, Lancaster, Middle ages, clothing,
The Princess Blanche of Lancaster.

A great number of ancient writings descriptive of female beauty go clearly to prove that both slenderness and length of waist were held in the highest esteem and considered indispensable elements of elegance, and there can be no question that such being the case no pains were spared to acquire the coveted grace a very small, long, and round waist conferred on its possessor.

The lower classes were not slow in imitating their superiors, and the practice of tight lacing prevailed throughout every grade of society. This was the case even as far back as Chaucer’s day, about 1340. He, in describing the carpenter s wife, speaks of her as a handsome, well-made young female, and informs us that “her body was genteel” (or elegant) and “small as a weasel,” and immediately afterwards that she was “Long as a maste, and upright as a bolt.”

Notwithstanding the strict way in which the waist was laced during the thirteenth century, the talents of the ingenious were directed to the construction of some article of dress which should reduce the figure to still more slender proportions, and the following remarks by Strutt show that tight lacing was much on the increase from the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries. He says: “A small waist was decidedly, as we have seen before one criterion, of a beautiful form, and, generally speaking, its length was currently regulated by a just idea of elegance, and especially in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth the women seem to have contracted a vitiated taste, and not being content with their form as God hath made it, introduced the corset or bodice, a stiff and unnatural disguisement even in its origin.”

The use of the surcoat in England

How far this newly-introduced form of the corset became a “disguisement” will be best judged of by a glance at the foregoing illustration, which represents a lady in the dress worn just at the dose of the thirteenth century.

Margaret, Anjou, Queen consort, England, Middle ages, clothing,
Margaret of Anjou 1430-1482. Queen consort of England

The term surcoat was given to this new introduction. This in many instances was worn over the dress somewhat after the manner of the body of a riding-habit, being attached to the skirt, which spreads into a long trailing train. An old author speaking of these articles of dress, thus writes: “There came to me two women wearing surcoats, longer than they were tall by about a yard, so that they were obliged to carry their trains upon their arms to prevent their trailing upon the ground, and they had sleeves to these surcoats reaching to the elbows.”

The trains of these dresses at length reached such formidable dimensions that Charles V. of France became so enraged as to cause an edict to be issued hurling threats of excommunication at the heads of all those who dared to wear a dress which terminated “like the tail of a serpent.”

Notwithstanding this tremendously alarming threat, a tailor was found fully equal to the occasion, who, in spite of the terrors inspired by candle, bell, and book, set to work (lion-hearted man that he was) and made a magnificent surcoat for Madame du Gâtinais, which not only trailed far behind on the ground, but actually “took five yards of Brussels net for sleeves, which also trailed.“ History, or even tradition, fails to inform us what dreadful fate overtook this desperate tailor after the performance of a feat so recklessly daring; but we can scarcely fancy that his end could have been of the kind common to tailors of less audacious depravity.

Freaks of fashion in France and Germany.

Marie d’Anjou, Medieval, fashion, costume, Burgundy, court dress,
Lady of the Court of Queen Catherine de Médicisi

The bodies of these surcoats were very much stiffened, and so made as to admit of being laced with extreme tightness. They were often very richly ornamented with furs and costly needlework. As fashion changed, dresses were made with open fronts, so as to be worn over the surcoat without altogether concealing it.

A portrait of Marie d’Anjou, Queen of France, shows this arrangement of costume. The waist appears very tightly laced, and the body of the surcoat much resembles the modern bodice, but is made by stiffening and cut to perform the part of a very strong and efficient corset.

Until the termination of the fourteenth century very little change appears to have been made either in costume or the treatment of the figure, but at the commencement of the fifteenth century, when such noble families as the Medici, Este, and Visconti established fashions and styles of costume for themselves, each house vied with the other in the splendour of their apparel.

Marie d’Anjou, Medieval, fashion, costume, Burgundy, court dress,
Marie d’Anjou 1404-1463

The great masters of the period, by painting ideal compositions, also gave a marked tone to the increasing taste for dress. The costume of an Italian duchess, whose portrait is to be seen in the Academy at Pisa, has been thus described: “The headdress is a gold coronet, the chemisette is finely interwoven with gold, the under-dress is black, the square bodice being bordered with white beads, the over-dress is gold brocade, the sides are open, and fastened together again with gold agrafes; the loose sleeves, like the chemisette, are of golden tissue, fastened to the shoulders with agrafes.

The under-sleeves, which are of peculiar construction, and are visible, are crimson velvet, and reach to the centre of the hand. They are cut out at the wrists, and white puffings of the same material as the chemisette protrude through the openings.” In both France and Germany a great many strange freaks of fashion appear to have been practised about this time. The tight, harlequin-like dress was adopted by the gentlemen, whilst the long trains again stirred the ire of royalty.

Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body by Mandy Barrington.

Corsets: A Modern Guide by Velda Lauder.

court dress, Renaissance, fashion,  clothing
Full court dress as worn in France 1515.

We find Albert of Saxony issuing the following laws: “No wives or daughters of knights are to wear dresses exceeding one yard and a-half in length, no spangles in their caps, nor high frills round their throats.” During the reign of the Dauphin in France many changes in dress were effected. The length of the sleeves was much curtailed, and the preposterously long toes of the shoes reduced to a convenient standard.

The ladies appear to have for some time resisted the innovation, but one Poulaine, an ingenious Parisian shoemaker, happening to devise a very attractive shoe with a heel fitted to it, the ladies hailed joyfully the new favourite, and the old snake-toed shoe passed away. Still, it was no uncommon thing to see some fop of the period with one shoe white and the other black, or one boot and one shoe.

 * Geoffrey Chaucer 1343-1400, the author of the Canterbury Tales, describes in his “Book of the Duchess” the deceased Blanche of Lancaster with the words:
I saw her dance so becomingly,
to sing and join in carols so sweetly,
to laugh and play so womanly,
to carry herself so graciously,
and to speak so friendly and kindly,
that surely I believe that never
was seen so blissful a treasure as she.

** Sir Launfal is a 1045-line Middle English romance or Breton lay written by Thomas Chestre dating from the late 14th century.

Source: The Corset and the Crinoline. A Book of Modes and Costumes from remote Periods to the Present Time by W. B. L. (William Berry Lord). With 54 Full-Page and other Engravings. London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler. Warwick House, Paternoster Row. 1868.

Illustration Galan, middle ages, b/w,


Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras (Abradale Books) by Beatrice Fontanel.

Thoughout the ages, women’s breasts have been subjected to the endless whims of fashion.

From the ancient Greeks to Mae West and Madonna, this light-hearted book charts the changing shapes of female beauty. The elegant and amusing images – including fashion drawings, paintings, photographs, and film stills – illustrate the often surprising history of the garments women have worn for support – and seduction.