Is there anything more beautiful than a woman who can’t breathe? Or so seemed to be the mindset in 16th to 18th century Europe when women’s fashion was ribcage-crushingly tight. One of these taut garments was known as a “bodice.” If you’re thinking that this word sounds pretty much like “bodies,” that’s exactly where it originated from! But banish all morbid or risqué thoughts because the term simply referred to the “pair of bodies,” or the two pieces of the garment, that were laced together to make one whole women’s bodice.
Bodices trace their ancestry back to garments worn by the Cretians and similar ancient cultures. They took shape into their popular form around the Renaissance when clothes-makers were becoming more skilled and able to compose complex pieces. Garments of this era evolved from simple rectangular fabrics to more form-fitting clothes. In the 15th century, “separates” were introduced – a dress where the top and the skirt were split into distinct pieces. Thus, the phrase “Do these go together?” was introduced into the Western vocabulary.
The bodice covers the upper half of a woman’s body from the neck to the waist. It was usually sleeveless and low-cut. This piece was worn over a corset (or instead of one) and a blouse, kind of like a vest that’s giving you a rather aggressive hug. Bodices were laced together, usually at the front or the back. In earlier years, they were laced in a spiral style using one long lace. But in later periods, bodices were laced like a tennis shoe with two rows of eyelets, making the garment more convenient for the everyday women who didn’t have servants to help them dress!
To give the wearer a fashionable silhouette and to support the bust, the bodice was stiffened with reeds, whalebone, a hemp cord, or strongly-twisted linen rolls. Sounds like fabric softener would not have been a hot commodity in the Elizabethan fashion world. The bodice was shaped to provide a flat surface on the front of the gown to serve as a setting for long necklaces and brooches. Moral of the Bodice: Any Renaissance woman of good taste doth accessorizeth at any cost!
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