Bodies were stiffened foundation garments – the 17th century grandmother of 18th Century stays, and 19th Century corsets. A pair of bodies’ function was to support the bust. Bodies also created the right shape under the outer clothing, giving the torso the correct silhouette for the time.
However, bodies weren’t just underwear. They were often made from costly materials and meant to be seen – at least in part. This was probably most often at the front, where there was frequently a gap between the front edges of the gown or waistcoat (though this might alternately have been filled by a separate stomacher).
There is evidence that bodies might also have been acceptable outer wear, at least informally. A pair of pink silk bodies/stays with matching sleeves survives in the collection of the V & A museum. There are also references in inventories and account books to bodies with sleeves. You can also find depictions of what look like bodies worn with matching sleeves in several Dutch genre paintings.
It is also possible, indeed likely, that the sleeves visible under the half length sleeves of over gowns are matching (detachable) sleeves to the bodies - though they may also belong to a waistcoat worn beneath.
By the 1650s, when gowns appear to go completely out of fashion, bodies and waistcoat merge completely into fully boned bodices with attached (sewn in) sleeves. There was no need to wear separate bodies underneath.
Bodies were fairly simple in construction, using few pattern pieces. The fashionable silhouette was straight, all bumpy flesh flattened out, the bust pushed up and not too tightly laced. A wooden busk might be inserted centre front to keep everything really straight.
Earlier bodies had used ‘bents’ (bundles of dried reeds) as a stiffening agent, but by the mid 17th Century most upper status bodies would have utilised whalebone inserted between layers of linen canvas.
A Young Woman at her Toilette with Maid
Gerard ter Borsche the Younger c.1650
Is she wearing bodies with matching sleeves?
The pattern I used is simple in the extreme – just a single pattern piece. They spiral lace at the back, have a compartment centre front for a busk, and shoulder straps integral to the back which lace to the front.
It might not be the most authentic of patterns but is generally based on historic shapes – mainly Queen Elizabeth I’s effigy bodies. I used a similar one piece pattern for my wedding corset and feel it gives the right shape for the period. I’ve also made myself a lower status set of bodices using this pattern – though lacing back and front - with matching detachable sleeves.
I used two layers of calico for the foundation, machine sewn together to create channels for the boning – plastic whalebone. This calico shell was then covered with yellow satin and a white linen lining was added. All four layers were bound at the edges with blue grosgrain ribbon, applied by hand. The lacing holes are sewn by hand in yellow silk thread.