The big debate. Stays AKA corsets - did Italian Renaissance ladies wear them or not?

I'd like to ponder over the question in the context of Italian noble ladies in the mid and late 1500s - excluding southern Italy, in which large areas per definition was Spanish. Too often articles and books devoted to the issue of corsets tend to jump from place to place, giving the reader an impression of what was valid for one region at one point, was also valid for another region at another time, and the timelines and borders become blury. In fact, there are regional nuances which needs to be commented upon, and also different timelines, so I'll try and stick to mid and nothern Italy in the second half of the16th century as far as possible.

First, a definition of stays. In general it refers to what we today call "corset". Corset was a term originally used to describe underbodices not being as hard and boned as the regular stays, but today the two expressions seems to overlap. Stays were a separate bodice, in general sleeveless, and they had some sort of stiffening. The stiffening was usually inserted into channels, and could be metal, bunts of whalebone, or even wood, reed and horn. Historically we also find the term "payre of bodies", which might refer to the general construction of a bodice and stays, which allowed the front and back to be laced apart entirely and thus only functioned in pair.


There are example of metal stays from the 16th century. In the 20th century they were used as example of how extreme the female fashion had been in the past. In 1932, a corset article in Chicago Sunday Tribune describes how Florence-both Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589), queen of France, introduced the steel corset to the French court, as a way to force all her ladies-in-waiting to have a fashionable 13 inch waist, and that these corsets were "...just as much an antrocity in its way as was the massacre of St. Bartholomew's day, which was the materialization of another of Catherine's ideas" (quoted in Steele 2001: 3).

Steel corset, from the second part of the 16th century. Museo Stibbert, Florence

However, two things should be noted on these metal constructions, at least their Italian counterpart. First, they would be padded and dressed in fabric to make them more comfortable to the wearer. Second, most points towards them being correctional devices used for medical purpose. They could be worn to "straigthen up" a disporpotioned figure, or also physically support the torso during time of illness and/or weakness.

The Medici Guardaroba shows that two such metal stays were made for Eleonora di Toledo in 1549. She suffered from rheumatism and tuberculosis large parts of her adult life, and concerned courtiers reported about her declining health. In 1551 the Ducal secretary Lorenzo Pagni wrote that "In my opinion, and that of others also, her illness is serious and will worsen every day", and by 1561 the Venetian ambassador in Florence reported that "This lady is always ill and every morning she throws up her food" (Cox-Rearick in Eisenbichler 2004: 227). Despite of this she maintained an active life, accompanying her husband Cosimo on all of his travels and hunting companies, to the surprise of the courtiers "...even with all this misfortune she absolutely refuses to stop, just out of discomfort, going out and accompanying the duke everywhere he goes (Lorenzo Pagni in Cox-Rearick 1993: 49). The authors of "Moda a Firenze" argues that the metal corsets weren't listen along with her clothes, and that they were instead a medical devise made to help her maintain her active life despite her illness (Landini 2004: 131).

A similar conclusion can be found at Valerie Steel (Steel 2001). She refers to the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), who wrote that metal corsets were used "to amend the crookednesse of the Bodie (...) In order to correct and hide to hide such a defect, they will be made to wear iron corsets, which shall be full of holes so that they will not be so heavy, and they will be well fitted and padded so as not to hurt at all, and will be changed often if the patient is still growing" (Steel 2001: 5). This might explain why the metal corset in the Museo Stibbert i Florence is so tiny in size - it might have been worn by a young girl still growing.

The metal stays therefore don't seem to be a part of the general nobelady's wardrobe - that is, not for reasons of fashion.


That is not to say stays weren't used in the 16th century Italy. Problem is, proof of their existence are scarce and few. Originally I assumed this was because they were a part of the "unmentionables", I.E. underwear of all sorts. They would not be discussed. But with the existing litterature on other types of underclothes, if only in caricatures and satirical writing, it is odd no-one refers to stays. The lack of surviving "payre of bodies" is also odd. Whereas there are several chemises, drawers, metal corsets and velvet stays in museums around the world, no "regular" Italian stays from the 16th century exist (correct me if I'm wrong, though). This also goes for inventory lists, which are careful to mention even unmentionable items as drawers. Duchess Giulia Varano of Urbino is listed with a green velvet pair with golden embroidery, Eleonora di Toledo is listed with a pair in crimson taffeta (Landini 2004: 133). So plain modesty don't seem to be the issue.

The only period reference I've found so far is a law passed in Venice in 1547. It's quoted in the "Patterns of Fashion" (dealing with underwear and additionals), and forbade "...a new type of bodice which being very high and going very low over the stomach - these harmful and pernicious styles produce trouble, inconvenience and ruin" (Arnold 2008: 110).

Question is: does this refer to stays? I have only read the English translation, and might perceive it differently than what I would with the Italian text. But the authors of the POF 4 seems to intepret it as stays, as they continue: "Further sumptuary legislations passed by the Senate in 1562 forbade the wearing of corsets on the ground that they were harmful for pregnant women" (Arnold 2008: 110). But couldn't "a new type of bodice" might as well refer to stiffened bodices? It was in the 1540s the bodice became longer and more pointed in front:

1. Portrait of a Lady, 1530s, Bernadino Licinio (State Gallery, Dresden)
2. Portrait of Balia de' Medici, 1540s, Paris Bordone (Uffizi, Florence)
3. Portrait of a Lady, 1550s, Paolo Veronese (Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai)

Furthermore, there are period proofs of stiffened bodices. Let's turn to the dresses referred to as "sottana" in Italian. Sotto means "under", telling the the sottana was a dress worn under a costly outer garb. It does not, by any means, equal a camicia, the white undershirt worn next to the skin. The sottana was instead the general dress, which could be worn alone, or under a giornea (early Renaissance) or zimarra (late Renaissance). In the high renaissance and early mannerism it was often used on its own, without an overgarb, which is why the term sottana can seem confusing.

The sottana was high-waisted in the beginning of the 16th century, as seen in portraits by Raffaello and early Tiziano. But the dress bodices became longer and longer, and by the mid 1500 it was longer than the actual waistline. Still, the bodices appears smooth and stiff, with hardly any wrinkles. Some support was obviously used. The Venetian law of 1547 speaks of a "new type of bodice". The year corresponds well with when the bodice of the sottana became longer and more cone shaped. Still, how can we be sure the law is not referring to stays?

We can't. But we can take a look at what extant dresses of the era tells us.


The remains of this dress was (re-) discovered in 1999, and has since been restored as far as possible. I haven't seen the result of this, but I've read the description of what the remains revealed when first examined. It tells that "The bodice was stiffened by two layers of padded linen hardened with (probably animal) glue placed between the outer fabric and the taffeta lining, and it had a wide, square neckline typical of Italian Renaissance dresses" (my translation of a passage from page 321 in the book "I della Rovere").

We cannot be absolutely sure what Giulia Varano's dress looked like when worn. But we can turn to Tiziano's portrait of the lady from around the same time. She never sat for the portrait herself (Lorne 1990: 145); Tiziano therefore used the same pose and details from his portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga from 1538. She was Giulia's mother-in-law and also from the same court, which would establish a lineage in the portraits as well as being practical for Tiziano as he could use the cartoon for the Eleonora portrait as basis.

Giulia Varano's portrait appearance was based largely on her husband's description of her, and on a dress the Urbino court sent Tiziano (Lorne 1990: 145). The dress in the portrait is less magnificent than the court at Urbino desired. This is because Tiziano had his heart set on a crimson velvet dress. The courtier bringing the dress to him in 1547 exclaimed that he would have come with a more magnificent dress "...if Titian had not insisted on crimson or rose velvet. Since Her Excellency does not have a dress like that, she has decided that this one, of damask of the same colour, may suit his purpose".

So what we can assume is that the dress, albeit of another fabric, is a rather faithful depiction of what Giulia Varano wore in life. If Tiziano had the dress in his studio for some time, he would be able to get the details right, and he might even get another lady to pose in Giulia Varano's place.

In the portrait the torso appears cone shaped, the fabric with only a hint of a wrinkle in the front. It the dress correspond in construction to her funeral dress from about the same time, this appears to be due to the actual bodice being reinforced with glue-stiffened linen, and not because the lady wore stays.


The remains of the funeral dress before restoration, and portrait of Giulia Varano by Tiziano and/or his workshop, ca. 1548 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)


Returning to Eleonora di Toledo (1522-1562), we are in the position of having the remains of her burial dress. She died of malaria in Pisa in 1562, and her corpse was dressed in a court gown before being brought back to Florence. Underneath that court gown she wore a red velvet bodice which is often referred to as "stays". However, these stays are not boned or stiffened in any way. They're made up of solid red velvet, constructed of three large pieces with an addition of small gussets in the waist, and was closed in front with 18 hooks and eyes. The front is not rounded and long like the bodice of the petticoat; rather it is straight and square in appearance.

Eleonora's crimson velvet stays after restoration

All 13 stays listed in Eleonora's Guardaroba seems to have been made of velvet with linen lining, and was without decorations. Furthermore, there are no comments on eventual stiffening: "No mention is made of felts or other systems of padding, such as hide or cardboard, or cane ribs or other, which were to be found in other States." (Landini 2004: 132). This corresponds to the one she was buried in. It's suggested the velvet stays were worn for comfort. Why, then, would the corps of the Duchess be dressed in them? Mary Westerman Bulgarella, who worked on restoring the remains of the burial outfit for several years, comments that the velvet stays overlapped with app. 5 centimeters (two inches) instead of being fastened with the hooks. A possible explanation can be that the Duchess became very thin the last year of her life, and that the velvet stays was put on the corpse to fill out the bodice of the court dress (Bulgarella in Eisenbichler 2004: 215).

Apart from the velvet stays, Eleonora di Toledo also had in her wardrobe what is referred to as "fasce da stomaco"; stomach bands. Hers were usually made of one piece of fabric, most in red wool. In "Moda a Firenze" they're not first and foremost reckoned as figure shapening, but as a means of keeping warm. Seeing how Eleonora had a stomach band lined with soft swansdown supports this theory, and they could have been a lighter substitute for the unboned velvet stays. In my opinion they probably also served as a way of gathering a wide camicia in the waist, as an Allori painting from 1596 seems to depict a stomach band used under a semi-open bodice, but over the camicia.

Detail from "San Fiacre healing the sick", Alessandro Allori ca. 1596 (Santo Spirito, Florence)

The Guardaroba seems to contradict the portraits of the Duchess, where she is depicted in stiff, long bodices free of wrinkles and creases. Her silhouette does suggest the use of stays - boned or stiffened stays. But they don't exist in her wardrobe, nor are they mentioned in other sources.

Alas, I haven't found any references on what exactly was the case with Eleonora's funeral dress, but in "Moda a Firenze" it's described how Florentine ladies stiffened the actual bodices by various means; by felt padding, by stiffened cloth and/or by cardboard inserted in "a typically Spanish system" (Landini 2004: 84pp). In another chapter "Moda a Firenze" further describes how bodices were stiffened and hence making stiff stays unnecessary: "The function of the velvet stays appears to have been that of keeping warm, rather than providing stiffness, for which the cardboard sections inserted into the bodice of the petticoat or gown were sufficient" (Landini 2004: 132). At first I thought this a very different approach to that described in Giulia Varano's bodice. But I thought of modern cardboard, paper that is. Historical cardboard would often be made of cotton or linen fibres stiffened with glue and pressed into thin sheets. This is not too unlike Giulia Varano's "linen hardened with glue" stiffening.

There's also the aspect of padding. Interlining and padded fabrics was also involved:

The padding of the garment was obtained by an internal layering of the fabrics, the doppia, made up of a felt and two types of cloth, one stiffened and one finer, San Gallo cloth or bottana, and for girls even cotton bambagino or bombast. Cardboard was also used, a typically Spanish system, which appears to have become habitual at the Florentine court from the end of the 1650's (I wonder if they mean 1550s). Usually this thick padding was covered with silk or even with taffeta of the same colour as the petticoat, and care was taken to choose the same or similar colours even for the fabrics of the inner padding. (Landidi 2004: 84pp).

The interlining and padding had two benefits - one, it would help stiffen the garb by use of padding felt or another solid material, and two, it would allow a smooth and straight surface without any bumps showing. Problem is that there are no exact descriptions on how the stiffening was inserted into the bodice. Was it by large "plates" or cut up in smaller pieces similar to whalebone boning? Was the stiffened textile/cardboard stitched to the padding, or inserted on its own, enabling it to be changed if/when it softened? As of now I don't hold the answer. I don't know what was the case with her funeral dress either. Janet Arnold (Arnold 1985) describes how the bodice originally was lined with a tight-weave linen, of which only a few traces remains around the neckline. But it was also further supported: Fragments of a more open weave remaining beneath the stitching from the guards show that both front and back were interlined for extra support." (Arnold 1985: 104).

The "Moda a Firenze" also describes how "Metal corsets and systems of stiffening (stays) (....) are not recorded in Florence until the end of the century, except for the two steel corsets belonging to the Duchess (Landini 2004: 133).


The bodice of Eleonora's funeral dress from 1562, along with three Bronzino portraits of her from 1543-1550 (Prague, Florence and Pisa)


Well, that is not to say boned stays weren't used in the 16th century. There are enough traces of them from both Austrian/Spanish and English sources to assume they were a part of the wardrobe of noble ladies in different parts of Europe. The eldest surviving boned stays in Europe dates to around 1600 (The stays of Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg from app. 1598, Elizabeth I's effigy stays from 1603), though there are written sources of stays made for Elizabeth I of England earlier than this. But thing is that the proof of their existence elsewhere makes people transfer the "Renaissance ladies wore corsets" knowledge to Italian fashion. As far as I can tell, they were rare in mid and northern Italy in the 16th century - in fact, apart from some orthopedical metal versions there are no definitive proof of them being in use until the very end of the 16th century. On the other hand, there are many traces of the actual bodies of the sottanas being stiffened and almost functioning as stays in Italy. So when claiming that Italian ladies of the mid-16th century didn't wear stays, it's not to imply their outfits were all soft and comfy. There were stiffening going on, just not in a separate item as in many other European areas.

Venetian dresses on the ground, the bodices retaining their stiff shape, while the sleeves are flat.
1. Susanna and the Elder, 1560-62, Tintoretto.
2. Susanna in the bath, around 1570, Bassano.

One explanation for this can be that the Italian fashion kept the soft lines longer than some other European regions. The square neckline of the sottana stayed in fashion almost all of the century, especially in Venice (although the doublet bodice also was adapted) and the lines of the torso not altered to the extent of the English and Spanish fashion. Even in Venice, where the torso seems to have been the most manipulated by the dress, the bodice remained at the natural waistline at the sides, or even above it; only the front was usually enlonged. BOth skirts and sleeves also kept the rounder shapes, opposed to the popular cone shapes in many other regions. Also, in contemporary Elizabethian fashion the whole bodice was enlonged below the natural waistline, and the need of a corset would be more obvious. The skirts were for the most in a softer bell shape, not requiring farthingales and bum rolls, unlike other European counterparts.


1. Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi, ca. 1541, Bronzino (Uffizi, Florence)
2. Portrait of Princess Elizabeth, ca. 1546, William Scrots (Windsor Castle, London)

These portraits are almost contemporary, but shows a big difference in shape. Both aims for an hourglass silhouette, but in different ways. The first portrait is Florentine and shows the shorter and squarer bodice with the upper torso enlarged by the wide baragoni puffed sleeves. The skirt is also full, with the width gathered in large cartridge pleats and attached to the bodice. The English portrait, on the other hand, shows the skirt and bodice as two opposite cone shapes, both tailored to achieve these shapes, and it's further emphasized by the cone shaped sleeves. Whether the softer lines of Italian dresses were kept because the use of stays weren't adapted, or whether the stays weren't adapted because of a desire to keep the softer lines... well... it's the classical chicken-or-eg discusson.


I wrote initially that one should avoid applying info from one area to another. Admittedly I'm a bit guilty of this myself, using info from Florence, Venice and Urbino to support my hypothesis about stays not being worn in mid 16th century in Italy in general, and comparing them to different European regions. Reason for this is that the fashion and clothing traditions in the mid and northern Italian states shares many similar features and can more easily be compared than say Florentine and Elizabethan fashion. It should however be noticed that "European fashion" outside Italy wasn't unison. Far from it. The fashion in the north is different from that of the south, and there would also be differences in regions close to eachother. In the Netherlands, for example, there was in the late 16th and early 17th century, a big difference between "protestant" and "catholic" ways of dressing.

I have in no way proved stays weren't worn in Italy in the 16th century. But what I hope I managed to show, is that stays was uncommon and also not very necessary. As long as the actual bodices of the dresses were boned, and the silhouette softer than other regions, the use of supporting underpinnings wasn't as pressing as the regions which depended on bum rolls, farthingales and corsets to get the right "cone shaped" look.

Arnold, Janet (1985), "Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620", MacMillan, London
Arnold, Janet (2008), "Patterns of Fashion: Shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories 1540-1660", MacMillan
Campbell, Lorne (1990), "Renaissance Portraits", Yale University Press, New Haven & London
Cox-Rearick, Janet (1993), "Bronzino's Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio", University of California Press, Berkeley
dal Poggetto, Paolo (editor) (2004), "I della Rovere, Piero della Francesco, Raffaello, TIziano", Electa publishing
Eisenbichler, Konrad (red) (2004), "The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo, Ducess of Florence and Siena", Ashgate
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli (2004), "Moda a Firenze, Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e sua influenza", Pagliai Polistampa, Florence
Steele, Valerie (2001), "The Corset. A cultural history", Yale University Press, New Haven & London

Back to main site

Copyright © 2001-2016: Anéa