This post was written by Stephanie Appleton, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.
For the wealthier sort of women (and indeed, men) in Shakespeare’s time, getting dressed was not a simple task, and required more than one pair of hands. Sleeves and other accoutrements had to be pinned in place, while women had to be laced into their bodices (commonly called ‘bodies’ at this time). Undressing of course required the entire procedure to be reversed.
Shakespeare references the act of undressing in Othello (1604), where in Act 4 Scene 3 Emilia undresses Desdemona:
DESDEMONA: … Therefore, good Emilia,
Give me my nightly wearing, and adieu […]
EMILIA: Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
DESDEMONA: No. Unpin me here. (4. 3. 15 – 33)
Desdemona’s undressing in this scene is symbolic of her undoing as the result of Iago’s machinations. Her state of undress demonstrates her vulnerability, thereby reinforcing the sense of her innocence and the tragic nature of her untimely death at the hands of her jealous husband.
Various aids would have been available to women like Emilia, however, to facilitate such a fiddly undertaking as dressing or undressing: ‘aglets’ were pieces of metal wrapped around the end of a ribbon to allow for its ease of threading through the eyes of a bodice (much like the piece of plastic on the end of our shoelaces today), and ‘bodkins’, an example of which can be seen pictured here, were small, needle-like implements used for the act of threading itself.*
This silver bodkin, in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, dates to around 1620. Engraved with the initials ‘AM’, which probably signified its ownership, this implement measures only 10 centimetres in length, and just over half a centimetre in width at its widest point. It has a rectangular shaped ‘eye’ in its shaft, which would have been used for the lacing procedure during dressing, and its slender dimensions would have made it ideal for the process of threading through a lady’s bodice. Above the eye there is a circular hole, commonly called a ‘jewel hole’, through which a jewel might be hung (in the case of the wealthiest ladies, that is) or a piece of lace or string might be threaded, to secure the bodkin when not in use and prevent it from becoming misplaced.
An additional feature of this bodkin is the ear scoop, which added another function to this useful object and which indicates its cosmetic application. As the name suggests, this part would be used to maintain hygiene by scraping wax out of the ears. Furthermore, this wax could then be put to use as a sewing aid, to keep the ends of threads together and stop them from fraying. Not all bodkins incorporate ear scoops: some include a plain or decorated knob at the end instead. Few examples of pre-seventeenth century bodkins have survived, so this particular item is not only rare but in excellent condition.
*For a full consideration of this subject see Jenny Tiramani’s chapter, ‘Pins and Aglets’ in Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (eds) Everyday Objects (2010).