Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Embroidered Bodice

Object 51 - Shakespeare makes reference to the act of dressing several times in his plays and this blog discusses a well known item of clothing from the period: the bodice.

Stephanie Appleton

This post was written by Stephanie Appleton, doctoral researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.

SBT 1993-35 Embroidered Bodice
SBT 1993-35 An embroidered bodice, c.1610

Shakespeare makes reference to the act of dressing several times in his plays and I, too, continue on the theme of my recent blogs to discuss another well known item of clothing from the period: the bodice. This example in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, dates from the early seventeenth century and would have been known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ‘bodies’ or a ‘pair of bodies’. The term referred to the original design of the item, which incorporated two separate pieces of material, one for the front and one for the back of the torso (or ‘body’), which would have been laced into place.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare apparently imagines the Egyptian queen in clothing that would have been familiar to his audience members. In Act 1 Scene 3 Cleopatra takes advantage of the known effects of tight lacing to try and prevent Antony’s departure: she pretends to be ill and begs to be cut out of her dress:

‘Cut my lace, Charmian come,

But let it be, I am quickly ill, and well,

So Antony loves. (1. 3. 72 – 74)

This seventeenth-century bodice appears to be unfinished, and shows signs of later attempts at restoration and/or completion. It has a lace-up back and hooks at the front for fastening, although closer inspection indicates that parts of the back panel and the lacing are likely to be later additions. The sleeves, too, have been stitched on to the bodice itself: this would have been an unusual practice in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as usually sleeves and other items of an outfit’s ensemble, such as hose for men or petticoats for women, would have been laced or pinned in place, to allow for movement of the arms and legs.* The fact that the sleeves have been attached, and the stitching appears contemporaneous with that used to secure the back panel to the front, may indicate that this too was a later attempt to construct a ‘complete’ garment from the pieces which remained.[1]

SBT 1993-35 Embroidered Bodice (detail)
The back of the bodice showing apparently incomplete embroidery

The elaborate and beautiful decoration which adorns the fine linen also appears to be incomplete in places. On the front panel the embroidered leaf pattern in shades of yellow and green retains its vibrancy, while the gold stitching detail still sparkles. Parts of the back panel and edging, however, reveal that this decoration was never completed: the image above clearly shows areas where the gold stitching would have been added to complete the ‘vine’ pattern, while the image below, a detail of the bottom front left of the garment, reveals where the embroidery to the hem stops abruptly.

SBT 1993-35 Embroidered Bodice (sleeve detail)
The hem of the sleeve

We can only speculate why this item survives in the state it does today; maybe a later owner decided to alter the fit or decoration, never completing their modifications. It is likely, however, that the reason it has been preserved is due to its unfinished and thus theoretically unworn condition: the fragility and perishable nature of textiles from this period means that they rarely survive.

*For more on pinning and “painful prickings”, see Jenny Tiramani, ‘Pins and Aglets’, in Hamling and Richardson, eds. Everyday Objects, Ashgate, 2010.

[1] My thanks to Roz Sklar, Museum Collections Officer at the SBT, for her advice and comments on this item.