Bent out of Shape: The Projection of Male Anxiety onto Busks and Stays in Early Modern Europe
An interesting pattern emerges in the Early Modern Era of women taking control of their lives and bodies through the use of material culture, and men being terrified of this fact. Women often lacked agency in a world with ever-changing perceptions of not only femininity, but also of the female form. Clothing was then one of the few ways that these women who lacked power could control their body and their spheres. To those living in the Early Modern Era, clothing held far more meaning than it does in the modern day. The exchange of clothing among women was founded on and fundamental to the connections between them. It was transferred from “masters and mistresses to servants, from aunts to nieces, from sisters and brothers to younger siblings” in a “routine rotation” that was the life of a garment. Men and women alike understood the innate power of clothing in the Early Modern period and its ability to “transnature” the body it was on. Clothing had the power to “mold and shape” women into anything. Because of its transformative nature, for many women clothing was one of the few places where they could exert their control: through purchasing power, shaping their public presentation and—for lower class women—even manufacturing or selling. Busks and stays are one item which was targeted by masculinity in the early modern period because of their connection to both women and sexuality more specifically.
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