Orme’s Tailor’s Bills

Today’s contribution to the Research Singularity:

Read Mr. Orme’s Bills from Tailors, Haberdashers and Other Merchants

I found this collection of bills at the Public Records office. They were a bunch of loose-leaved single and double sheets of paper in a porfolio. Some looked like they’d been written yesterday; others were waterstained, torn, burned on the edges, or had holes eaten into the paper. Some were written in beautiful, flowing secretary; others appeared to be written by Dr, Jekyll’s alter ego.

It got me thinking about what a miracle it is that these things survive. I mean, think about what your cable and phone bills go through: If you’re like me they hit the trashcan fairly quickly. Or you may be one of those souls, beloved of historians, who files them away just in case. It might stay there for years; and one day long hence, after your funeral, when all of your papers are packed up, they just might end up in an attic instead of down at the dump.

But what, really, are the chances of your cable bill hanging around for 500 years? Pretty miraculous, isn’t it? It’s one reason I love going through ephemera like renaissance bills and receipts. It’s a bit like having won the lottery.

That, and the occasional Item of Interest(tm) that pops up. There is a lot of good stuff in Orme’s bills, including an eye-popping reference to popinjay-green stockings, but one line in particular made me pause: It was in a tailor’s bill for a french kirtle and gown, one of the most damaged bills in the collection. The last line of it reads:

“a Buske for the gowne.”

For the gown. Not for the kirtle. Not for a pair of french bodies or petticoat underbodies (which were purchased in a separate bill). No–for the gown itself.

I’ve always assumed that busks went into corsets and boned under-bodices. But was this really how it worked at the time?

I looked around DressDB, and sure enough, found something quite interesting in a Tailor’s Bill for Lady Townshend. It includes a reference to a french bodies and a busk:

For a paire of French bodis viiis
For a buske xiiid

but I noticed, for the first time, an additional reference:

For makange yor lady shipps gowne xvis
For buckram to stuffun the bodis & canvas for y iiis
For Fustion to border the gowne xiid
For tape and ii buskes to yt iiiid

Interesting! A pair of french bodies with a busk, and a gown with a pair of busks–which, for a front-opening gown in the 1590s, makes total sense. The effigy bodies from 1602 have a pair of busks sewn in, one running down either side of the front opening.

I did some more busk-hunting, and re-read the Excerpt from the French Garden where a woman is getting dressed for the day. Sure enough, near the beginning of the process she puts on her smock, petticoat and boned bodies:

bring my petty-coate bodies: I meane my damask quilt bodies with whale bones…Give me my peticoate of wrought Crimson velvet with silver fringe…showe me my Carnation silk stockins…give me my velvet pantofles;

And then, after some converation and general abuse of her serving maid for being neither psychic nor capable of moving at the speed of light, she continues:

call my Taylor to bring my gowne, not the close one, but my open gowne of white Sattin…Shall I have no vardingale? doe you not see that I want my buske?

Yes, a busk worn with a gown, with boned bodies under it. I’ve been thinking of doing a late period walking-birthday-cake 1590s elizabethan lately…I’ll have to incorporate this into my plans.

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