Welcome to #ColonialCouture, our second annual roundtable on fashion in early America and material culture in the Atlantic World, which will run here for the next two weeks.
Today’s post is by Cynthia Chin, a doctoral student at Georgetown University who is researching eighteenth-century material culture, with a particular focus on what Martha Washington’s surviving extant gowns tell us about her, and the world in which she lived. Follow her @cynthiawriter.
“Off with that happy busk, which I envy…” John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed
While Fashion Week Fall 2018 finds iconic designer John Galliano (ironically, and not so ironically) “liberating men with corsets” – the women of eighteenth-century British America were confined and complexly bound by stays and busks. Women during this period wore stays, often with a busk inserted inside. A busk is a flat, stiff, oblong object, and in eighteenth-century British America, most frequently carved from wood. Providing additional structure and shaping to a pair of stays, a busk would be slipped inside a vertical channel in the stay’s center-front. The wearing of a busk ensured that a woman achieved the fashionable (and socially prescribed) straight, flat, conical, enlongated torso that dominated the female aesthetic in the long eighteenth century.
The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior, first published in London in 1737, was one of many deportment manuals during the period that advised on correct female posture: “the Shoulders will retain their proper places, the Chest will grow broad and full, and the Breast round, the Back will be straight and light…” Of course, all of this was aided by the wearing of stays.
A haptic understanding of stays helps us understand their feeling of confinement, yet when properly made, bespoke stays of this period were not designed or intended to be unhealthy. Stays indeed limit the range of motion, and constrain a woman from breathing deeply or making wild (and potentially socially shocking!) gestures, but can form to a body quite comfortably over time. Martha Washington prefered stays “very good, easy made, and very thin,” likely for greater comfort and increased flexibility. When worn inside stays, a busk’s stiffness inhibits slouching, as it prevents the spine from rounding. What a busk does provide a woman, however, is portrait-perfect posture – and an acute awareness of her body.
Affectionate Tokens in a Male-Constructed World
In a world where the gifting of objects to express emotions was common, the bestowal of a busk was deeply intimate – and sensual. Pressed against a woman’s breasts, and serving to uplift them, she would have felt its compression and unyielding hardness down the front of her torso. In order to present such a token, (akin to purchasing an item of lingerie), a man must have accurately known his sweetheart’s size, as a busk is the precise length of a woman’s center bust to her pelvis. It also would have been shaped in proportion to her frame, and often scaled to the size of the pocket-like channel where it would reside.
The gift of a busk was more than erotic and sentimental, however. Busks are objects born out of a complex system in which women were made “acceptable”. By presenting a busk, a man acknowledged the object’s necessity – and his wife’s duty to maintain social acceptance. A woman gifted a busk was reminded to comply with not only the fashion, but also social strictures – and was provided the means to do so. This could be read as a physically manifested, social extension of coverture. In addition to its complex layers of fashionableness, sensuality, and sentimentality, busks are further material evidence of male-constructed social, legal, gender, and sexual norms in the eighteenth century. But, busks didn’t preclude women from having a soupçon of agency.
Objects of Agency?
Connections between a stiff busk slipping into the snug, slim pocket in the front of a woman’s stays and masculine entrance into the protected, private female space are obvious. Less obvious, however, is that the act of a woman wearing a busk was a declaration of her consent.
While a woman socially had little choice regarding what she could or could not wear as undergarments, a woman did possess a degree of agency when getting dressed in the morning. Though stays or jumps were a must-have for women of every class, a woman was not forced to wear one busk over another, as they were a removable accessory. She could choose to insert a busk that had been carved by a male as a token of love, or she could choose to insert a plain, unadorned busk, procure her own – or wear none at all. Not every pair of stays even had a busk channel. Within the maelstrom of sartorial societal dictates and the vestiges of coverture, a woman slipping the busk she selected into the private space of her stays was a rare moment of female choice.
Love, Longing – and Patriotism
The busk pictured is in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution, and was carved in 1782 by an American on a prison ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for his lady love. The iconography, rich and beautifully executed, depicts initials tangled in an intertwining of hearts, which were (as they are today) believed to be the seat of emotions. The tree of life symbolizes the attainment of heaven, a more hopeful future state, or an appeal to the embodiment of Christ himself. (Note the sweet family of rooster, hen, and their chicks sheltering under its branches). The commonly-used Chain of States, a motif of thirteen interconnected circles and inscription of “We Are One”, speaks not only to the steadfast resolve of the thirteen states united, but also to the bodily and emotional consummation between this man and woman — unending, constant, and unbroken despite the divides of country and captivity.
Though we as historians may never understand the depth of intimacy and emotion once attached to objects, even those with such palpably passionate iconography, the eighteenth-century busk serves as a diminutive but powerful channel of relational and sexual communication in private spaces – and also, in parallel, as a forum to express patriotic devotion. Ironically, and despite performing as a vehicle for female social propriety, busks could also allow a woman a modicum of self-expression and agency. Secreted within the privacy of a woman’s undergarments, busks were a complex surface – nestled tenderly and solidly near her heart.
 Similar to a corset, eighteenth-century stays were a women’s laced foundation garment that covered and shaped the torso.
 Busks could also be made from bone, whalebone, or in the seventeenth century, from horn. Valerie Cumming, C.W. Cunnington and P.E. Cunnington, The Dictionary of Fashion History, (2010), 34.
 Busks were made for back-lacing stays, which were laced closed over a woman’s spine, rather than the front of her torso.
 François Nivelon, The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior, London: 1737, facsimilie edition Paul Holberton Publishing, (2003), 1.
 Martha Washington to Mrs. Shelbury, Aug 10, 1764, in Joseph E. Fields, ed. Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington, (1994), 148.
 John Styles, “Objects of Emotion: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens 1741-60” Writing Material Culture History eds Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, (2015), 171.
 The midpoint of a woman’s bustline, at the fullest part of her bust.
 In English Common Law, still held in British America to varying degrees, women were bound by laws known as coverture. Under coverture, the husband and wife were one person in the eyes of the law: the husband. Therefore, a woman had little to no personal or property rights. Her legal existence was suspended during the marriage and merged into that of the husband. Though coverture was waning in eighteenth-century British America, vestiges of it remained.
 Jumps were an unboned bodice, supportive but more comfortable than stays, usually worn by working or pregnant women.