Chapter Two: Busks And Brocade

On a Pair of Garters

Go, loving woodbine, clip with lovely grace

Those two sweet plants which bear the flowers of love;

Go, silken vines, those tender elms embrace

Which flourish still although their roots do move.

As soon as you possess your blessed places

You are advancèd and ennobled more

Than diadems, which where white silken laces

That ancient kings about their forehead wore.

Sweet bands, take heed lest you ungently bind,

Or with your strictness make too deep a print:

Was never tree had such tender rind,

Although her inward heart be hard as flint.

And let your knots be fast and loose at will:

She must be free, though I stand bounden still.

– Sir John Davies (1569-1626)

The enduring tradition of using floral imagery to represent female sexuality makes it a natural fit with the inherent intimacy of lingerie. The romantic and sexual associations with flowers can be seen not only in art and poetry but even in language itself–the use of the word ‘deflower’ to mean to take a woman’s virginity dates from as early as the 14th century.[1]

Although undergarments have been in use as long as any other type of clothing, there are few examples of surviving clothing from before the 18th century, and even fewer undergarments. They were garments that were private, as well as utilitarian, often worn and washed until they were threadbare. What is notable, however, is that even the earliest objects in the Underpinnings Museum collection include examples of flowered garments, a testament to both the longstanding use of this element and the added value given to these precious items, allowing them to survive.

Waistcoat, 1750–70, probably British. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Edwin A. Neugass, 1959. Accession Number: 2009.300.2839
Waistcoat, 1750-70. Probably British. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Robe à la Française, 1770–75, France. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Orme and R. Thornton Wilson in memory of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949. Accession Number: 2009.300.690a, b
Robe à la Française, 1770-75. French. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eighteenth century fashion was bursting with flowers on both men’s and women’s garments. Just as men’s waistcoats and women’s gowns could be covered in embroidered or woven flowers, undergarments also incorporated these elements, as can be seen on these stays and garters, both dated to the late eighteenth century. Stays and garters were standard garments worn by European women of many classes in this period, but the fine fabrics and finishes suggest that these were garments reserved for the elite. For the nobility, carefully designed gardens and cultivated flowers were not only appreciated for their beauty, but also as a show of power and mastery over the natural world.[2]

Silk Brocade Whaleboned Stays, c. 1770s, Austria. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Silk Brocade Whaleboned Stays

Date: c. 1770s

Origin: Austria

Fabric: Silk brocade, linen, baleen (whalebone)


The stays were found hidden in a Tyrolean farm, with little known about their original history. The materials and style suggest that they were made in the 18th century. The garment is well worn with multiple repairs and alterations. It is entirely hand sewn, and was originally made with an exterior of luxurious silk brocade.

The lining was likely originally linen, and both the interior and exterior of the garment have been repeatedly patched and repaired with numerous different fabrics. The garment is structured with many pieces of baleen, with what appears to be a metal busk at the front. It is possible that these stays were later worn as a fancy dress item in the 19th century, as there appear to be c. 19th century hook and eye fastenings sewn onto the garment. It fastens with lacing through hand sewn eyelets at the centre back, though this lacing was likely replaced at a later date.

Stays were one of the most significant undergarments of this time period. They were stiffened with whalebone, creating a silhouette that was the basis for all outerwear in this era. Stay-making was a difficult and laborious process and, as a result, it was reserved for a men’s guild, unlike the majority of other clothes for women. What is notable about this example, however, is the decorative and luxurious fabric that it is made of, belying its role as the workhorse of a woman’s wardrobe. Although the garment itself is in an extremely used condition, pieces of the outer layer of silk brocade remain, showing off the vibrant greens and pinks that make up its floral motifs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a similar piece that shows how it might have looked in its original state.

Padded Silk & Chenille Embroidery Garters With Metal Springs

Date: Late 18th century

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Silk, fine metal springs


Before the invention of suspender belts, stockings and garters were commonly worn by all genders. There were no discernible design differences between the stockings and garters worn by men and women, with decorative motifs such as floral patterns a common feature.

This pair of early garters were made with strips of padded silk, embroidered with textured chenille embroidery. Elastic was not invented until the early 19th c., so it was relatively rare to see stretch in textiles before this time. There were two main possibilities: either hand knitting, or in the case of these garters, incorporating metal springs.

Because of the age and poor storage of these garters, part of the silk casing has largely disintegrated, which allows us to see this stretch innovation within. The silk casing was originally stitched with narrow channels, each encasing one of these springs with the fabric gathered when under the springs’ tension. The end of the channel was originally attached to the other half of a buckle (unfortunately now missing), which would fasten to the buckle half on the padded strip. These garters would have been worn just above the knee to secure stockings in place and prevent them from rolling down. It is likely that the stretch offered by the metal spring panels would have provided greater comfort than the other garter option of the period, which used a ribbon tie as a fastening.

Padded Silk & Chenille Embroidery Garters With Metal Springs, late 18th century, Great Britain. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

In contrast to the stays’ complex construction and central role in women’s fashion, garters were small and often relatively simple. Garters were attached around the leg to hold up stockings and could be as simple as a ribbon. This example is notable for its innovative use of metal springs, which would allow the garter to expand and contract along with its wearer’s movement, very much as elastic does today. The use of padded silk satin and the floral chenille embellishment make this an example that stands out for both its comfort and beauty.

The Garter by Jean François de Troy, 1724. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. Bequest of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2019. Accession Number: 2019.141.22
Jean François de Troy, The Garter, 1724. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 × 21 1/8 in. (64.8 × 53.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite its simplicity and ubiquity, the garter was a garment full of meaning. A common trope of 18th century erotic painting and literature was the ‘dropped garter’, wherein a woman’s garter would have fallen off and a gentleman would offer to reattach it, as seen in this 1724 painting by Jean François de Troy (the woman is holding the garter in her right hand). The garter, therefore, was endowed with an erotic subtext and, coupled with the association of flowers with female sexuality, this item may well have been the equivalent of today’s provocative lingerie.

Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette (The Swing) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1767 - 1768. The Wallace Collection. Accession number: P430
Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, c. 1767. Oil on canvas, 81 cm × 64.2 cm (317⁄8 in × 251⁄4 in). The Wallace Collection.

French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting ‘The Swing’ encapsulates the layered symbolic meanings of flowers and garters in this period. This was an openly erotic painting, showing a woman in a pink dress on a swing who is being pushed by a man behind her (likely her husband) and who is looking down at the younger man below her—her lover. The statue of cupid puts his fingers to his lips, suggesting the clandestine nature of their relationship. The whimsical woodland landscape already places them in a pastoral setting, but the choice to dress the female figure in a pink dress, and the way it is bunched up around her in the swing, makes her look like she is the flower herself, echoing the roses in the foreground. Her petticoats and stockings are white, but if you look closely, around her thigh is tied a pink garter. The fact that the garter is the highest that the viewer can see up her thigh suggests that it may be standing in for something else, i.e. the view that the lover has from his position. It is important to note that, at the time, women would not wear briefs or knickers, so that it would be understood that the lover below would be able to see her bare lower body, and that the garter itself could be seen as a symbol of the woman’s genitalia or sexual availability. This meaning can still be seen today in the tradition in some areas of a husband publicly removing the garter of his wife at the wedding ceremony, which is the metaphorical consummation of the marriage.

Cross stitch garter with ribbon tie, c. 1820s. From The Underpinnings Museum collection Photography by Tigz Rice

Cross Stitch & Silk Ribbon Tie Garter

Date:  c. 1820s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Cotton with silk ribbon

Cross stitch wedding garter, belonged to Mrs Clara Jane Wreford-Brown, 1864, Great Britain. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Cross Stitch Wedding Garter

Date:  1864

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Silk and elastic

The common sexual associations of both flowers and garters make them a natural visual pairing and explains in part the use of floral motifs on garters that continued throughout the 19th century. Two cross-stitched garters from the nineteenth century show the continued use of these motifs, but likely not with the same lascivious connotations of the eighteenth-century images. As men’s clothing in Europe and North America turned to sombre colours and primarily rejected embellishment in the nineteenth century, flowers became primarily associated with women and children, paradoxically representing innocence as well as sexuality.

The garter from 1864 was worn at the wedding of Clara Jane Clark to William Wreford-Brown, and the careful cross-stitching of the flowers is a tribute to the importance of this day. The idea of a universal language of flowers, first posited in the early eighteenth century, became popular in Europe in the nineteenth century through the 1819 publication of Abécédaire de flore ou Langages des fleurs by Louise Cortambert. Her book was soon translated into English and by 1843, the translation had already been published in nine editions.[3] According to the 1834 translation, this particular garter appears to represent a rose and a bluebell, meaning ‘beauty’ and ‘constancy’, respectively.[4]

Hand Painted Souvenir 'Menton' Wooden Busk, c. 1850s, possibly France. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

Hand Painted Souvenir 'Menton' Wooden Busk

Date: c. 1850s

Origin: Possibly Menton, France

Fabric: Wood

The wooden busk also uses the ‘language of flowers’ to communicate its purpose. A busk is typically a practical part of a corset: a flat, inflexible piece inserted into the front to keep it taut. In this case, the embellishments and writing show that it served another purpose as a keepsake or love token. The writing, ‘Menton’, refers to a town on the French Riviera and the flowers look like forget-me-nots (the colloquial name of mysotis), reinforcing its use as a souvenir. The fact that it is part of an undergarment that would be worn pressed against the chest, both hidden and close to the heart, further suggests that it was intended as a gift from one lover to another.

Silk Brocade Midbust Corset With Ribbon Slot Crochet Lace Trim, c. 1900s. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

Silk Brocade Midbust Corset With Ribbon Slot Crochet Lace Trim

Date: c. 1900s

Origin: Unknown

Fabric: Silk brocade, silk velvet


A midbust corset that would have originally been a highly luxurious garment, but has been heavily worn and has suffered significant damage. It is created from only a single layer of fine silk brocade, a silk taffeta facing at the centre front and back and a silk ribbon waist tape, making this piece exceedingly flexible and lightweight. A silk velvet facing lines the entire bustline, a luxuriously soft and plush addition to the design. Much of the original fabric pile has now worn away.

It is structured with a mix of baleen and flat steel bones, some of which have torn through their silk ribbon bone casings. Decorative and functional flossing embroidery at these bone channels would have helped to secure bones in place. It fastened at the front with a steel busk, although the pin half of this fastening has since been lost. Metal eyelets at the rear are laced with silk ribbon. The corset is finished with a top edge trim of crocheted lace with silk ribbon slot. A decadent silk rosette finishes the centre front bustline.

Metal & Silk Brocade Corset With Ribbon Slot Lace Trim, c. 1900s. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

Silk Brocade Midbust Corset With Ribbon Slot Crochet Lace Trim

Date: c. 1900s

Origin: Unknown

Fabric: Silk/metal brocade, baleen


This corset was originally an extremely luxurious garment, with fabric and construction details suggesting a wealthy and privileged owner. It is now in very poor condition, and betrays heavy wear.

The garment is made from just a single layer of silk, which when coupled with the extreme silhouette, suggests that it was a piece made for eveningwear and intended for only occasional wear. Unusually, the silk is a brocade style that incorporates genuine metal threads; although it is now heavily tarnished, it would have originally had an incredible shine to it. It is very unusual to see such a decadent and expensive fabric used in underwear.

Corsets in various forms were the central silhouette-defining undergarment from the nineteenth century until World War I. As with the stays of the seventeenth century and earlier, these were primarily made of utilitarian fabrics and worn by women of most classes. These luxurious corsets made in floral silks could only have been for wealthy clientele.

Embroidered Cotton Lawn Corset Cover & Split Drawers, c. 1880s-1890s, Great Britain. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Embroidered Cotton Lawn Corset Cover & Split Drawers

Date: c. 1880-1890s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Cotton

The nineteenth century saw the slow introduction of drawers for women, as well as the growth of the underwear industry as a whole.[5] The sewing machine, combined with increased spending power of the middle classes and more widespread illustrated advertising, created the ideal conditions for a growing industry. The rise in machine-made lace also made it more available and affordable, becoming a mainstay in lingerie in this period, with flowers as one of the most commonly used motifs. Despite earlier sexualized connotations, flowers could also be associated with youth and innocence.[6] Paired with the longstanding connection between the color white and purity, these types of undergarments were more likely to be associated with femininity and chastity, demonstrating the diversity of meanings of flowers in fashion, and especially on undergarments.


[1] “deflower, v.”. OED Online. June 2021. Oxford University Press.  (accessed September 01, 2021).


[3] Jack Goody, “The Secret Language of Flowers,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 3, no. 2 (1990): 133–52.

[4] Louise Cortambert. The language of flowers [by L. Cortambert. Transl.]. United Kingdom: n.p., 1834.

[5] Dana Wilson-Kovacs, “The Fall and Rise of Erotic Lingerie,” in Dressed to Impress: Looking the Part, ed. William J. F. Keenan (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[6] Margaret Reeves, “‘A Prospect of Flowers’ Concepts of Childhood and Female Youth in Seventeenth-Century British Culture,” in The Youth of Early Modern Women, ed. Elizabeth S. Cohen and Margaret Reeves (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018)