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Every time we mock princess seams — which is something we do frequently — I always wonder, “Do the non-sewers/makers of historical dress know what we’re even talking about?”
Princess seams (allegedly named for Princess, later Queen, Alexandra of Britain) are a particular bodice-fitting technique that creates a seam that bisects the bust vertically (usually at an angle):
It’s those angled seams that are highlighted with pearl trim here | Young Bess (1953)
And, it’s very much a 19th-century-to-now fitting technique, so it’s one that gets snarked a lot by those who know! Let me try to explain:
There’s a bunch of intertwined issues here: how people in the past approached fitting and fabric cutout, as well as corsetry and bodice/bust silhouette.
Side note: I’m not going to get into medieval dressmaking here as I don’t know it as well. See Sarah’s post about Braveheart, as well as the discussion in the comments.
From the 16th century as corsetry came into fashion, women’s torso silhouettes ranged from flat to cone-shaped, without any particular curve over the bust. First, let’s look at corset shapes:
This is one of the earliest surviving corsets, from 1598. The bust is cut pretty flat, although note how there’s no boning over the boobs specifically. Having experimented with this kind of undergarment, it does allow you to be a little more curvy than flat, but it also smooths everything out for a very subtle transition | 1598 stays worn by Plaszgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich
Queen Elizabeth I’s effigy stays allow more room at the top for the volume of the bust, but there’s no real curve to differentiate them from the rest of the torso | Stays made for the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603, Westminster Abbey
Jumping ahead to the late 17th century, there’s yet more room for the bust on top, and bit more of a curve heading down into the waist, but yet again things are still smoothed out | 1660-80 stays at the V&A Museum
By the mid 18th century, things have really moved into a cone shape | 1750 – French silk brocade corset at Museum at FIT
By the end of the 18th century, there’s yet MORE room allowed for the bust… | Stays, 1780-1789, From the V&A
And in the last quarter of the 18th century, you sometimes get what I call “flared front” stays that allow the bust to spill forward, but the transition at the underbust is still smooth | 1770-75 corset, Museu del Disseny
It’s not until the turn of the 19th century that you really get anything with separate cups for the boobs | 1795-1800 stays, Victoria & Albert Museum
As a result, women’s torsos were smooth cones with varying levels of flare:
Stiffened bodices were just coming into fashion. Note this lady is definitely curvy and has some bust, but it’s all smoothed out | Lady Alice More (c.1474 – c.1551), wife of Thomas More by Hans Holbein and workshop, c. 1530, The Weiss Gallery London
By the late 16th century, the torso is super flattened in front | 1570s – Louise de Lorraine, after François Clouet
Bodices get shorter in the early 17th century, but the boobs are flattened and tucked down and in. She’s not tiny, but she’s got zero boobs showing | “Portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine,” Anthony Van Dyck, 1634
Bodices get longer in the later 17th century, but we’re still in cone-shaped land | Louise de Keroual, Duchess of Portsmouth by Henri Gascar, c. 1670, Auckland Art Gallery
Early 18th century: still in cone-shaped land | Antoine Pesne, Prinzessin Luise Ulrike von Preußen als Schäferin, 1738, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten
Even here, where the outfit is very relaxed and there’s some looseness in both the waistcoat and coat, can you see how it’s built over a smooth shape? Marie Antoinette in a red hunting habit by Joseph Kranzinger, c. 1772, Schönbrunn Palace
And finally, here we are in the possibly-flared-front era but things are still super smooth | Lydia Henrietta Malortie, Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney (Killerton – Broadclyst, Exeter UK), 1784 | Gogmsite.net
So, point #1: When you are fitting a bodice or other garment over a woman’s torso, you’re working with a mostly smooth, cone-shaped silhouette.
Next: For many centuries, both men’s and women’s garments tended to be cut from rectangular shapes, but the invention of the wide horizontal loom in the 13th to 14th centuries meant that European tailors had more fabric to work with. As a result, they started to experiment with curved seams and volume. Nonetheless, fabric was SUPER expensive, and so every scrap possible was used when laying out patterns:
Take a look at these patterns from a late-16th-century Spanish tailor’s book. The garments are cut to waste as little fabric as possible by Tetris-ing the pattern shapes as close as possible | Juan de Alcega’s Tailor’s Pattern book of 1589 p 55 a + b
Get into later centuries — up through the 18th — and you still see that kind of very careful layout. Why? Fabric was super expensive, and you didn’t want to waste it!
So, point #2: Dressmakers were desperate to cut pattern shapes economically, wasting as little fabric as possible.
So how did they fit gowns to women’s torsos? Well, when you’re not dealing with a big change between the lower torso and the bust, things tend to be done with straight or slightly curved seams.
Let’s look at Eleanor di Toledo (1522-62), duchess of Florence, who wasn’t a terribly busty girl:
1549 – Eleonora di Toledo with her son Francesco by Agnolo Bronzino
The dress she was buried in survives, and it gives a great idea of pattern layout in the 16th century:
The only seam is at the side back, which is straight on the front piece and slightly curved on the back. We’ll come back to grainline in a moment, so for now, just know this is cut on the straight grain | Eleanor di Toledo burial gown, 1562, Costume Gallery Pitti Palace, Florence
Here you can see the entire dress laid out, which gives you a good sense of how little fabric was wasted when it was cut out | Eleanor di Toledo burial gown, 1562, Costume Gallery Pitti Palace, Florence
And here’s what the dress would have looked like worn | Eleonora di Toledo gown, drawing by Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion
In the late 17th century, you actually do get what could be considered a princess seam — the curve seen on the bodice front (far left) and side front (to its right) | 1660s bodice pattern from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion
However, here’s a similar style dress. Note how smooth and cone-shaped the bodice is | Silver Tissue Dress, 1660, Fashion Museum (Bath)
In the early- to mid-18th century, you generally get loose or semi-loose gowns (like the française, top left and middle) made from rectangular shapes (bottom center and right) | Robe à la française pattern shapes from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1777
If you look at the specifics of how individual gowns were made, you will see what they would consider a tuck or pleat and we would consider a dart, which they are using to fit the gown to a specific body. Looking at the “front bodice” piece, that triangle shape near the top is essentially a dart, but it gets hidden under the pleat that’s made when you take the vertical line to its right and follow that arrow to bring the line to the dotted line | Robe à la française pattern, 1770-75, Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion
By the late 18th century, there are more curved seams used in back, but the front (far right) is cut with relatively straight lines … except now it’s on the bias | 1770s bodice pattern, Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion
What do I mean by bias? Most of the bodices seen above were made with the fabric cut “on the straight grain,” and you can in the top two images that that doesn’t have much stretch. In the late 18th century, when you’re getting slightly more curved and flared stays AND bodices are fitting more closely, they used bias (bottom two images) to allow the fabric to stretch and hug the body | Fabric stretch test, The Spruce Crafts
Nonetheless, here’s the dress that pattern is from — note how smooth the torso is | 1770s dress, Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail
Now, lots changed in the 19th century, as curved corsets come into fashion and women suddenly have individual BOOBS:
Corset, 1880s, Kyoto Costume Institute
How do they fit all those curves? They use the same techniques we use today, darts and princess seams:
The curved shape of the torso here is created by two darts — the wedge-shaped cutouts in the front piece (left) — as well as the curved seaming in the back pieces (right) | 1860s evening bodice
A bit more about darts: darts essentially tuck the fabric so that it’s smaller in some sections and larger in others, allowing room (in this case) for the bust:
Can you see how closing up those triangles in the right-hand flat pattern creates room for the bust in the left-hand shape? Darted bodice via The Couture Counselor
The other option is that princess seam, which does something similar to a dart but by cutting apart the pattern into two separate pieces, allowing you even more room for subtle shape changes:
Can you see how the top right front piece has that big curve? It will be sewn to the other front piece, and all that negative space will create shaping | Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1880s
Here’s another example where you can see what the pattern makes up into. Yes, they are still using a dart in the side-front piece, but some of the fit comes from the separation between bodice center front (far right) and side front (the next piece to the left) | Stylish basque bodice, 1877, Tygodnik Mód
Here’s a princess seam pattern laid out, with the center front in the middle and the side fronts on either side. Look at all that negative space in between the pieces | Princess seams via Craftsy
Sew those pieces up, and you get major curvature | Princess seams via Craftsy
So, point #3: Pre-19th century dressmakers pretty much never used princess seams, except for that weird blip in the 1660s, although even then they were working with a mostly cone-shaped silhouette.
Why do modern costume-makers, particularly those working in TV and film, use princess seams and darts when they technically shouldn’t?
There’s two major reasons:
Reason #1: They’re using a modern, curvy shape (either no corset or a 19th-century style) instead of a historically accurate cone-shaped silhouette on their actors:
Prime example: Amadeus (1984) puts its lead actress into a 19th-century style corset…
So they ended up with a whole lot of bust curve to work around | © Saul Zaentz
Possibly no film is as egregious as Young Bess (1953), where Deborah Kerr is clearly wearing a bullet bra-style bra or corset following the fashionable silhouette of the 1950s
She could put your eye out with those things!
Actress Martine Carol seems like she’s wearing a corset, but they’ve still got that curved bust (and some lovely stress wrinkles on the satin under the arm!) | Madame du Barry (1954)
This doesn’t only happen in the 1950s, however. Take Valmont (1989), which I think is using the gown to compress and support her breasts instead of using a corset.
Reason #2: Princess seams make fitting easy, especially in a modern era when we’re not so concerned about fabric usage:
Honestly, this actress doesn’t have enough bust to bother with princess seams, but they used them anyway | The White Princess (2017)
I’m unclear as to why this inappropriately-back-closing dress uses princess seams to fit, given they’ve mostly got the silhouette right. I’m guessing they didn’t understand that they should use bias? Velikaya aka Catherine the Great (2015)
Same deal with Ekaterina (2014). Gotta love it when they add piping to the princess seams so it really punches you in the face!
Banished (2015) does it with stripes, which also really calls attention to the fuck-up!
Outlander (2014-) isn’t the only one to keep it subtle by pushing the seam towards the side, but it’s there.
I’m unclear why that seam is there in the otherwise-practically-perfect Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Maybe they only had fabric scraps to work with after cutting out the skirt?
I hope this post has been illuminating as to what the hell we’re talking about when we snark “princess seams”!