SNARK WEEK: Princess Seams

11

Support Frock Flicks with a small donation! During Snark Week and beyond, we’re grateful for your monthly pledges for exclusive content via Patreon or your one-time contributions via Ko-fi or PayPal to offset the costs of running this site. You can even buy our T-shirts and merch. Think of this like supporting public broadcasting, but with swearing and no tax deductions!

 

 

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):

1953 Young Bess snark week princess seams

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:

1598-PfalzgrafinDorotheaSabina-stays

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

Stays made for the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603, Westminster Abbey

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

1660-80 stays at the V&A Museum

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

1750 - French silk brocade corset at Museum at FIT

By the mid 18th century, things have really moved into a cone shape | 1750 – French silk brocade corset at Museum at FIT

Stays, 1780-1789, From the V&A

By the end of the 18th century, there’s yet MORE room allowed for the bust… | Stays, 1780-1789, From the V&A

1770-75 corset - Museu del Disseny

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

1795-1800 stays V&A

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:

Lady Alice More (c.1474 - c.1551), wife of Thomas More by Hans Holbein and workshop, c. 1530, The Weiss Gallery London

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

1570s - Louise de Lorraine, after François Clouet

By the late 16th century, the torso is super flattened in front | 1570s – Louise de Lorraine, after François Clouet

"Portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine," Anthony Van Dyck, 1634.

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

Louise de Keroual, Duchess of Portsmouth by Henri Gascar, c. 1670, Auckland Art Gallery

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

Antoine Pesne, Prinzessin Luise Ulrike von Preußen als Schäferin, 1738, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten

Early 18th century: still in cone-shaped land | Antoine Pesne, Prinzessin Luise Ulrike von Preußen als Schäferin, 1738, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten

Marie Antoinette in a red hunting habit by Joseph Kranzinger, c. 1772, Schönbrunn Palace

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

Lydia Henrietta Malortie, Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney (Killerton - Broadclyst, Exeter UK), 1784 | Gogmsite.net

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:

Juan de Alcega's Tailor's Pattern book of 1589 p 55 a + b

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

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:

Eleanor di Toledo burial gown, Costume Gallery Pitti Palace, Florence

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

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

1550-1560s - Eleonora di Toledo gown, Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold

And here’s what the dress would have looked like worn | Eleonora di Toledo gown, drawing by Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion

1660s bodice pattern from Janet Arnold's 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

Silver Tissue Dress, 1660, Fashion Museum (Bath)

However, here’s a similar style dress. Note how smooth and cone-shaped the bodice is | Silver Tissue Dress, 1660, Fashion Museum (Bath)

diderot francaise pattern

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

Janet Arnold francaise pattern

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

1770s bodice pattern Janet Arnold

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

Fabric-Stretch-Test - The Spruce Crafts

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

1770s Nancy Bradfield Costume in Detail

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

Corset, 1880s, Kyoto Costume Institute

How do they fit all those curves? They use the same techniques we use today, darts and princess seams:

1860s evening bodice

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:

A darted bodice via The Couture Counselor

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:

Godey's Lady's Book, 1880s

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

Tygodnik Mód 1877.- Stylish basque bodice.

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

Princess seams via Craftsy

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

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:

1984 Amadeus

Prime example: Amadeus (1984) puts its lead actress into a 19th-century style corset…

1984 Amadeus

So they ended up with a whole lot of bust curve to work around | © Saul Zaentz

1953 Young Bess

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

youngbess1953

She could put your eye out with those things!

1955 The Virgin Queen

Same deal goes for Joan Collins in The Virgin Queen (1955)

1954 Madame du Barry

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)

1989 Valmont

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:

2017 The White Princess snark week

Honestly, this actress doesn’t have enough bust to bother with princess seams, but they used them anyway | The White Princess (2017)

Isabel (2011–2014)

Ditto for Isabel (2011–14).

Velikaya aka Catherine the Great (2015)

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)

Ekaterina (2014)

Same deal with Ekaterina (2014). Gotta love it when they add piping to the princess seams so it really punches you in the face!

face punch gif
2015 Banished

Banished (2015) does it with stripes, which also really calls attention to the fuck-up!

Outlander season 4

Outlander (2014-) isn’t the only one to keep it subtle by pushing the seam towards the side, but it’s there.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

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”!

The More You Know

 

 

Support FrockFlicks.com

11 Responses

  1. susan

    While I’m familiar with princess seams, I pretty much wasn’t with everything else! You guys must have worked your corseted tits off to create this crammed-full mini symposium. I learned a lot. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. florenceandtheai

    Yes, but did all your organs shift, and/or did you ALMOST DIE from writing about stays & corsets? You know it’s nearly as dangerous as wearing them (Relax, I’m being a silly troll. I understand stays/corsets/bodies, and thoroughly enjoyed SnappyDragon’s video comparing corset shopping to bra shopping. Unintended plug, but she’s good!)

    Reply
  3. Amy

    Thank you for this deep dive- so informative!

    Whenever I ponder or read about corsets, I always wonder why they can’t be more of a thing nowadays: it seems they provide physical support, for more than just the bust, and make clothing fit and look much better.

    I don’t know much about corsets, design, etc, but intuitively I sense that my curves would benefit, even just practically speaking, from the structure they provide.

    I’d be curious to find out if anyone in this community knows of any resources that provide information on wearing corsets, or similar garments, in this day and age? Or, if anyone actually wears one themselves along with modern clothing?

    Thank you Kendra and Sarah and Trystan for all the Snark!

    Reply
  4. Nzie

    wild applause – as I learn more about construction more of this sort of detail stands out to me. Lots of stuff with waistlines and sleeve construction also catch my eye now because of this blog.

    Reply
  5. Lily Rose

    Interestingly, and confusingly, there are a couple of bits of evidence for “princess seams” in the medieval period, although it’s not likely that they were really used in the way modern princess seams are.

    There’s the famous / notorious image c. 1452 of Agnès Sorel (who was the mistress of Charles VII of France) as the Madonna, showing what seems to be a modern style of princess seam. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/42/Melun-diptychon-detail.gif/719px-Melun-diptychon-detail.gif

    And then there’s the so-called Greenland or Herjolfsnes dress (prior to 1430), which shows lots of vertical seams that might look like a princess seam — although people who’ve sewn it say that the actual dress is quite loose. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/5f/e2/ed/5fe2eda297f9d57ae4c1e8f49f3c7e7b.jpg

    The 1300s-1400s were apparently a period of wild experimentation in garment construction, as fabric became more available, so I’m reluctant to rule out ANY technique (ask me about bias cutting!).

    On the other hand (or bosom), it’s likely that a lot of those seams had to do with adapting / enlarging an existing dress for weight gain / pregnancy / breastfeeding, rather than the modern notion of fitting. Still, the existence of these images might have confused a costumer somewhere along the line?

    But certainly later period (say 1550 forward) garments don’t show that fitting technique, and we DO have examples of those later garments, which can be matched to contemporary art and aesthetics.

    So yeah, if you’re not cosplaying Agnès Sorel (or making a movie about her!), probably better leave the princess seams alone.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      First, Kendra noted that she wasn’t getting into medieval “princess seams” bec. Sarah covered it in another post, that’s linked right here.

      Second, in that post, Sarah said: “princess seams are not medieval (except for one possible depiction in that one portrait of Agnes Sorel where she has her boob out. And no, princess seams are not the same thing as the seaming treatment found in some bog clothing finds dating to the 14th-century.” Among other things.

      I’ll add that the Agnès Sorel painting is allegorical, so it’s not a great representation of accurate clothing ;) And there’s a lot of discussion in medieval circles about those supposed “princess seams” & most lean towards no, it doesn’t align with the overwhelming use of rectangular construction. FWIW, I’ve made a couple 14th-c. gothic fitted gowns, & you get lovely & supportive bodices without princess seams.

      Reply
      • Lily Rose

        Oh, I’m not arguing for princess seams, I just think it’s interesting — and a possible source of confusion — that’s all. And I absolutely agree about the Gothic fitted dress / kirtle, they are great! But now I want to cosplay as Agnès …. ;)

        Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.