Meet Dr Sarah Bendall, McKenzie Fellow in History

In 2020, Dr Sarah Bendall joined the History program as a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow. A historian of material culture, Sarah specialises in the dress of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, Scotland and France. Sarah completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2018 and joins us after a post-doctoral fellowship at UWA working on the project Gendering the Italian Wars, 1494–1559. Her first monograph, Shaping Femininity, is forthcoming, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic/Visual Arts. She spoke recently with MA candidate Jennifer McFarland about her work.

Could you tell us about your McKenzie Fellowship project?

The project looks at the use of baleen in European fashion and decorative arts in the early modern period [baleen is the keratinous plates in the mouth of baleen whales that form part of a filter-feeder system. In the past it was called whalebone]. It focuses on key questions including: why did Europeans begin to use this material? Why was it so desirable in different types of fashion, in garments but also in decorative arts objects? What impact did baleen have on not only fashion and innovation – because there are a lot of fashionable innovations that wouldn’t have been possible without baleen – but also on industry in England, and in France? Who were the people that dealt with this material, and what were the industries that were created around it? And I’ll also be exploring its environmental impact.

There are three parts to the project. The first looks at baleen whaling and the baleen industry. A lot of the research that has been done so far looks at the desire for and use of whale oil as a primary motivator for the beginning of the whaling industry. I’m interested in where baleen fits into that – was it a by-product that became a reason for whaling? And if so, what were the environmental effects? I’ll be working with scientists to look at losses in biodiversity associated with this industry.

The second part looks at the centrality of baleen to the early modern textile and decorative arts industries. What were the industries that used this material, and why did they use it? I’ve already found evidence of trades that were created by this material, such as ‘whale bone men’ – whalebone cutters whose jobs serviced the industries using baleen. They probably didn’t make up a huge part of the economy, but they were definitely there, and we know very little about them.

And the third part looks at the consumer. What were the things that you could buy that were made from baleen? What was it about baleen that made it so desirable for the consumer?

Tell us a bit about your collaboration with colleagues in the Sciences. Do you have scientific training yourself? 

No! I haven’t done science since high school, and I don’t come from a scientific background. The idea to approach scientific colleagues came from my own curiosity. Last year I taught a unit on seventeenth-century England. We spent one week looking at ‘the little ice age’ in seventeenth-century Europe and its effects, an area where historians are increasingly engaging with scientific theory. In particular, Geoffrey Parker writes a lot about the natural archive in the form of ice cores, tree ring growth, pollen and spore deposits, and the need for historians to engage with this natural archive to understand what’s happening. I was quite inspired by that. And I came to realise that I’m a material culture historian – if archaeologists can analyse objects from dig sites, why can’t I analyse decorative arts items, even if we often don’t think about these in those terms?

When I started reading and planning for this project, I came across an article by Dinah Eastop from the Concealed Garments Project. The project examines garments that have been found concealed in the walls or floors of houses. The project team tested the baleen from a stomacher of an eighteenth-century pair of stays found in one of these conceal garment caches, so I knew it had been done before. If I was looking at baleen anyway and could access these objects working with museums, it would be crazy not to try and test them to see what we can learn about the environment as well! For the project, I’m interested in questions like identifying what species the baleen came from. Was baleen from one species more commonly used in particular objects, and if so, was that because the baleen had different properties? While we might be find some of the answers written in the historical record, it’s good to have the scientific evidence as well.

I will be working with two scientists here at the University of Melbourne: Dr Amy Prendergast, a geoscientist in the School of Geography who also works with archaeological collections, and Professor Andrew Pask, from the School of BioSciences. My project with Amy will use Stable Isotope Analysis. This can tell us where in the Arctic these whales were from, corroborating historical evidence about, for example, whaling grounds. We’re also interested in seeing what we can actually do with the baleen that survives in museum objects. What is the best way to go about testing, with the least amount of destruction? What are the boundaries of what we can learn from these objects?

Geharpoeneerde walvis met de staart boven het water (Harpooned whale with the tail above the water), c1725. Adolf van der Laan, after Sieuwert van der Meulen, 1720–1730. Rijksmuseum, BI-1915-0107-22

You’ve mentioned that baleen was used in decorative arts as well as fashion. Readers might be more familiar with its use in garments. What else was it used in?

It was used in … so many things! Particularly during the eighteenth century. In fashion it was used in things like corsetry, and in bonnets, particularly by the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was used in some collars that stood up, men’s doublets, and women’s bodices. Examples of objects that border on fashion and decorative arts are things like umbrellas, and also sixteenth-century spectacles, which survive in different museum collections. The sorts of decorative arts objects I’m especially interested in are things like mirror frames and painting frames. I’ll also be doing some of my initial testing on the handles of ladles made in the eighteenth century for hot toddy. Knives and forks too, could have handles made from baleen. So even though my background is in fashion in terms of dress, I’m using ‘fashion’ here as a broad term to describe anything that’s fashionable, so that includes decorative arts objects as well. Really, the more you look, the more things you find.

Why did baleen draw your focus?

The focus initially came from my PhD project, which I am now turning into my forthcoming book with Bloomsbury. I looked at the emergence of what are now corsets and hoop skirts – so, garments that shape the female silhouette – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Baleen was one of the defining elements of those garments and influenced the way that they evolved. A corset (which was called a ‘pair of bodies’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) could be stiffened with reeds, and we have examples from Spain where they’ve done that. But in England, which was my focus, and France as well, the majority of these early prototypes of corsets were stiffened with baleen. So I did a little bit of research on it during my PhD. But when I presented papers, people would ask about where the baleen was coming from, and I didn’t really know. And I did a bit of digging around and realised no one else had really looked at it before either, except for some smaller studies on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

So, during my PhD, I established roughly where the English were sourcing their baleen from, and the different charters and companies that were set up to import it into England. That was when I realised that there was more to the story here and I couldn’t do it justice – it wasn’t something that I was going to look into much in either the PhD or the book because it’s not central. But it was something that people kept asking me all the time. It’s one of those things where a new topic grows out of your initial research project. The additional research that I’ve done for my book is more focused on production and artisanal cultures, which is how I became more interested in the industries, the people and economics of dress production and the sourcing of raw materials.


Elizabeth I wears French farthingale and other items commonly stiffened with baleen. Portret van Elizabeth I Tudor. Crispijn van de Passe (I), after Isaac Oliver, 1603–1620. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1939-392

You’ve used garment reconstruction to analyse several forms of farthingale in particular. [Farthingales are stiffened structures placed beneath a woman’s skirts that enlarged the lower half of the gown.] What first caught your interest in reconstruction as a method? What do you find it offers, for early modernists in particular?

I decided to do reconstruction for two main reasons. I have a background in sewing – I’m not trained in it, but I was a hobby sewer who got interested in historical dress, and there’s a big online community full of costumers. When I was an undergraduate I wanted the historical garments that I made to be accurate, and so I started to read more, and realised that this was a really interesting way of studying social norms or, in the case of my PhD, gendered norms and ideas of femininity. But I could also see within that community, people were already reconstructing things and were testing them out, and possibly had a lot of information that historians wouldn’t normally use because it’s not the type of scholarly information that we’re used to – but it’s really valuable information. Already being in that world and seeing what non-historians were doing was one reason why I took this up.

Another reason was that lots of the sources that I was looking at for my PhD were produced by men writing about women and women’s dress. I was already used to reading these sources against the grain, not taking everything at face value. There were a lot of male voices, and a lot of them seemed to me to be exaggerating ideas about these garments, or creating myths that many of us are still influenced by: “oh, corsets must have been so uncomfortable, and they laced them so tight”; “how do women walk through doorways with such wide skirts?” These notions have become taken for granted; nobody really interrogates them. There are a lot of unanswered questions that I don’t think you could find the answer to any other way.

There’s only so much we can do with surviving garments. We can take patterns from them and learn from them, and in my book I talk about different kinds of garments where we can see strain where someone had worn them, and so we can see the imprint that the wearing of them – that the body – has left on the garment. But obviously you can’t put them on to test out ideas about movement. In the case of farthingales there are no surviving garments, except for one found recently on a vestal effigy in Spain, but this has been cut down to fit the effigy.

Of the two types of farthingale common in England, we don’t have any surviving garments. So there were a lot of sources I was missing, and unanswered questions, and I felt that I couldn’t do the sort of history I was looking at without engaging with historical reconstruction, because I’d be relying on sources that were possibly exaggerated, written by men who would never have worn these garments. I decided that because I had the skills, I could sew, and the School of Historical Dress in London and Janet Arnold have published books of patterns outlining different sewing techniques, I might as well try see whether reconstruction could answer the questions that I had and that I couldn’t answer in other ways. And it really did.

Reconstruction of Jacobean (1603–1625) dress – smock, bodies, farthingale and skirt by Sarah Bendall
Reconstruction of bodies & French wheel farthingale, c1610s. Hand sewn by Sarah Bendall

How do you do your reconstructions?

There were two methods. The first was reconstructing garments that we have. We have a lot of surviving pairs of bodies, I think because they are not really a garment that you could take apart to use to do anything else with. I started with replicating those, using the same measurements and everything.

My reconstructions of farthingales were much more experimental, using my knowledge of how other garments were put together, because we don’t have surviving garments or a lot of information about how they were made. There are definitely some people who don’t agree with how I did it, but again I think it was a useful exercise. For example, in one of my articles I talk about how men were constantly saying how big and annoying and cumbersome these garments were, but in my reconstruction I found that I don’t think you could physically engineer a garment to be as big as these men were saying they were, and also that these garments are quite flexible. That confirmed that the men were exaggerating, which then raises questions around why they were exaggerating the size, which of course is all to do with ideas about women and how much space they should consume.

Did you come up against any really unexpected challenges? 

I’d say the biggest challenge was my experimental reconstruction of farthingales. I’ve never claimed my finished product was exactly how they looked and how they were constructed; it was really just an experiment. Using the evidence that I’d found and what we know about construction, I wanted to try to see how they could possibly have been made. The biggest challenge with these was actually how to engineer it, particularly for the French wheel farthingale. Everything that is in the written and visual record shows a round, flat disc that you wear around the body, maybe supported with a roll underneath or as part of the garment. That sounds simple enough, but then when you try to put it together you have to work out how this structure stays up. This is why I don’t think they could have been as big as male writers were claiming they were. If you have a structure that’s round and flat, made from fabric and maybe some boning, it will sag as soon as you put clothing on top, and also if the circumference is too large.

To think like an artisan was another challenge. There were definitely mistakes that I would not have made if I was working in the sixteenth century. Tacit knowledge is something that comes into it as well. Pamela Smith has talked about this a lot in connection with her Making and Knowing project. Tacit knowledge is skills that artisans had that weren’t written down, sometimes because they were a secret of the craft, but also because they aren’t skills that can be learned from reading – you have to be shown or try yourself. I already had some tacit knowledge because I was a sewer, but there was also a lot that I had to learn along the way, and part of this is stepping back and asking “what would you have done, how would you have put this together?” I think it’s useful to gain more of an understanding of these artisans, as well an appreciation of what they did and where we’ve lost knowledge.

Reconstruction of a sixteenth to seventeenth-century French farthingale roll, c1600 by Sarah Bendall
Reconstruction of corset, c1912 by Sarah Bendall

You use Twitter, and you also have a blog where you track your projects. How do you use these tools, and what do you think they give you as a researcher? 

Again, that comes from my background already being part of an online community. I knew that the methodology or the step-by-step process of garment reconstruction wouldn’t be included in my PhD, and I thought a blog breaking down the process would be a way to track what I did and the challenges I had. If anyone else was interested in doing this, then they could also follow along. That was the main reason. It also helped to keep me accountable; I had to keep going if I was doing these public posts. And they’ve been useful to go back to, to remember how I did things.

But it was also strategic. I knew I had a bigger audience than just academia, and I always knew, from when I began my PhD, that if I was to publish a book from it, then I wanted the book to be accessible. Part of it was an awareness that I needed to build my audience outside of academia as well, so that if that did happen down the track, I would have people who already knew about my research. It was a way to connect with that wider community.

You’ve just spoken about being really aware of these things before going into the PhD. What would you say to students contemplating a research degree?

 Obviously, choose a topic you really love and that you want to look at for three or four years minimum, more if you go on to work on a book from it.

Get on Twitter – I think platforms like that are really important for research students, particularly in Australia. There is a huge academic community all over the world and if you’re in Australia, particularly as a PhD student you can’t necessarily go to all the conferences others can – you have to be strategic in doing your research overseas, and line that up with conferences to network. I think that Twitter is a great way to do that without even having to leave the country. I would say that it’s really beneficial in the sense that it makes you feel part of the wider academic community.

If you have a way to engage the wider public with your research, that’s really valuable, and not only because a lot of grant applications now want you to have a section on your community engagement. In the academy we measure success in different outputs, but at the end of the day, what’s the point of doing what we do if it doesn’t get out into the wider community in one way or another?

You can read more about Sarah’s research on her blog, and follow her on Twitter (@SarahABendall) and Instagram (@sarahbendall_fashionhistory).

Feature image: Reconstruction of Jacobean (1603–1625) dress – smock, bodies, farthingale and skirt by Sarah Bendall (detail)