“Ffor Whalebones to it”: The Baleen Trade and Fashion in Sixteenth-century Europe

During the sixteenth century the bodies of Europe’s elites began to change in size and form as men and women adopted wide starched ruffs and collars, ballooning sleeves, stiffened or bombast upper garments and puffy lower garments. Such a structured silhouette set the tone for centuries of fashion and was the result of changing artistic aesthetics. The refinement of tailoring techniques, and. most importantly as this talk argues, the initiation of large-scale European whaling. While the desire for whale blubber that was rendered into oil and used in soap was a key motivator for whaling, European whalers also brought back baleen – keratinous plates from the mouth of baleen whales – in increasingly large quantities. Known as whale-fin or whalebone in early modern English, baleen was valued for its strength and malleability, and these properties made this natural material popular in clothing manufacturing.This talk examines emergence of ‘whalebone’ in the wardrobes of north-western European elites to argue that fashion and whaling have been inextricably tied since al least the sixteenth century.

This talk (available below) was presented by McKenzie Fellow in History, Dr Sarah Bendall, on 17 August for the Early Modern Circle’s Zoominar series. You can find more about Sarah’s work in her recent Forum interview and on her website.

Sarah Bendall is a McKenzie Fellow in History. She is material culture historian of early modern Europe, specialising in the dress, jewellery, armour, and decorative arts of England, Scotland, and France from 1500 to 1800. Her research explores gendered and embodied experiences, particularly those of women, as well as histories of production and consumption, and material ecologies. Her current research focuses on the use of baleen (‘whalebone’) in early modern fashion and decorative arts.

Feature image: Abraham Storck, Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (detail), 1690. Zuiderzeemuseum, 022296 via Wikimedia Commons