Today I am delighted to offer a guest spot to someone who edits a splendid blogsite called Dirty, Sexy History, which you can find here. It is of course my sort of history – all the bits which get missed out of conventional history books. Jessica Cale is the award-winning author of the historical romance series, The Southwark Saga. Originally from Minnesota, she earned her BA in Medieval History and MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wales while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She is an RWA member and this is what she has to say about stays:
Corsets were popularized as an undergarment in the early sixteenth century by Catherine de Medici, who considered them an essential part of a lady’s wardrobe. Within fifty years, they were worn by women from most socio-economic backgrounds all across Europe. While the term “corset” has been used to describe laced bodices since the fourteenth century, in England, the foundation garment worn for support was more commonly known as “stays” (as in “a pair of stays”) until the nineteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, there were two main types of stays: the heavily structured, formal variety and the more flexible half-boned stays (“jumps”) more common for daily use that could be put on without assistance more easily. Stays could be made from most fabrics, as the structure of the garment came from its boning as well as its busk, a long piece of rigid material that fit down the centre of the garment to provide a kind of backbone down the front. Busks could be made of wood, ivory, metal, or whalebone, were removable, and often ornamental.
Stays in the eighteenth century were fairly conical and used to shape the breasts and waist, support the back, and to improve posture. They were worn over undergarments to protect it from sweat, but under gowns or bodices as a foundation garment. They did not keep women from breathing, but could restrict movement by preventing women from bending at the waist. Although they were an essential item for any well-dressed woman, women of all classes relied on them for support. Some of the jumps were even washable, and would have been very helpful for keeping women in their few dresses during and between pregnancies.
Although we think of stays as a feminine garment, some eighteenth century men were known to wear them as well. George IV wore them constantly, beginning when he was an infant to encourage good posture, and through adulthood to create a streamlined silhouette. Fashionable men in London were so dependent upon corsets that by 1747, Richard Campbell wrote in The London Tradesman that out of their clothes, the men appeared to be “quite a different Species (like) Punch, deprived of his moving Wires, and hung up upon a Peg.”
In William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753), he presents the theory of the “Line of Beauty,” a way to classify beauty based on the movement of the eye. This line is basically an S-shape and can be applied to everything from candlesticks to the curve of a woman’s waist. Stays were vital to maintaining this precise curve to achieve to the eighteenth century ideal.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, Hogarth’s theory holds up: to his eyes, figure 4 was the ideal shape. This curve is still desirable today, although most women no longer wear stays to achieve it. Nevertheless, they are still an essential part to any costume drama and there are numerous websites dedicated to their history and construction.
If you would like to have a go at making your own, visit this site here.
For a comprehensive look at stays through American history, check out 18th Century Stays
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women’s Underwear.
Hogarth, William. Analysis of Beauty. (which you can read online here)
Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.
Thanks Jessica! You can find out more about her and her fascinating book on her Amazon page – and do pay a visit to her ‘Dirty Sexy History’ site! Also worth a mention: there is a special promotion on her first novel “Tyburn” which can be obtained free as a Kindle book between 1st and 20th October (details here).
Meanwhile, to end with, a few caricatures from the site run by those lovely people at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale:
and finally, still from Lewis Walpole Library, this one of the dandy with his shape distorted by stays, padding and so on: