Learn
comments 13

A quick guide to corset & stay styles from 1750 to 1850

In last week’s (well, almost week before lasts at this point!) Five for Friday post, when I discussed transitional stays, and succumbing to the temptation to make ‘reenactor style’ Regency stays (which, you will be pleased to hear, I have not!), I didn’t make it clear what either was.  So naturally, people asked!

I was going to just write about transitional stays and reenactor stays, but how can you write about a transition if you don’t show what something is transitioning from, and towards?  And how can I show something is a reenactorism if I don’t show what the reality was?  I realised that both needed more background, and deserved complete posts.

So, here is the slightly longer, more complicated, post with a history of supportive undergarments (i.e. stays and corsets – read this post for the difference between the two) from 1750 to 1850.  This is intended as a very general introduction to the way the types of supportive undergarments period, rather than an in-depth exploration.  One could easily write a full blog post about the design and style intricacies of any one of the garments featured!

I’ll blog about reenactorisms and Regency short stays later.

When we start our tour of boned, supportive undergarments in the middle of the 18th century, the predominant garment was the fully boned, tabbed stays, with a long torso, and with or without straps:

Stays, United Kingdom, 1740-1760, 1947.1622, Manchester City Galleries

Stays, United Kingdom, 1740-1760, 1947.1622, Manchester City Galleries

Vertical or angled channels are sewn all ’round the stays, and slim ‘bones’ of reed or whalebone are slipped into every channel.  The stays provided a solid surface on which to pin and support the weight of the gown worn over, and formed the torso into a cone, lifting and compressing the bust.

Stays from this period often featured decorative lacing across the front of the stays.

As we move into the last quarter of the 18th century, fully boned stays become less common, replaced with ‘half-boned’ stays, where only parts of the stays are boned, with angled, vertical, and horizontal boning channels:

Although they were less boned, the stays still provided a straight, vertical silhouette, as demonstrated in ‘Bath stays or The lady’s steel shapes‘ which caricatured stays as being formed from solid metal:

There are numerous examples of stays from this period with partial front lacing, which was nominally functional, as adjusting it would allow for a more rounded bust silhoeutte:

As we move into the 1780s, the silhouette becomes less straight up and down, and begins to angle forward, in the so-called ‘prow-front’.  As this happens, the length of the stays begins to shorted drastically.

Half-boned stays, 1770s-80s, French, Museé du Costume et de la Dentelle

Note the length, and the forward-thrust of the bust on this pair from Abiti Antichi, compared to the 1777 caricature:

The shorter, ‘prow-fronted’ stays of the late 1780s and 90s are what are usually known as ‘transitional stays’ as they signal a transition from the long, solid, conical stays of the 18th century, and the shorter, softer, ‘Regency’ stays, with an emphasis on the bust.    They match the transitional fashions, which move from the classic 18th century silhouette, to the classic 1800s Empire/Regency silhouette.

As the 18th century drew to a close, the waistline of dresses rose along with the shortened length of stays, and the emphasis on the forward-thrust of the bust became more pronounced, as did (for this first time in centuries) the emphasis on the breasts as two individual shapes, rather than  one single bust mass.  This led to corsets with separated bust cups:

While the bust cups are very distinct, the lower shape of these stays, and the boning layouts, is still very similar to the 1780s/90s stays, and these are also considered transitional stays:

By the early 19th century, the fashionable silhouette had completely abandoned any emphasis on the waist, and instead focused entirely on a high, rounded bust.

Corset de Ninon, Costume Parisien 1810

The transition from the 18th century cone, to the Empire/Regency ‘boobs on a tube’ (as a friend of mine likes to call it!) was complete!

This period saw a great deal of experimentation in undergarments, with examples of wrapped corsets, tiny under-bust supportersproto-bras, and even claims from period commentators (1802) that in France no one wore stays and ….”Every body has left off even corsets.” (corsets were soft, un-boned stays at the time – so the writer is implying that woman were doing without any bust support at all).

Wrapped corset, ca 1800, Musee Galliera

Wrapped corset, ca 1800, Musee Galliera

Connecticut Historical Society- 1963.42.4 - c1805. Buff yellow cotton (possibly nankeen) stays for a large woman

Connecticut Historical Society- 1963.42.4 – c1805. Buff yellow cotton (possibly nankeen) stays for a large woman

While 1795-1810 shows a great deal of experimentation in corset styles, from 1810 onwards corsets/stays were lightly boned, corded, usually hip length, back laced garments with gussets allowing them to fit in the bust and over the hips:

Stays, 1813

In the 1810s the emphasis was on lifting the bust, and there is little waist compression, but as the century progressed the shape transitioned to have more emphasis on the waist, and you see more cording used to provide shaping and compression.

What did not change was the use of a stiff front busk (usually removable, so its not seen with many extant corsets) to provide a very straight front angle, and the lack of boning.  Notice how the following three corsets have no visible front boning of any sort, except the busk.

As the shaping of the corsets began to emphasise a narrower waist in the 1820s (corresponding with the lowering of the waistline of dresses from their extremely high lines in the 1800s), the line of the bust also began to lower. Notice how much longer the length of the bust gussets is on the following two corsets, compared to the one above:

By the end of the 1830s the silhouette is becoming distinctly hour-glassy, and the bust gussets begin just above the waist, forming the low, soft bust curve that would characterise fashion for the next two decades:

Wedding corset, 1839, MFA Boston

While the corsets of the 1810s, ’20s & early ’30s are almost invariably white, tan or light brown cotton, fancy silk corsets begin to appear at the end of the 1830s: as do many other characteristics that we associate with classic Victorian corsets, such as extensive boning, flossing (that’s the fancy thread work at the ends of the bones, which helped to hold them in place) and lace trims at the bust:

I haven’t done a comprehensive study of this, but have noticed that most of the definitively dated early (1840s) silk corsets come in similar shades to their cotton counterparts: white, tan, buff, and beige.  Only after 1850 have I noticed silk corsets in more exciting shades (Cooincidence of my research, or definite trend? Something to add to my research pile!)

The final innovation which would have the most drastic effect on who wore corsets (almost all women, because now it was possible to put one on without assistance) and how they were shaped (curvaceously and bodaciously) was the front opening busk, which came into widespread use in the 1850s:

Notice how most of the shaping in this final corset is still achieved with the addition of gussets, but there are seams connecting the gussets, hinting at the princess seamed corsets that would appear later in the century?

So, from long cone, to short cone, to short cone with a lip (Transition part #1), short cone with boobs (Transition part #2), high boobs on a tube, highish boobs with gentle curves, gradually transitioning to gently rounded lower boobs with ALL the curves, that’s my quick tour of the change in stay/corset styles from 1750 to 1850.

Further reading:

And obviously:

  • Hart, Avril and North, Susan.  Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Fashion in Detail.  V&A Publishing: London.  2009
  • Salen, Jill. Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques.  London: Batsford.  2008
  • Steel, Valerie. Corsets: A Social History,
  • Waugh, Norah. Corsets & Crinolines.  Theatre Art Books: London.  1954
  • Waugh, Norah.  The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930.  Faber and Faber: London.  1968

13 Comments

  1. The one thing I’m still figuring out is what are “bodies,” I’ve heard references to them, but not a definition that makes them different from stays or corsets.

  2. Thanks much for the *very* educational post. Because I’m interested mostly in pre-stay/pre-corset eras, I’ve never really thought about the trend of the shaping differences, let alone the distinction between corsets and stays (though I knew what “jumps” were, oddly enough).

  3. Thank you very much for putting this together. It should be very useful for introducing the unitiated. 😉

    I tend to think of transitional stays as the boobs-on-a-cone kind, myself… I’ve never fully realised that the previous development counted as a transition, too, even though I do in fact think of it in those terms, too (as a transitional period that I’m fascinated by).

    Also, I think that one comment you cite about everyone in France going without is solely responsible for the confusion in Czech books about the subject. Clearly, someone’d taken an outsider’s comment (which in itself indicates stays were worn elsewhere) from a single point in time, and drew conclusions about the whole era, and now everyone cites them. I wish I knew who did it first. Who was it that made that very first comment?

  4. Carrie says

    This is a great timeline! Thank you. Although I doubt you will have a chance to visit the US- Washington, DC, DAR Museum by April 29, we have a temporary exhibit installed and one of the installations includes a timeline of corsets & stays of a shorter period of time. We have an online exhibit to view some of the garments on display here: http://agreeabletyrant.dar.org/.

    • Elise says

      DAR does a lot of interesting work–and it’s all ladies! Women really get things done.

      This really was a neat post. Interestingly, we are in a transitional period right now in fashion. It makes it tricky to buy clothes: you don’t want to waste money and environmental impact on something that will run out of style too soon, but you don’t want to look too dated too fast, either.

      Swell post!

  5. Kirstin says

    Hello,

    I adore your site and use it for research when writing historical settings (if published I will reference you!)

    I wonder if I may ask you a couple of questions related to this as I am writing a novel set in 1847! Were the busks still separate and inserted into the front of corsets after lacing? Were the corsets spiral / fan laced as previously or had the ‘bunny ears’ method arrived with the start of tight lacing? Could a lady do up her own corset by slackening the laces enough to drop it over her head or step into it if slim enough?

    Many many thanks for all the work you do, it is endlessly fascinating to read and digest

    Kira

  6. Sixer says

    Thank you, quite informative! I never get tired of being reminded how much one’s concept of the human body as a shape is mostly a fancy of fashion. I wonder what hip-py, “pear-ish” women did in Regency times – ruin their Grecian lines or stuff their stays?

  7. Looking at the changes in corsetry like this really shows what a period of experimentation the early 19th century was. It’s so interesting to see how the fashions and the technology and the construction techniques evolve.

  8. Emelie says

    Thank you so much, Leimomi, for an informative post with a wonderful visual timeline. It was most appreachiated.

    But oh, that poor pair of cupped, long transistional stays, someone has laced them up all wrong! The placements of the holes in relation to each other quite clearly means that they are ment to be spiral laced, and now the two halves don’t match.

  9. Cat says

    The description of the 1850s corset calls the extra metal tab on the busk a “petticoat hook” — and I assume the double hook on the c1839-41 is the same sort of thing. Would these have been used to keep petticoat waistbands down and away from the actual waistline of the dress?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *