Synchronisity is an amazing thing. I wrote this post in January of 2012, and got it completely finished all save one last quote from Queen of Fashion that I wanted to add, and then got distracted and never published it. And then, at the beginning of August, I came across my not-published post, and went to the library to borrow Queen of Fashion, only to find it was out. Literally two days later Kendra at Demode posted about making a robe de coer and started the 2014 18th Court Ensembles Project.
Well, Queen of Fashion has finally come back in, and just in time, because I’ve finally been tempted into joining the Court Ensembles project. I actually have the beginnings of a 17th century robe de cour in my UFO pile, but it’s not 18th century, so instead I’ll be making this:
Alexis Simon Belle (1674–1734) , Portrait of Louis XV as a child pointing to a portrait of his fiancée the Infanta Mariana Victoria of Spain, circa 1723
Obviously I mean Mariana Victoria (yellow-gold brocade….rrrrow), though if things go really well Mr D is going to find himself sporting a russet velvet justacorpse.
So, now that I’m making one, what is a robe de cour? Kendra has already posted about the basics, but you can never have too much terminology information! (or at least that’s what I think), and besides, I already had this pretty much written.
A robe de cour, also called a robe de corpse, grand habit, grand habit de cour, and in English, the stiff bodied gown or straight bodied gown, was the formal court wear across much of Europe, and most particularly in France, throughout the 18th century. It was based on a design implemented by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the 1680s. It consists of a stiff, boned bodice which laces up the back, a skirt, a separate train worn either at the waist or falling from the shoulders, and detachable lace sleeves.
Louis XIV admired women’s decollate and shoulders (really, to the point where he refused to allow even the older women of the French court to cover them, in church, in the middle of winter) and despised the informal loose robes (mantua) that were becoming stylish at the end of the 17th century. To counter them, he had the off-the shoulder, fitted bodice robe de cour designed and made mandatory wear for women at all formal events at the French court. In 1704 he angrily ordered two noble ladies from the theatre for daring to show up wearing something other than a robe de cour.
Madame the Duchess of Orleans was much in favour of the robe de cour at the turn of the 18th century, claimed to own no gowns but robe de cour and riding habits, and said:
At Versailles which is considered the royal residence, everyone who comes into the King’s presence or into ours , must be in full Court dress, but at Marly, Meudon, and Saint-Cloud mantuas are worn, also for travelling. I find Court dress much more convenient than mantuas, which I can’t endure.
A robe de cour is notable for the stiff boned bodice worn without stays. Louis XIV based the robe de cour on the gowns that had been fashionable when he was a young man in the 1660s & 1670s, like the ones I used as inspiration for the Ninon gown.
Élisabeth (Isabelle) d’Orléans, Duchess of Guise by Beaubrun in the 17th century fore-runner of a robe de cour, 1670
The bodices of robe de cour have wide, off the shoulder necklines, but the based on extent portraits, the neckline still manages to be relatively modest, and few portraits show any visible cleavage. Robe de cour were often worn with an extra piece of lace above the low neckline of the bodice itself.
Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Austria (1743–1808), 1760s
Below the neckline were very small sleeves of the same fabric as the bodice, and the rest of the arms were covered by detachable lace sleeves with rows of stiff, pleated lace.
The arrangement of the ruffles, and the shape of the lace sleeve, changed slightly from decade to decade, so portraits can be dated based on the style of sleeve.
Though the robe de cour was worn without stays, the heavy boning that was built into it and the back lacing that held it closed meant that it was more constricting than stays. In a modern sense, we view visible garment lacing as risqué – associated as it is with corsetry and undergarments. In contrast, in the early 18th century it was the pinned-on mantua, with its hidden closures and ability to be worn without a boned undergarment (and thus the implication that the wearer could undress and redress herself quickly), that was risqué, and the back-laced robe de cour was the epitome of propriety.
Though robe de cour were always made of rich fabrics, the bodices could be further ornamented with stomachers and jewellery (including jewelled stomachers). Diamonds, the favourite of Louis XIV, were often used, though many stones were used, both on the bodice, and the skirt. When Marie Leszczynska was married “the Fore-Sides of her Stays and her peticoat shinn’d with divers pretious stones.”
François Albert Stiemart, Marie Leszczyńska at Versailles, 1726
The shape of the skirt worn with the robe de cour had always changed with the fashions of the time, but the bodice, barring some very slight alterations in style, remained quite static. The only major change in the bodice style was a shift in the 1770s and 1780s from very low, scooped shoulder-baring necklines to slightly higher, squarer necklines that matched the current fashions. Compare the necklines of the extent green bodice below, with the earlier yellow bodice at the end of the post.
Robe de Cour sur le grand panier, cette robe est de gros de Naples et garnie de dentelle entrelassée de rubans noués de distance en distance, Gallerie des Modes, 1778; MFA 44.1354
Court bodice associated with Marie Antoinette ca. 1780-87, from the Musee Galliera
Because the shape of robe de cour skirts change with current fashions. The first robe de cour were worn without hooped petticoats, as the panier did not become common in France until at least 1720. In the 1720s robe de cour had relatively restrained, conical skirts:
Le Mariage de Louis XV et de Marie Lecszinka dans la chapelle de Fontainebleau le 5 septembre 1725 Marie wears a blue robe de cour
In the 1760s the skirts become enormous, but very thin and rectangular:
Sofia Magdalena’s wedding gown, robe de cour, worn at the wedding at the Palace Church November 4, 1766.
Martin van Meytens (1695–1770) Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814) 1760-70, Wikimedia Commons
By the 1780s, the skirts were not as extreme and rectangular, but they were laden with a profusion of trimmings.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) Description English- Marie Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France (1755-1793), 1783
There were also regional differences in skirt shape. In the 1740s-60s the English tended to wear a very rectangular hoop, where the French wore a hoop, that, while just as wide at the hem, was more sloping and less square at the corners.
The train of the robe de cour could be worn either from the shoulders, or from the waist, though the latter was more common. The length of the train was an indication of status: the longer the train, the higher the rank of the wearer. The etiquette of train wearing varied from country to country. In England one held ones train up, draped over one arm, as a sign of respect. In France, despite the much-remarked upon filth of Versailles’ hallways, one wore one’s train down as a sign of respect.
Francoise-Marie de Bourbon, legitimised daughter of Louis XIV, at her marriage, 1692
In France, throughout most of the 18th century the robe de cour was mandatory at all formal occasions in the presence of a royal. When presented, ladies wore a black and white (or silver) robe de cour, and the next day, they appeared at court in a coloured robe de cour.
M. Garsault in the 1769 Encyclopedia Description des Arts et Métiers, describes:
‘The day the Lady is presented to the King and Queen, etc., the bodice, train and petticoat must be black: bit all the trimmings are of lace, net, etc. The upper arm, except at the top close to the shoulder where the black sleeve of the bodice is seen, is covered with two flounces of white lace, one below the other, to the elbow. Under the lower flounce there is a decorated band (bracelet noir, forme de pompons). There is also a border of white lace around the neck-line and under that a narrow black tippet (palatine) also decorated from neck to waist: the petticoat and bodice are decorated with puffs, all of which are made from net, lace, etc., also gold.
‘When the day of presentation has passed, everything that was black is replaced by coloured or gold material. This style of dress has long been worn and has remained unchanged until the present day for ceremonial wear.
If the Lady to be presented is not able to endure the heavily boned bodice than she is allowed to wear a lighter one, covered with a mantilla, with the court train and petticoat. As the mantilla covers the upper arm the top lace flounce, which would not be seen, is omitted. The mantilla is made from any light material such as gauze, net, lace, etc.
There were occasions to wear other gowns, but leaving off the robe de cour was considered a privilege. In 1754 the Duc de Luynes wrote:
Two or three days before the Court leaves for Fontainebleau or Compiégne ladies are permitted to wear a robe de chambre. Those who are not travelling or do not go in the carriages of the Queen, Madame la Dauphine, or Mesdames, must always wear full court dress.
It was in the 1770s, that Louis XVI, influenced by Marie Antoinette who called robe de cour “obsolete and unbearable”, allowed women to wear modified robe de cour, with smaller paniers and shorter trains, and to wear robe a la francaise at all but the most formal occasions. In the 1783 he went further, and it became acceptable to wear a grande robe a la francaise (one worn with large paniers) in lieu of a robe de cour, except when a lady was being presented to the King, Queen or a Princess or Prince of the royal blood, and at ceremonial bals (unless, presumably, her health prevented her from wearing boned bodices).
The English term for the robe de cour was a rather literal ‘Stiff-bodied gown’. Mary Granville described the wedding of Anne, Princess Royal, to the Prince of Orange in 1734, and Anne’s gown of silver tissue:
The Princess of Orange’s dress was the prettiest thing that ever was seen – a corpse de robe, that is in plain English, a stiff-bodied gown. The peers’ daughters that held up her train were in the same sort of dress – all white and silver, with great quantities of jewels in their hair and long locks’
A portrait of Anne’s sister in law, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, painted at the time of Augusta’s marriage to Frederick in 1736 shows her in a similar ensemble of brocaded silver fabric which was probably her wedding dress. Silver robe de cour were the standard wedding dresses for royal brides across Europe in the 18th century, from Augusta to Catherine the Great to Marie Antoinette, among others.
Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales (1719-1772) by Charles Philips, 1736, Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, image via Wikimedia Commons
There is only one extent English robe de cour bodice that I am aware of, now in the collection of the FIDM Museum
The robe de cour was never mandatory in England, as it was in France, and there was no occasion in which it was not acceptable to wear a formal mantua (one worn with extremely wide paniers, and from the 1740s onward, triple sleeve ruffles) in lieu of a robe de cour. The mantua, distinctive from the robe a la francaise because of its folded and pleated back and hanging train, remained the acceptable court dress in England long after the garment went out of fashion for any other use. By the time this 1750s mantua was made, a mantua was unlikely to be seen anywhere in England accept at court.
Formal English court mantua worn with French style hoops, English with French fabric, 1755-1760 (garment) 1753-1755 (fabric), Silk, silver-gilt thread, linen thread, silk thread, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.592:1 to 7-1993
The Austrians also wore robe de cour for many occasions during the reign of Maria Theresa, but when Marie Antoinette’s brother, Joseph II assumed power in 1765 he attempted to reduce the formality of the court costume in Vienna, and the robe de cour was seen less frequently. Before that, Austrian court costume had been heavily based on the French example, though they seemed to have a few regional quirks, my favourite being the elaborate robing ‘leis’ lappets (possibly the tippets described as palatine) worn by the Austrian princesses in many of their portraits.
The robe de cour was also worn by many other European courts, but the style was always defined by France, and the dresses often came directly from France. The gown that Marie Antoinette was ceremonially divested of when she went from being an Austrian Archduchess to being a French Dauphine had been made in France, and many other royal ladies sent to France for their robe de cour.
Not surprisingly, robe de cour were extremely expensive, and could cost thousands of livres. It took 20 to 22 yards of fabric (though this would be quite narrow widths). The tailleur de corps would make the bodice and train, the couturier the skirt, and the marchant de mode would provide the trim. Marie Antoinette was said to order 12 grand habits (robe de cour), 12 robe pareés (slightly less formal robes with paniers), and 12 informal robes every season. Quite an investment considering that in 1787 a grand habit cost the equivalent of 2,000 days wages for a worker!
The French Revolution momentarily did away with the robe de cour in France, but the precedent it had set remained in other countries. The hoop was so much a fixture of formal English court dress, that a hooped dress remained mandatory court presentation wear until 1820, despite how ridiculous one looked when paired with high-waisted Regency fashions.
The Marchioness of Townshend in court dress, La Belle Assemblee, 1806
The detached train, the ultimate symbol of status, remained part of presentation wear at the English court into the 20th century, and its echos can still be seen today in the prevalence of trains in modern bridal wear. Speaking of trends in modern bridal wear, I’m not a personal fan of the trend for strapless dresses, but I suspect Louis XIV would have approved!
Lady Blades in her court presentation ensemble, 1927, Lafayette Photo Studio
Arch, Nigel & Marschner, Joanna. Splendor at Court: Dressing for Royal Occasions since 1700. Unwin Hyman: Sydney. 1987.
Buck, Anne. Dress in 18th Century England, B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1979
Hart, Avril and North, Susan. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Fashion in Detail. V&A Publishing: London. 2009
Riberio, Aileen. Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe 1715-1789. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1984.
Riberio, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1988
Mansel, Philip. Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II. Yale University Press: London. 2005.
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930. Faber and Faber: London. 1968
Weber: Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. Picador: New York. 2006.
Up until the mid-19th century, almost all dyes were made from materials found in plants (indigo, woad, woad, madder, brazilwood, tumeric and others), animals (shellfish purple, cochineal), and minerals. While these dyes could produce an amazing range of colours, there were still some colours that couldn’t be produced by natural means, and some of the colours that could be produced by natural means were inclined to run, fade, or to destroy the very fabrics they dyed.
Then, in 1856 William Henry Perkin, a young chemistry student, working at home, after hours, in a makeshift laboratory, trying to create a chemically identical artificial version of quinine (a very valuable plant-based drug which was used to treat malaria), thought to experiment with the results of another failed attempt.
The result of his experiment on his experiment was mauveine (also known as Perkin’s mauve, aniline purple, harmaline,Tyrian purple, plain old mauve, and, if you want to be extremely technical, 3-amino-2,±9-dimethyl-5-phenyl-7-(p-tolylamino)phenazinium acetate). Mauveine was a combination of aniline (a common extract of coal tar) and other compounds which created a brilliant purple which was the first mass produced chemical dye.* Mauveine would lead the way to dyes in dozens of other shades, all made from aniline from coal tar, and to everything from the modern dyes we use today, to cancer treatments.
Perkin called it first Tyrian purple, after the shellfish-based purple worn by Roman emperors, and then, when it was pointed out that this name was confusing (referring, as it did, to a real animal based dye), mauve, after the mallow flower. In scientific papers he referred to it as mauveine. I’ve chosen to use this last name, as it avoids confusion between mauve (Perkin’s colour) and mauve (the generic pinky lilac colour).
That’s the basic story of how aniline dyes were invented, but the backstory behind it, and the story of how Perkins’ initial experiment in the attic of his father’s house made him a rich man, are just as interesting.
To start with, the fact that Perkin was studying chemistry was pretty amazing in and of itself. Chemistry was in its very infancy as a science, and most of the rest of the scientific and industrial world thought that chemistry, at best, produced a few neat party tricks but had little practical applications, and that at worst, it was just a new form of alchemy. It is only because the English royal family had such strong ties with Germany, which had a chemistry community, that there was a school of chemistry at all in England for Perkin to study at, and a brilliant German chemist for him to study under.
Perkin’s discovery wasn’t actually unique: other chemists, and even Perkin himself, had noticed that extracts of coal tar could create colours. As early as 1826 chemists had noticed that aniline was a component of plant based indigo dye. By 1840 they knew it was also a by-product of coal tar, and that it could produce colours. In Feb 1856 Perkin had even submitted a report on a bright crimson colour that was the result of an experiment with hydrogen and benzol (which is a byproduct of coal tar). So Perkin’s great achievement is not that he found a colour out of aniline or another coal by-product, but that he pursued its possibilities.
Not only did Perkin pursue the possibilities of his discovery, but he did so in the face of great disapproval. His father had not wanted him to become a chemist in the first place, and Hoffman, his brilliant German mentor, was not brilliant enough to realise that a chemist could be both a scientist and a businessman, and that practical chemistry need not detract from pure chemistry. Hoffman called Perkin’s discovery ‘Purple sludge’ and told him that if he pursued industry, he would never be able to return to chemistry.
In order to make his colour into a dye, and his dye into a business, Perkin had to convince his father to bankroll what seemed a mad enterprise (too mad for any bank to agree to fund it) and leave his mentor, and (he thought) and chance of a proper scientific career behind. Perkin risked everything, and he got his family to risk everything, for his idea.
The idea was pretty mad: Perkin knew that his solution dyed fabric a brilliant purple, but he knew nothing of the dye industry, nothing of fashion, and little of business. To make matters worse, his initial mauve dye would not dye cotton: only silk and wool, and cotton was a hugely popular fabric in late 1850s. Plus, extracted aniline was prohibitively expensive, making the production of the dye unprofitable.
Amazingly, Perkin persevered. After much experimentation he found that tannin (the stuff that makes tea taste bitter if you let it sit too long) worked as a mordant which attached mauveine to cotton. He figured out a way to extract aniline less expensively. He also found a dyer to work with, found a spot for a factory, and built his own factory to produce mauveine dye. That’s right – rather than discovering the dye and then immediately rolling in the riches, Perkins had to build his own factory to produce it, and find industry dyers to buy it.
Luckily for Perkin, his timing was perfect. Just as he launched his first dyes, the French Empress Eugenie, the most fashionable woman in Europe, and certainly the most imitated in terms of dress, decided that lilacs, purples and mauves matched her eyes perfectly. Probably on her advice Queen Victoria wore, to the wedding of her daughter the Princess Royal in 1858, a dress of “rich mauve velvet, trimmed with three rows of lace…the petticoat, mauve and silver moiré antique”. The mauve of Queen Victoria’s dress was more lilac than brilliant purple, and was almost certainly the product of natural dyes made from lichen, but the result was the same: all shades of purple were in.
By 1859 an English newspaper wrote that Mr Perkin “can itinerate Regent Street and perambulate the Parks, seeing the colours of thy heart waving on ever fair head and fluttering round every cheek.” The satire paper Punch, predictably, was less flattering and described London as being struck by an epidemic of mauve measles, a serious illness which began with “a rash of ribbons” and progressed to cover the whole body in mauve. According to Punch women were particularly susceptible to the disease, but ‘a single dose of ridicule’ was usually enough to cure a man.
The popularity of mauve and mauveine dye was boosted by the fashion for the crinoline at its widest, and the increased lengths of fabric that took, not to mention the need for pretty stockings and petticoats that were often exposed by gusts of wind and unfortunate seating.
Fashion plate featuring a girls dress in mauveine, a ladies bonnet with magenta ribbons, and a walking dress in aniline green, English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, June 1864
Mauve, as exciting as it was, could not be the cutting edge of fashion forever, and in 1861 it was falling out of style, to be replaced by 1859′s Verguin’s fuchsine (a rich crimson red, also known as solferino and magenta), and in the 1860s, Bismark brown, Hofmann’s violet (a different vivid purple, and yes, its named after the Hofmann who derided ‘Purple sludge’), Magdala red, Manchester brown, Martius yellow, Nicholson’s blue (a vivid teal blue), aniline yellow, bleu de Lyon, bleu de Paris, and aldehyde green.
To compete, Perkin came up with another flower-themed shade: dahlia, a colour between mauvine & magenta; the patriotic Britannia violet (appropriate as he was having to compete with numerous continental dye companies), which was a deep blue; Perkin’s green; an aniline black; and the rich purple seen in the frock below.
Day dress, Great Britain, United Kingdom, France, 1873, Silk and ruching, Victoria & Albert Museum T.51&A-1922
While the best known and most obvious aniline shades are extremely bright and vivid, not all aniline dyes are extremely bright. Customers enjoyed the novelty of bright shades which had never been previously possible, but aniline dyes were also valued for their washability and lightfastness. Dyers such as Perkin went to great lengths to prove that their dyes were more durable and washable than natural dyes, and that the only aniline dyes that faded, stained and came out in the was were those that were prepared and dyed improperly. Part of what made aniline dyes so successful is that they had attributes that made them valuable beyond their initial aesthetic: they were easier to source, cheaper, and often worked better than their natural alternatives. From the very early years of aniline dyes, muted, subdued aniline shades were made and sold, but it is much more difficult to identify garments made from aniline dyes in shades that could also be made from natural dyes.
All the new aniline dyes became more and more popular, the market for natural dyes collapsed. Cochineal dropped in price from 15 cents per kilo in 1858 to 8 francs in 1862, safflower from 45 to 25 cents per kilo. The madder industry was wiped out forever. Even when the fad for the brightest, most vivid, early shades disappeared, the old natural colours were replaced by synthetic variants. Aniline dyes were here to stay.
This dress may have been dyed with ‘dahlia’ or a similar shade, or even a natural dye. Paris, France, 1869-1870, Vignon, Ribbed silk trimmed with satin, faced with cotton, brass, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.118 to D-1979
And what of Perkin? I’m happy to report that he reaped the benefits of his discovery, his daring, and his perseverance. His business prospered, he became comfortably wealthy, respected as a businessman and a chemist. He continued to make important scientific discoveries throughout his life Tragically, he lost his first wife to TB, but he had a happy second marriage, and his children went into the family industry. Ironically, it was the scoffing Hofmann who initially was given (and happily took) the credit for the discovery of aniline dyes, but Perkins preferred research, work and family life to an endless round of speaking and adulation. As the 19th century passed his public profile rose and rose, until the 50th anniversary of his discovery was commemorated with dinners and medals across the globe.
* Contrary to popular belief, mauveine wasn’t the first chemical dye. In 1771 indigo was combined with nitric acid to dye silk a bright yellow, and both red aurin made from carbolic acid and deep blue pittacal made from beechwood tar were discovered in 1834. The difference is that none of these was produced in any notable quantity, nor did they inspire chemists and dyers to pursue other chemical based dyes.
For more examples of aniline dyes, see my pinterest page.
Finlay, Victoria. Colour: Travels through the Paintbox. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2002
Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World. London: Faber and Faber Limited. 2000
I’ve already posted about the difference between swiss waists, waist cinchers, corsets & corselets. This week, I’m going back in history, and back to basics, to discuss the differences between stays, jumps & corsets.
Stays, was the term used for the fully boned laces bodices worn under clothes from the late 16th or early 17th century, until the end of the 18th century. Before this boned garments were called (in English at least) a ‘pair of bodies’ – for each side of the stays.
Extant stays (Queen Elizabeth’s effigy bodies) ca. 1603
via here (but if anyone knows the original source I’d prefer to credit it!)
The term stays probably comes from the French estayer: to support, because that is exactly what stays did. Stays turned the torso into a stiff, inverted cone, raising and supporting the bust, and providing a solid foundation on which the garments draped. Despite their heavy boning, and how stiff and constricting they may seem to modern eyes, stays were originally seen as more informal wear, as opposed to garments with the boning built in, such as the robe de coer.
Stays were more commonly worn in England than in France. 18th century visitors to England consistently commented on how even the peasants wore stays, though they might only have one pair (often leather) which was worn constantly without washing.
In France the peasants, in general, appear to have gone without stays, and even among the aristocracy stays, though usually worn, were only mandatory at formal court functions. Even then, a lady could be excused from wearing them if her health made them inadvisable. Throughout the 18th century there were fashions that allowed women to go stayless: the robe battante could disguise an un-supported body, though wearing one too long might cause rumours of pregnancy or simply create an impression of slovenliness and laxity of morals. Stays were a literal symbol of a woman’s uprightness and virtue.
In addition to meaning the garment itself, the term ‘stay’ could refer to the boning inside a garment, so each bone is, in itself, a stay. In 1688 Randal Holme described a mantua as “a sort of loose coat without any stays in it.”
Jumps were softer, significantly less boned (and sometimes completely unboned), bodices or soft stays which still provided some bust support, but did not shape the body into such a ‘elegant’ cone shape. They laced up the front, and thus were easier for a lady to put on and take off by herself.
Originally used for informal wear at the start to the of the 18th century, they were worn throughout the century as a more comfortable alternative to stays, and became more popular at the end of the century with the change in fashion from the elaborate 18th century styles to the softer neoclassical styles.
Jumps had an interesting public image. On one hand, they were promoted as a healthier alternative to stays by doctors and others who felt that too restrictive stays were unhealthy. In 1740 Mrs Delaney wrote to her sister imploring her not to lace tightly, and sending a pair of jumps for her to wear instead. On the other, a woman in jumps was less impeccably dressed, and less morally impeccable, in stays. A 1762 poem describes a woman as “Now a neat shape in stays, now a slattern in jumps.”
As the fashions changed and the popularity of jumps rose, other forms of soft undergarments also evolved. Among these was the corset.
Corset, like corsage, comes from the French term for a body (corps) and the term was first used in France in the 1770s (though there had been an earlier Medieval/Renaissance usage of corset which described a decorative sleeveless bodice). In 1777 a corset was described (in French) as “a little pair of stays usually made of quilted linen without bones that ladies fasten in front with strings or ribbon and that they wear in deshabille.”
By the 1780s the term had reached England via fashion writers describing the new French garments as ‘a quilted waistcoat which is called un corset, without any kind of stiffening.”
It’s quite clear in early writings that corsets were significantly softer and less structured than corsets. An Englishwoman visiting Paris in 1802 wrote home about Paris fashions: “THREE petticoats? No one wears more than one! STAYS? Every body has left off even corsets.”
The one problem with terms like ‘jumps’ and ‘corset’ is that we’re not always sure which garments would have been called what at each decade. Fashion has always been a spectrum, and it is quite likely that one woman might have a garment which she would call jumps, while another would call the item a corset. The yellow waistcoat posted above is a good example. Garments that fit an identical description are described as jumps in the mid-18th century, but so are significantly more structured undergarments. Modern costume historians sometimes use terms like ‘transitional stays’ to describe the garments between heavily boned stays and the longline corsets of the 1810s etc, but of course this is not a term that would ever have been used in-period.
Other terms of supportive undergarments seen as fashion went through a series of massive chances in the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th were (in roughly chronological order) short stays (for short, lighter boned stays), bust bodices (for boned, wrapped pro-bras) and demi-corsets (shorter, lightly boned corsets used for informal wear).
As waistlines dropped in the late 1810s, boning returned to undergarments. Corset, however, remained in use as a term for supportive undergarments, now referring to the more boned, waist-cinching undergarments, rather than the soft waistcoats they had originally indicated. Stays and corsets were used quite interchangeably in the early decades of the 19th century. A training manual for ladies maids written in 1825 describes the garments as “…stays, corsets, or whatever other name may be given to the stiff casing that is employed to compress the upper part of the body”.
As the 19th century progressed, corset became the more common term for the boned, laced garment, but the term stays remained in common usage, both for the garment, and even more so, for the actual pieces of bone in the corset. There are frequent uses of the term ‘stays’ as a synonym for corsets into the early 20th century, sometimes for its pun potential, with amusingly dreadful results.
Corset in blue silk, circa 1890
The link between lacing and propriety also remained, though in a less obvious form. A relatively balanced 1889 discussion on corsets describes a laced figure as “neat and tidy” and an unlaced figure as “loose and négligé.”
It has only been in the 20th and 21st centuries, long past the days of constrictive undergarments being commonly worn, that we have abandoned the word ‘stays’ as a synonym for corset. As historical costumers we use ‘stays’ almost exclusively as a term for 17th & 18th century boned undergarments, but historically speaking we would be just as correct to say “my new stays are the most comfortable pair I’ve made yet” about an 1880s corset.
Pink satin corset, c.1890, Vintage Textile
Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth Century Clothing at Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg. 1986.
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