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.
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 cour.
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 thus 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 stays. 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 proto-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, but 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.
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 neglige.”
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.
Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth Century Clothing at Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg. 1986.
Bulcock, J. The Duties of a Lady’s Maid;: With Directions for Conduct, and Numberous Receipts for the Toilette. Google eBook. Retrieved 26/8/13
Cumming, Valerie and Cunnington, C.W.; Cunnington, P.E, The Dictionary of Fashion History (Rev., updated ed.). Oxford: Berg Publishers. 2010
Delaney, Mary. Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany: With Interesting Reminiscences of King George the Third and Queen Charlotte. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press: London. 2001.
Steele, Valerie (ed). The Berg Companion to Fashion. Oxford: Berg Publishers. 2010
Vincent, Susan. The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Oxford: Berg Publishers. 2009