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:
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.
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.
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 supporters, proto-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).
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:
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:
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.
- What’s the Difference between Stays, Jumps & a Corset?
- Diderot’s Encyclopedia 1771 – plates relating to tailors (scroll down for corset diagrams)
- Rococo Atelier: Constructing 18th century stays
- 18th century Stays: the interior of an extant pair of child’s stays
- Kleidung um 1800: Short Stays Studies
- Kleidung um 1800: Short Stays Studies II: Wrap Stays
- Kleidung um 1800: Short Stays a la Paresseuse
- A theoretical pattern for the Kyoto Costume Institutes wrap corset
- Pattern for a corset in the Ohio Historical Society (they say ca 1800, I’d say at least a decade later)
- Pattern for a corset in the Ohio Historical Society (they say ca 1811, I’d say closer to 1820)
- Oregon Regency Society: Achieving the proper fit with Regency stays
- Looking at the changing shapes of Regency dress & stays
- Sydney Eileen: How to fan-lace Regency stays
- Sydney Eileen: How to make a corded Regency corset
- 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
*AKA, the super short stays that look like cut-off versions of longer 1810s Regency stays. They are super popular with costumers because they are very easy to make, but historical evidence suggests they were fashion outliers at the time, making their popularity highly un-representative of what was worn at the time.