1740-1780 Stays

Secret to the 18th c. Silhouette – Stays

In 1745, the word “stays” was plural, but stays were, and are, really one very important garment. The predecessor to “corsets” that would come in 1800, they are part of a linear history that ends up in modern times with bras and panties, where women had to wear SOMETHING underneath their clothes in climates other than the tropics.

We are discussing non-indigenous women from Europe and North America, so we can cut straight to the history of stays and corsets, passing by those who wore nothing underneath or nothing on the outside.

Before the 18th century, stays were called “A Pair of Bodies”. They were forged of metal wire, or made of leather. These “bodies” through 16th and 17th century Europe and North America were usually worn on the outside as the main garment or bodice (“bodies”, “bodice”? Recognize the latin roots?).

17th century extant leather stays front and back

It was in about 1720 that “bodies” started to be worn as an undergarment. Part of the reason was the techniques improved and availability of materials and fabrics changed, but largely it was cultural; e.g. the leaders of fashion had changed, and so what was fashionable changed under their direction. The silhouette became more gracefull and longer to accommodate the whims of the French Court, and England followed the French, so of course the early English based Colonists in the “New World” that would become America, followed the English.

1720 “Pair of Bodies” transitioned the undergarment from being on the OUTside, to being on the INside at this time

Note there were no sewing machines; even the rudimentary concepts of the early leather and wool working machines wouldn’t come to light for another 120 years, so each and every stitch of every item of clothing was made by hand. After the 1850’s, and especially after the lightweight Singer machines were introduced worldwide at a price most women could afford in about 1861, most (by then called “corsets”) stays/corsets would be made by machine.

Metal eyelets were invented for practical use in garments in the 1830’s, so before that, all eyelets, closures, lacings, and everything about an undergarment was made by hand.

Extant 17th century “bodies” made 1620-40 show the beauty of its use as an outer garment

 

By men’s hands, we mean. Picture metal, leather, and thick fabrics that were used in the early 18th century (1700’s) “bodies”. Add to that the cultural “taboo” against women being tailors, and the deep history of tailor’s guilds which were all men, and you can understand why the “body” was a man’s world. (Which by the way, makes for some interesting movies and novels regarding tailors and their extra-marital exploits such as Don Juan, the fictional “libertine and Seducer of Seville” later put into the opera “Don Giovanni” in 1787 London, or the stories of real seducer Casanova and his exploits in Italy and Paris in the 1750’s).

Real life seducers like Casanova of the 1750’s often worked under the guise of tailors, clerics, or other modest professions to get information to sell. Tailors belonged to powerful guilds with political clout that meant making stays was much more than just getting close and personal with women – although many did get rather close and personal with many women.

By the 1740’s, the “bodies”, now called “stays, were essential to every woman’s wardrobe. ALL women of every class, age, size, and shape wore them in some form. Poor and middle classes had readymade or hand-me-downs from their wealthy employers or benefactors. Upper classes had custom fit.

Stays were necessary because they covered the breasts, protected the abdomen, and supported the back. Even children wore stays; boys AND girls until a certain point in childhood decided by parents (when a boy would “breech” meaning leave his long pants and the equivalent of a thundervest to wear a man’s short pants). Typically children’s were made of leather, since it was the cheapest fabric available.

Extant example of upper class 1770’s girls’ brocade stays

One must remember class and social status dictated fashion in the 18th century, so everyone had something. It was a matter of the quality, cut, fit, and design that made the difference. Even charity children were issued stays by wealthy benefactors.

There was quite a variety in the design of mid-18th century stays such as illustrated by these extant leather ones from about the 1740s.

The point was to give support and protection, and to create the fashionable silhouette. STAYS WERE NEVER MEANT TO MAKE A TINY WAIST OR TO SHAPE THE BODY. They were so stiff, and so structured, that they could stand on their own without a body in them. It was much like wearing a saddle or barrel around you.

These leather modern reproduction stays in construction at today’s historical Williamsburg site show how stiff stays were, and how they didn’t shape the body, but rather fit like a sleeve over it.

The other important job stays had was to make a smooth surface without anything that could catch or cause a tear or damage to the outer garments. They were to be the underlayment for a fashionable cone that would trick the eye into seeing that shape no matter what the shape of the wearer really was.

1720’s stays from Spain show how high end silk stays still shaped the body even on a larger woman.

There were specialty stays throughout history, and with a garment of such heavy and stiff material such as the early stays, the greatest challenges must have been to accommodate pregnancy and nursing. Since the typical woman had up to 13 babies in her lifetime (in 1765, 9-11 of those children would survive infancy in the American Colonies which was very good for the time, although women’s life expectancy was only 56 and we can guess it had to do with having babies every year of their adult lives), these would be needed.

Nursing stays, extant 1700
45 years later in 1745, the design was the same, but nursing stays were constructed a bit neater, although we imagine some women might have just cut holes.

There are few extant examples from this era of modifications for pregnancy, and a few as shown here of nursing. they would cut little “doors” out of the stays over the breasts for nursing. Pregnancy was accommodated at first by loosening the lacing, and later by wearing the stays up high or wearing shorter stays that could rest ABOVE the growing belly.

Gestational stays had slits that could be laced more and more open through the pregnancy without messing up the vertical line of the garment. They did have cross boning to support the larger breasts, and could be worn between the typical 13 pregnancies in an 18th century woman’s lifetime.
The other option, as this modern re-enactor demonstrates, was to wear your regular stays tipped precariously and raised above the stomach. This became necessary even with gestational stays at the end of a pregnancy, and was a common solution for lower class women who could not afford specialty undergarments.
If one was lucky enough to have a custom made maternity gown/robe like this reproduction ensemble, the gestational stays kept the fashionable silhouette even into late pregnancy be balancing out the design of pleats and tucks.
Those less fortunate just wore their regular clothing and hid their growing baby under the skirts.

Low class women had loose lacing and a comfortable fit. High society did some tight lacing to achieve the fit. (We can only presume that might be because lower class were lean from hard work and a different diet than high class who had more leisure and more variety in food choices, although there is no research showing that wealthy women of the time were fatter than poor; in fact, extant garments indicate everyone was very lean and smaller than today’s women in stature overall, and that the obese or extremely large woman was somewhat a rarity).

 

Silk and cotton upper class stays from 1720 indicate a long lean woman

Well fitted stays were somewhat comfortable and gave light support as one would wrap a tape around their body to give back support today. They did not pinch, and a good fit would have a 2-5″ gap in the back between the edges after lacing.

Structure in addition to the stiff and heavy fabrics, was added in specific directions and places to each individual “bodies”. Typically these were vertical or diagonal on the body, made in narrow channels. The most dominant was “baleen”, the cartilege from a whale’s mouth. 2nd was wood or reeding – sometimes hard wood carved and then slipped into narrow channels, and sometimes a naturally thin strip of wood such as bamboo that was inserted. Baleen was most popular until the next century where whales almost became extinct due to hunting them for corsetry. Today’s reproduction stays use various plastics, wood, reeding, and metal, or a combination of those.

The term “half-boned” means some areas do not have the channels and strips of stiffener inside, but only on key points. The term “fully boned” means every inch of the surface is covered with channels and stuffed with a stiffener.

You can see the boning channels in this fully boned, probably reeded 1760’s French stays detail on an extant garment. This also illustrates techniques used for binding the edges, and making lacing eyelets by hand.

In the 1730’s and 1740’s, women began to wear straps on their stays, although many still did not. Most of the “bodies” prior to that did not have straps (although some did).

Straps didn’t always mean integrated into the body of the stays, but might be a cord, ribbon, string, or separate flat piece of quilted fabric tied on, as illustrated in this 1740 extant example of a young girl’s stays.
In 1740, many stays had fully integrated shoulder straps like this extant example.
Many stays still did NOT have shoulder straps, such as this 1735 extant example. Not the fully reeded boning on this gorgeous example of the ideal silhouette of the period.

In the middle of the century (1740’s-70’s), shoulder straps became optional. It was at the end of the century (1780’s and ’90’s) when the waistlines of fashion rose, so did the waistlines of stays rise, and straps rose to great popularity, although many women still chose not to have them and that was socially acceptable. It was in the 1780’s that horizontal boning became more prevalent, although most still did not have it. The horizontal bones supported the breasts with the lower necklines of the later eras, so the breasts could be worn nearly full outside the garment without spilling over. All of the earlier stays lifted the breasts to be visible, but also somewhat flattened them as necessary to create the inverted cone shape desired for fashion.

 

In 1770 most women still wore strapless stays, although straps were commonly worn and popular. The mid-century and earlier stays somewhat flattened the breasts while lifting at the same time.
1770-80 stays like these started to have horizontal boning to lift the breasts but keep them from spilling over. By this time, integrated shoulder straps were quite prevalent and popular. Note the shortening of the waistline compared to earlier examples.
Not all stays of 1770-80 like this extant pair had horizontal boning, but the shape was changing with a higher waistline, wider fit at the top, and the increasing need for shoulder straps to hold up the weight since the boning was not doing all the support any more

DETAILS BY THE DATE

Fabrics, colors, details

(Note – there is no distinct line. Styles and designs crossed over and blended and merged. These are the common characteristics)

1710-1720

1715 stays had a long, pointed center front, back lacing only, long waist, and rarely shoulder straps.
  • Shape flat with a little curve at the bust (later ones were rounded all around)
  • Rigid frame
  • Looong and low center front point
  • Only a few laced in front AND back. Most laced on in the back
  • Outer fabrics were rich in color
  • Silk brocade for the wealthy
  • Cotton and Linen for middle and low classes
  • Most available, cheapest, and easy to get was leather, so almost all low class women wore leather

1720-1730’s

Stays of the 1720’s were actually bodices worn as the outer garment. They featured the very stiff, angular and heavily structured carpentry with a strict center front point that would soften up as time went on. These extant garments are of silks and obviously court or very high class apparel, although the colors were available to all.
  • Still a long and rigid look with central point and mostly back lacing same as last decade
  • Heavy & crisp silks
  • White, pale blue, pink, bright yellow
  • Damask & brocades, especially for straps
  • Leather and Linen still predominant for mid and lower classes
  • Shape was flat and flattened breasts while still lifting them

1730’s & 1740’s

The 1730’s introduced he front lacing with stomacher and softened up the center front point as well as the overall look which became a bit rounder and softer.
1740 leather stays were very very common for everyone for low class, working class, and children
Stays like this of 1745 started to integrate the look of the stomacher with the back lacing only style. the bottom and the entire look was getting softer and rounder, though still very stiff and mostly strapless similar to the prior decade.
  • Optional shoulder straps added. These always tied in front and were integrated into the body in the back
  • Waist tabs were added AFTER the main body was completed (later periods added them integrated from the start)
  • Front lacing with a stomacher in addition to back lacing was increasing in popularity
  • Almost always fully boned
  • By the 1740’s eyelets were added to the bottom to tie “hips” (pads on the hips) to
  • Eyelets on the bottom remained an option through the 1740’s
  • The shape was still conical, although it was getting less flat and more round

1750-1780

The body like these French 1750 Stays was still long, but shoulder straps were becoming more common, and the garment was smoother and simpler to become just a garment worn under the more important outer bodice. It was decreasing in importance visually.
The fabric and ability to shape the body became more important than the integrated designs such as examples above for the 1720’s and ’30’s like these 1750 brocade stays with metallic warp thread in the fabric weave.
From 1750-60, stays became simpler, plainer, smoother, rounder, and less important in themselves as they truly evolved into UNDERgarments. Construction became aimed at hiding ridges or projections, and to smooth the person a bit at the center front and bell like this extant example. Note the back is also rising in order to smooth out all possible lines or ridges in the back as bodices were aiming to have a very fitted back with gorgeous seaming. They didn’t want to distract from the lines of the bodice.
1750-60 florals had the same concepts for design with the long torso and optional straps attached now front or back.
  • Green became very popular; especially used together with pink mostly in the 1750’s and 1760’s
  • Cotton was cheaper and more available, so more women of all classes started to wear cotton, although linen was still the cheapest and most popular with women of middle and low classes
  • Silks were very thin, and brocades were thin too.
  • The conical shape was still the style, but it softened a bit
  • Horizontal boning was added to the bust, especially later
  • Towards the 1780’s white cotton or white linen became very popular
  • Wooden Busks were added, and the shape got even rounder yet with the breasts separated and the goal to have two distinct round orbs rather than the flat on the bottom yet raised and full breast on top
From 1750 to the mid 1770’s, stays had an eyelet added to the tabs at the bottom to hold hip pads. This was the daily version of the huge paniers popular for Court Dress at the time.

1770’s Distinctions

There were drastic changes to the shape and length of stays through this, a transitional time

  • The bum roll to widen sides and back replaced the side-only paniers in Court dress and high fashion
  • 1770-90’s were the most extreme in a somewhat symmetrical cone shape around the whole body
  • They could be front lacing or back lacing
  • They could have a stomacher or not have a stomacher
  • They could have straps of many types or not have straps
  • The bottoms were wider, not the pointy center fronts of the 1720’s
  • Full or half-boned were fine
  • Slowly they got shorter as waistlines turned to the Regency under the bust styles that would dominate starting in 1793 and through the early 1800’s
  • Waist tabs were integrated into the pattern from the start

Interesting 1775 approx. design details:

FABRICS

There were some wild color and fabric combinations like these 1760 French stays or various silks and linens. We can only guess who wore them, and probably not as an undergarment.

Cotton:

Cotton was used even when it was outlawed. It got cheaper as the century progressed, but was still more expensive than linen. As time went on, there were more and more prints and colors available worldwide, and of course the more colors and fancy the print was, the more costly the fabric.

Stays being an undergarment were almost always of the less expensive solid colors if they were cotton (or linen or wool). Only fancy prints and blends like cotton and silk were used by upper classes and wealthy women.

Cotton Duck:

This is a very thick woven cotton which protects boning. Natural or white is used for the inter layers of stays and is not seen.

Linen:

Linen was popular in all geographic locations because it kept one cool in the heat and warm in the cold. For centuries it was a favorite, grown from flax which grew in most places. The fabric’s secret is that it whisks away sweat, cooling or warming the body.

Historically linen was the most inexpensive and easy to get of all fabrics. It could be manufactured and spun at home or in undeveloped Colonies. It could be grown by an individual. Most typically in the American Colonies and in the mid-century (1770’s approx.) a woman might grow and spin the flax and then take it to a weaver in a nearby town or village. Those nearer to population centers would just buy the finished fabric directly from the textile mill, or a shop in town.

Linens must be PLAIN SOLID COLORS to be historically accurate.

Wool:

In the 18th century, the term “stuff” meant worsted wool. Wool is durable, flame resistant, and one of the oldest fibers on earth used for clothing. Most of the extant garments still intact today are of worsted wool or linen.

Pink, green, brown, white, or blue worsted are recommended for all 1770’s depictions for all class depictions by historians who have studied the statistics of use based on extant garments.

Silks:

Silks were woven in different ways using different techniques and types of other threads to yield artful forms such as those coming out of India in the 18th century. Jacquard is a special weave made by an attachment to a textile weaving loom. It is a technique added to and used on a brocade design which makes a raised or woven design that is still integrated. Jacquard is the name of a man who invented a punch card much like the first computers in the mid-18th century.

1770’s silk brocade, white kid leather tabs, and metal hooks with integrated straps. This was definitely upper class

Brocade was largely used for stays by the upper classes. It is a lavishly decorated shuttle woven fabric that might be made of silk, cotton, or other, but most historic examples are silk. Today silk is often blended with rayon or polyester. Historically and today, most brocades you find have gold or metallic threads on warp or weft of the weave. The origins of brocade are also in India. A Jacquard technique might be added to a brocade, making a raised design like you see on today’s fine draperies.

Scenes and patterns like women and men cavorting in a landscape are woven into brocades. They look like they have been embroidered by hand. Most commonly brocades have floral patterns.

Damask is similar to brocade, but has more geometric shapes and florals. They also have scenes of domestic life. They might be woven of silk, wool, linen, cotton, or synthetics today. Most are of some percent silk. Damask is different than brocade in that the pattern is reversible and more subtle effects like shading are possible such as light and shade because of the shorter weft patterns. Double damask is highly priced.

HISTORIC COLORS TO CHOOSE FROM

Black: upper class & clergy except black wool which was very common for the lowest classes

Blue: from Indigo dye only! (not the bright blue we know today, but the blue/green/teal color of indigo.. think Union Army in the Civil War). Even this was very pricey and so only worn by the upper classes

Brown: All types of browns were readily available, cheap, and worn by ALL!

Green: was costly and very popular. It was special, so mid and upper classes wore it for daily wear, whereas lower classes could not afford it

Gray: very, very widely used by all classes

Pink silk brocade with pink binding and pink silk thread indicates an upper class garment of the 1780’s.
Deep pink still counts as pink, and was an especial favorite of all classes when combined with green binding and green stitching like these 1775 Spanish stays. We note the Spanish extant examples always have highly saturated colors in the most common hues but in gorgeous fabrics.

Pink: like green it was VERY popular with the mid and upper classes, especially used with green. It was less costly and more accessible than green, and so sometimes found among the lower classes

Purple: just NO. The blue and purple range were simply not done except for royalty

Red: very RARE and very very costly. Upper classes and royalty wore it. There were some orange/reds and pink/magentas from natural dye sources available to middle class, but only the paler pinks were common

Yellows: YES! Lots and lots and everyone around the word in all types of fabrics. Yellow was an easy dye from nature to make and mix with others for a wide variety of color choices.

Child’s stays from 1770. It is logical to dress children in the most common and cheapest fabrics possible.

Orange: “sometimes”, but only by middle upper and upper classes. That’s because it had to be a (common) yellow with an (uncommon) red to get get orange

White: unbleached was popular in the mid 1760’s to mid 1770’s. White on white brocades, or white silks with embroidery were popular in the 1770’s for all classes

1770 white linen with white accent from New York state

Brown: on brown popular for all and easy to get, especially in linen or leather

These 1770’s stays appear to be brown, but since they are of silk with whale baleen we are guessing they might have been pink (we can’t imagine anyone wanting to build a plain silk brown stays when so many gorgeous colors in silk were available at the time)

NOTE: Most often regardless of the main color of the body, it was sewn in a contrasting thread. Favorite thread colors were brown, natural (unbleached flax), white, or one of the colors above according to class and availability.

Favorite thread-to-body combinations included:

  • pink with green
  • brown with natural
  • yellow with white
  • gray with white or brown
  • brown with lighter or darker brown

AND…: White kid leather was common for lining the insides of the tabs, as illustrated on many extant garments of high and low classes.

1770 Indigo blue stays with white kid leather tabs – not just on the lining like some, but both inside and outside the tabs.

NOTE ON HOW WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT COLORS & FABRICS

Most of today’s knowledge about the history of garments comes from studying real ones in museums or by collectors. In the 19th and 20th centuries this is easy, because real garments can be explained by use of photographs and reproduced documents.

This is not so easy in the 18th century because not only has another 100 years aged the examples, but the only recordings are by portraits and limited texts. There were no fashion magazines, and information traveled around the world by the written word, so that was limited in colored pictures of what women wore. Napoleon in 1804 shipped dolls wearing fashion to show rich women what the current fashion was, so that is some help starting in the 19th century, but mostly for the Georgian/Colonial periods one has only the garments, and the portraits – and portraits were rarely of the common man, although there were notable painters at the end of the century painting every day people.

Many upper class extant stays that have survived and are on display seem to be indigo blue with natural or white contrast. It is perhaps because this color of dye has survived. We know many of the naturally dyed pinks, oranges, and reds made in America have faded to tan or beige due to incorrect use of mordants or other chemical issues.

There are also many examples of red/oranges; again upper class in the museums. One has to consider if this might be because upper classes took very good care of their best clothing because they paid for it (as opposed to most of the populace getting hand me downs from the upper classes), and so they were stored well for generations and passed along.

The other theory is that there are low class garments hidden away in museum back rooms in the many more common fabrics and color combinations, but that curators don’t put them on display regularly since the public is more interested in the ornamented stays, and not the boring old brown leather ones or plain white.

Recommended Fabrics for modern depictions:

Outer: 1. Linen, 2. Wool, 3. Cotton, 4. Silk

Inter: 1. Cotton duck, 2. Linen

Backing (lining or 2nd inter): 1. Linen, 2. Wool, 3. Cotton

Modern reproduction stays we place around 1750 by characteristics. The blue tapes are not historically accurate.
As boring as it seems, this modern interpretation is more historically accurate (except the red ribbon on the cap). Her woolen gray stockings, linen shift and cap, and cotton and linen stays in a dull natural (unbleached and undyed) color is great for low to middle class interpretations, and she will get a lot of use out of this even if she should decide to do higher class depictions. Based on the roundness of thee says, that it has straps and a softer look has us dating this costume at about 1775.

 

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