Stays & Corsets Introduction Overview

As Old as Man Can Remember

A Silhouette is… .. the Recognizable Shape of Fashion as it changes. The Silhouettes logo is a representation of the “corseted waist” through time (the hourglass shape and the hourglass of time).  It is the Silhouette, the desired shape of fashion, that prompted the use of devices such as corsets and stays by women, children, AND men throughout history including today.

The earliest records of “corseting”, meaning reducing the dimensions of the torso are found on Minoan pottery dating to 2500 B.C.  Historians believe the Minoan men and women wore stiff leather belts and even straps of wood around their waists to enhance their appearance of “rigorous athleticism”, or athletic prowess.  That silhouette was desired as an ideal representing their ability to defend themselves.

(Photo above: Fresco in museum, Minoan “Prince of the Lillies” taken from the ancient Knossos Palace shows the Prince wearing something rigid around his waist and hip, giving the illusion (and possibly actual reduction) of a small waist)

 

Middle Ages

Development of the concept of “Fashion”

The Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to 15th century.  They started with the fall of the Western Roman Empire,  and continued until around the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492 when the era merged into the Renaissance which would mark the “Age of Discovery” and the beginning of the Early modern Europe.

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages were also called the Medieval Period. The soft flowing lines of the Medieval period followed the natural figure, and no artificial shape was given to the body.

 

950 to 1100. Little to no shape and layering of tunics

 

 

By the early Middle Ages in about the 6th and 7th centuries , the purpose of clothing had changed significantly.  At a time focused on building new social orders, individuals of rank or status relied more on the layering of fabric, rather than the shape or lines of garments.  The “T” shape of the Roman tunic became more elaborate as time went on.  The tunic was a rather shapeless garment of fabric wrapped around the body and tied in various ways to keep it from falling off.  Social order was illustrated by the number and type of tunic; the more tunics, the higher status.  Most Romans wore just one fitted tunic underneath, and one on top.

Most Romans wore just one fitted tunic underneath, and one on top.

 

By the middle part of the Middle Ages, modes of etiquette were being established.  Along with rules for behavior and interaction, came a loose definition of “fashion”.  Shapes and contours of fabrics and then garments took on new meaning.  Selection and wearing of certain “designs” were used to promote the  ambitions of the individual.  Fabric had become a commodity itself, used in trade between newly defined borders and countries.  “Fashion” began to define class, status, and position in society.

1120-1130.  “Fashion” began to define status and position through the use of fabric, texture, color, and shape

 

The late Middle Ages, dubbed the “Perpindicular Gothic” because of lofty, spired cathedrals, was a time of great castles and churches throughout Europe.  There came a defined “Court”, where persons of power and political persuasion along with their extended personnel would create courtiers and ladies.

Italy prevailed in the mid to late Middle Ages for fashion

 

The newly established rules of manners and style of “Court” drew attention to what a person wore and how they wore it.  Details in fashion became important as defining status and position.  The Tailor’s Guild was created, developing skillful garment making and new techniques for the manufacturing of clothing.  These new methods demanded new types of textiles and methods of making and obtaining them.  New equipment had to be developed to support the innovations of the guilds who were working in response to a new demand for what had become “fashionable”.

In the middle of the 15th century, fabric and ornament on fabric began to define a class consciousness

 

In particular, woolen textiles were milled and processed in such a way that a garment could be easily cut and molded.  Special structural linens “buckrams” were created to provide foundations that could support the exterior garments.   With strong support, more subtle detail could be obtained in the outer garments.

Enlargement showing side lacing in a triptych enlargement from Brussels 1466-1500

 

By the end of the Middle Ages, technology had developed metal hooks and eyes and metal points to finish off the ends of braids and cords.  These were now being used to lace garments onto the body, rather than just wrapping fabric around or putting it over the head.

Anna of Spain in 1616 with metal lacing tips as decoration

 

In about the middle of the 14th century, when clothes began to shape the figure, it is believed older women who had lost their shape, or other women who did not have much shape, would have worn an “under robe” of a stiffer material and laced it more tightly.  By the 15th century, the waist became high, and a small wide band of stiff material was widely worn to make a “middle small”, although it is unlikely any stiffening was added.

1300 French fashion with “smalls”

 

This early waist garment was called a “cotte”, an old French word for any close-fitting garment.  (Today the French word cote means “next to” or “rib”).  Various garment names were evolved from this: petticoat, waistcoat, etc.  When the word “corset” was used, it meant an outer garment, and was not at all associated with the later application of the term for undergarments.

1500 idealized sketch of “smalls”

 

Renaissance

15th Century (1400’s) – Fashion follows Power

Where the Middle Ages were religious, the Renaissance was considered a secular (non-religious) era.  Rather than a focus on class and groups, it was a movement praising individualism over the Church in measuring things.

15th Century French secular fashion

 

In Europe, the influence went from Italy to Central Europe, and then to Britain.  Each region refined and changed the concept of the individual as pursuing personal success, or as pawns to greater powers.

1483 to 1495 power changed from Charles VIII of England to Louis XII of France

 

By the middle of the 15th century long, spiring, Medieval lines of fashion had stretched to their limits with peaked shoes, tall hats, and vertical lines.  As the 16th century (year 1500) approached, the silhouette broadened and widened.  The Renaissance “style” spread from the south in Spain and Italy towards northern European countries.

1470 French fashion

 

Italy is credited at this time with the invention of the “busc”, the first artifically added supports to the body.  Spain is credited with the “farthingale”, the first artifical aid to a skirt.  It is said that Catherine of Aragon brought these two fashions to England, while Italian wars with the French kings Charles IX and Louis XII brought them to France.

1490 Hispano-Flemish painting

 

For the first time in history, patterns were woven into fabric.  Through Venice, Italy, Europe imported Oriental silks and velvets, with intricate designs and weaves.  This made Italy a central “power” of “fashion” at the time.

Late in the 15th century, bold patterns in rich fabrics and colors like the pomegranite were favorites for the elites

 

As Court became more powerful in European countries, the fashionable silhouette became straight and tight on both men and women.  This culturally represented a masculine position.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon 1529 in the rich fabrics and full masculine robes of the era

 

 

The Corset Arrives as “The Body”

While the iron and steel corset of the Renaissance is believed by some to have begun as an orthapaedic device, examples are more indicative that it was first worn as a female representation of armor, to raise the power and status of women at the time.

Early 16th century iron corsets

 

Because it was worn only by women of the ruling classes, it is believed these were women of political power who actually needed protection such as armor against people who wished them harm.  They were worn with petticoats over them, in thick layers.  Layers of jewelry and stiffened lace collars and sleeves were padded to make the woman look imposing.

1500’s Royalty in Ruffs and Collars to make a woman look BIG. Even the portrait painter made her body masculine and out of proportion to her head

 

It was the padded under armor for men that influenced tailors though to develop an outerwear which might be called a “corset” for both men and women.  A diagonal basting stitch called the “padding stitch” began the art of corset making.

The “Jack”, a stout leather jerkin with attached metal studded sleeves and thigh sections, is believed to have initiated the idea for similar female stuffed, padded, and metal bodices for women.  A “body” was developed from layers of linen, or for women of highest status, metal cages.  Some were padded and stitched garments with whalebone stiffeners.  Whalebone had been available since the 15th century.

16th century Jack of leather jerkin with canvas and linen quilting; Spanish

 

At this time, the technological innovation was the separation of the bodice and skirt, rather than one whole draped garment laced on to the body.  With this, tailors were able to focus separately on top or bottom.

1490’s Overdress; separating skirt from bodice

 

The bodice could now be stiffened to support the weight of the skirt.  The skirt could therefore be made much larger and heavier.  This larger overall silhouette made the individual look bigger and more important.

1490s stiffened bodices

 

Whereas power was relayed in the volume and body of the garment, now it could be done with glamorous decoration.  Women were imitating men, who had been wearing since Medieval times structured garments called “cotte, gambeson, doublet, pourpoint” and other terms.

1490’s Gambeson

 

16th century

In the 16th century, this garment began to be called a “waistcoat” which was made of two or more layers of heavy linen padded together and quilted.   It was worn with a short basque that had eyelet holes into which hose were laced.

Early in the 16th century, powerful women dressed as men with rich fabrics, colors, padding, and broad shoulders. It is hard to tell in this era which is a portrait of a man or a woman

 

The true “waistcoat”, however was a man’s garment, although they looked much the same, the difference was the skirt versus the men’s lower garments.

Man in “waistcoat” 1548

 

It was the fashion to wear the outer robe open, so the front part of the waistcoat began to be elaborately embroidered and embellished.  It was used to cover and hide the fastenings, and became the “stomacher” or “placard”.

Early 16th century Italian ornate “placard” under open gown

 

When a woman began to wear this arrangement, it was called a “pair of bodys” or sometimes just a “body”, although that term usually meant just the upper part of a robe.  The French used the same word for body, “corps” for both upper and under bodices.

Catherine of Aragon was credited with bringing the new stiff bodied fashions to England such as in this portrait of her in 1520

 

This early form of “corset” was probably quite simple in shape and made from only two pieces of linen sometimes stiffened by paste.  They were stitched together and shaped to the waist at the sides.

Layered and stiffened bodice of about 1550

 

To keep the front part very rigid, a “busc” was added.  This was a piece of wood, horn, whalebone, metal, or ivory that was thicker on top and tapered down.  This was often beautifully decorated and inserted between the layers of linen and tied in by a lace.

1593 Mary Countess Rivers with stiffened body using Busc and Modern wooden Busks

 

In the 2nd half of the 16th century, the pair of bodys was reinforced further by adding whalebones (baleen, or cartilege from a whale’s mouth) to the front and the back.  The side lacing of the eariler period was changed to the more convenient center back or front opening.

When it became fashionable to open the gown in front, the “stomacher” was used to hide the front lacing.

Whale, baleen, and boning

 

New Ideas of Tudor, Elizabethan, and Baroque

The Tudor period occurred between 1485 and 1603 in England and Wales and includes the Elizabethan period during the reign of Elizabeth I until 1603. The Tudor period coincides with the dynasty of the House of Tudor in England whose first monarch was Henry VII (b.1457, r.1485–1509)

16th and 17th century fashion summary

 

These periods saw fashion as an elaboration of the Renaissance styles.  Court life was extremely influential, as political supremacy dictated behavior and culture.  War and political marriages brought new ideas to cross over the boundaries of countries.  Tailors continued to be the innovators and implementers of new ideas.

1543 Queen Elizabeth I

 

Trade with india brought a new kind of starch called “rice starch” which had been used by Indians as a protective barrier between hair oils and costly fabrics of garments.  This collar stiffener affected how European fashion would be developed with the elaborate collars and ruffs of Courts such as Elizabeth I’s of England.

1602 Queen Elizabeth I in gown over “bodys” with rice starched ruffs

 

17th Century

The discovery of the New World brought new ideas, raw materials, and exotic fashion ideas.  The Barocco pearl became a key fashion accessory, found in Portugal.  The early 17th century was called “Baroque”.

1606 Elizabeth de Valois in Baroque Pearls

 

This was a time in Europe when the Catholic Church held control over social morals.  It was a time of Restoration of the British Monarchy, who introduced a more sober attitude.  Clothing became more elegant in style and simpler in cut.  Women’s fashion was a version of man’s doublets, including short waisted “basques”.  Silk satins were the favorite of the day in only plain weaves.  It was also a time of symmetry, and the beginnings of a woman’s riding habit.

1575 Spanish man’s doublet and woman’s portrait of approximately the same time

 

In the 17th century (1600’s) and for the next 100 years, the “pair of bodys” would be called instead a “pair of stays”.  The latter name is still used today to describe the under bodice with artificial stiffeners as supports or “stays”.

1560-62 “Pair of Bodys” found in the Prague Castle

 

In England the word “corset” can be found from the 17th century forward, but it is always used in plural “corsets”.  France kept the old term “corps” until about the year 1800, after which the term “corset” (never “corsets”) was used.

Early 1600’s Tudor corset

 

Fashions at the beginning of the 17th century were very similar in shape to those of the 16th, but the neckline became much lower in front.  By about 1620, the farthingale (skirt support) was discarded, and gowns became much shorter.

Queen Anne of Denmark in about 1600 with the new, lower bodice but old understructures

 

The stays followed the fashion of the waistline as it rose or fell, but stays kept a long center front and stomacher.  The basque was replaced by long side tabs, to which petticoats were tied.

17th century stiffened bodice with tabs

 

These stays were covered with rich material and peeked out from under the front of the robe.  In 1630, a short bodice that looked like the man’s doublet of the same time was worn by all classes and especially lower and middle classes long after women of elite classes had abandoned them.  This bodice was worn over a “body of stays”, or was itself boned like stays.

Man’s jerkin from about 1600, and the stays now visible on the bodice in similar shape, form, and structure on the 1630 gown worn by Jane, Countess of Winchester

 

Changing the 17th century Silhouette

As the century progressed, the silhouette continued to become softer and more rounded.  Simpler materials replaced the stiff patterned brocades and velvets notable of the prior era.  The best silks, velvets, brocades, and laces still came from or through Italy at the time.

1658 Queen Maria Anna of Spain in the new and simpler fabrics of the mid-17th century

 

An English Civil War with the Puritan regime coming into power put an end to extravagant dress.  Restrictions were placed on imports to France and England, which caused an increase in home-produced silks and textiles which were inferior in quality.

1650 dress of Magdelena Sybilla of Germany

 

By the late 1630’s English women wore a very simple dress with a very low neck and short waist.  The silhouette became longer and straighter, and stays almost disappeared.  They were incorporated into the dress itself.

Fashion 1600 to 1660

 

In the 1640’s the waistline descended again and the gown remained simple.  The bodice remained heavily whaleboned like stays.

1620-1630 stays

Shoulder straps went along with any whaleboned stays, to hold them in place on the body and to lift the breasts high.  Throughout the 16th century shoulder straps were right on the shoulders.  In the 17th straps gradually slipped off to the top of the arm.  By the middle of the century they were off the shoulder an across the arm, creating an oval neckline notable of the period.

1600s Tudor Pair of Bodys with straps

 

What are called “stays” of the Colonial or Georgian periods had their origin in the boned bodice of the middle of the 17th century.  From 1650 on, the bodice reached the waist, and kept going lower.  This was achieved by lengthening center front and center back pieces.

1640 Swedish royalty

 

The sides of the stays now went over the hips with the whalebone being carried down tabs so they wouldn’t poke the waist.  The bodice now had diagonal side seams.

This arrangement of boning gave a rounder shape and a more slender appearance to the woman, which made her appear to have an oval neckline that tapered down to very small at the waist.  It was still made of two layers of heavy linen or canvas which had been stiffened with paste or glue, with whalebones inserted between in long rows of stitching.

1660’s stays and bodice

 

Stays might be half boned or fully boned.  They might lace up in the front or the back.  The early stays at the end of the 17th century were worn on the outside of the skirt or dress, but with the back tabs underneath so they could hold up the petticoats.

17th century stays with tabs to hold up the petticoats

Examples of 17th Century fashion:

Late 17th century Hungarian

 

18th Century

 

Stays by the year 1700 had become considered the essential part of women’s apparel.  The staymaker or “tailleur de corps baleine” became a separate and specialized profession, who were always men.

18th Century Staymaker, always men

The long slender lines of architecture and furniture heading into the 18th century were repeated in clothing.  The stays were responsible for the slender silhouette as they straightened out and tapered down the waist.

1710 Queen Anne furniture and dress bodice

 

Stays of the early 18th century were usually laced in front.  The way they were put together was still rather “rough” which is how one can tell stays from the early 1700’s from those of the mid to later 1700’s.

Rough construction of stays 1680 and 1720

 

In the first decades of the century, stays were covered with decorative fabric that didn’t always match the construction seaming.

18th Century decorative stays

 

By the 1750’s, stay making was a highly technical skill held to a high standard.  There were now extra shaping bones arranged inside including curved pieces at the bust to give more roundness there.

1750 boning more complex

 

Mid 18th century stays were always made either half-boned or fully boned, and never without boning.

In the 1760’s boning was intricate and specific even in decorative stays like these from France

 

All stitching was done by hand, and bones were often laid one next to the other within 1/8″ in rows, demanding quite the craftsmanship as well as hand and arm strength.  The making of stays was reserved for men because of the strength required, and also for political reasons due to tailor’s guilds.

Extant stays: Approximate 1770 wool and linen stays fully boned

 

There was variation in the methods of lacing front and back as the century progressed.  Side lacing was used for pregnancy.  When laced in front, the opening was wider on top and tapered to the bottom.

Modern reproduction of 1760’s side lacing maternity stays

 

Extant 1765 Nursing stays

 

Stomachers were decorated and often worn with the dress front open to show them off.  Beautiful fabrics such as silk or brocade with embroidery were used as decorative features.

1740’s Decorative Stomachers

 

The English body was more rigid than the French.  French stays had more subtle shaping.  In the first half of the century a long, loose robe was worn open in France to show off the decorative stays beneath.

1770 French Robe a la francaise

 

By the second half of the 18th century, the staymaker realized it was the direction of the bones and supporting inside bones that were important, so less seaming was used, and more boning.  These later stays were often covered in plain silk or cotton and were very stiff but subtle in form.  They were shaped using a steam iron.

1765 stays with intricate shaping boning and decorative outer fabric

 

The front of the late 18th century stays was now short, while the back remained long.

1785 approximate stays with front shorter than the back

 

A variation of stays called “le grand corps or le corps de cour” was a boned bodice of French Court Dress.  When the shoulder and neck were exposed starting in 1680 with the rounded stays, women realized it was a great way to show off jewelry, laces, and other fancy work.  This bodice was worn with straps off the shoulder, and with enormous panier and train.  It was the obligatory “uniform” of Court dress until about the mid 1770’s.

1750 “Les grand corps” French stays

 

In England Court Dress was less rigid, and the heavily boned bodice was reserved for coronations, Royal weddings, and high formal affairs.   These, being well ornamented, were most likely worn on the outside of a dress.

1780’s silk damask English stays

 

18th century stays are always hard to date because they were made at home as well as by professionals.  Boys as well as girls wore them as soon as they were able to walk.

Girls’ 18th century stays: left low class; right high class

 

18th Century Stays – Nice Summary

 (Direct excerpt from “Reconstructing History 2008 Copyrighted Available from your favorite historical pattern shop”)

Since the 1660’s, stays and bodiced gowns without their skirts were practically synonymous  Except for a place to attach sleeves and skirts, stays and bodiced gown linings were the same  in construction.  One would think stays went into dormancy while the bodiced gown made them unnecessary.  Yet throughout the late 17th century, stays were still being worn in undress, casually with just a simple oriental robe or wrapper thrown over them.  When the mantua became acceptable for wear outside the house, the bodiced gown saw its last days and stays came out of the wardrobe again.

Modern eproduction of the “Bodiced Gown” of the 1770’s

 

By the middle of the 18th century, stays had become their own garment and they were being constructed in worsted wools, linens and leather for common people as well as the beautiful silk preferred by the wealthy.

Extant linen stays for the common woman of the mid-18th century

 

In the 1730’s, back-lacing stays with a front-laced stomacher became popular.  This decorative element would show under the open-front mantuas that were popular at the time.  Typically this type of stays was flat lined to a decorative fabric like silk brocade.

1730’s and 1740’s stays

 

Middle and lower class stays of the time took a slightly different shape.  The 1760’s were strapless and had only a small functional opening at the top of the center front, perhaps to accommodate nursing.  These simple, commoner stays were constructed from linen.  Extant stays have been of brown linen lined in white and lavender wool satin lined in white.

Today’s re-enactors at Williamsburg replicate class status wearing reproduction brown linen stays

 

By the third quarter of the 18th century, stay makers realized it wasn’t the number of panels that was making the shape, but the orientation of bones.  Bones were whale baleen.  As a result, some stays were reduced to 3 panels (a front and two backs) with very complex boning even when lightly boned.

Strategic bone placement of the mid-18th century stays

 

By the 1780’s, the style of dress had evolved from a conical top created by stays and hoops to the “pouter pigeon” look with chest thrust forward and the hips back.  this early version of the 100 year later Edwardian “s Monobosum curve” was created by the use of bustle pads and false bums worn under petticoats.

1780’s stays made the “pouter pigeon” silhouette that would re-emerge 120 years later

 

The front portion of the look was made by scoop front stays.  The only real difference between these and the earlier stays of a decade earlier was the shape of the front.  In the latter, the front was cut low, but horizontal boning emphasized  and reinforced jutting the bust forward without letting it spill over.

Extant brown linen stays sow the main difference in the direction of the boning

 

By the final decade of the 1790’s, a change in fashion led to the change of stays.  While the front of the stays in the 1790’s looked much the same as in the 1780’s, the back waist of the stays rose up high to match the high waist of the upcoming Regency style.  The front of the silhouette was still forward “pigeon” style, but the back was at the floating ribs level.

Differences between stays of the 1780’s and 1790’s may seem minor, but the progression was leading to the next fashion era which would be VERY different

 

Tabs were no longer boned like in the earlier decades, and as the decade progressed, many stays lost tabs entirely, but kept a little “tail” at the back to carry the lacing.  Sometimes puffs of fabric were attached to the back of this type of stays to which a bustle pad or petticoat was attached way up high under the shoulder blades.

Late 1790’s stays like these from Germany were high at the floating ribs and had tabs and “poufs” to help hold things like the new petticoats which were worn higher than the natural waist

 

As the French Revolution revolutionized fashion worldwide too at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, stays were largely discarded.  Women with imperfect or larger bodies and older women, however, continued to wear stays.  As long as they were high waisted, they could be worn under the Regency gowns.

The transitional stays to Regency Short Stays looked very similar to their predecessors, but were short in front and had much less structure and boning

 

The next fashion era would not be kind to older and larger women as this cartoon from a periodical from 1800 illustrates:

 

 

A Fashion Revolution

The Regency Era

Continued on separate pages:

 

Click here to go to more History of Stays 1740-1780

Click here to go to the History of Corsets 1780-1880 (next)

Click here to go to the History of Corsets 1880-1915