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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the 1640’s the waistline descended again and the gown remained simple. The bodice remained heavily whaleboned like 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.
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.
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.
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.
Examples of 17th Century fashion:
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.
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.
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.
In the first decades of the century, stays were covered with decorative fabric that didn’t always match the construction seaming.
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.
Mid 18th century stays were always made either half-boned or fully boned, and never without boning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The front of the late 18th century stays was now short, while the back remained long.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NOTE: There was a photo here to reference what a brown linen stays look like, but the alleged “photographer” picked this out of the entire website and “took offense” to our use of it in this context. Geesh. We’ve pretty much had it with touchy people who feel entitled to chew out others when they could have said “hey thanks for the honor you thought my picture was representatie of historic stays, but here is the correct caption for it” (and NOTE! Silhouettes would have gladly given them a link to their projects with full and correct acknowledgement and credit for the artwork, gotten permission for the people depicted (which were, by the way, on the Williamsburg site and fully available to the public for general use without restrictions), but because this person, 3 years after this was posted, seems to have dug it out of a deep text just to yell at us, while we have removed the image, we do not apologize for having used it because it was a compliment and courtesy to use it, but today’s people just don’t see that do they??? Let’s see if that person digs this out and reads this now. It is not an apology by any means. This website is just a reference for our customers, and clearly states that it is not the ultimate truth, but rather a point to direct people for the purposes of discussion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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)