American Duchess: Feathers, Finery & Frippery of the 18th Century · May 7, 2016

18th Century Stays - Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Ladies, now it's time to get started on our Simplicity "Outlander" inspired patterns! You've got two pattern packs - one with underpinnings and one with the outfit itself - but where do we begin?

I'm going to host this "hacking" series in a way that is accessible to beginning costumers. We're going to really delve into the who, what, when, where, why, and especially how, of creating a complete 18th century outfit from the "skin out," which means starting with the underpinnings and building the rest of the outfit on the resulting silhouette.
Underpinnings? Yup, all the garments you wear beneath the dress itself to create the correct shape. In the 18th century we have a shift/chemise, stays/corset, and, depending on the decade and style of gown, a variety of skirt foundations such as a bum roll, hip pads, or panniers. Simplicity 8162 has the chemise, stays, and bum roll, and Simplicity 8161 has the petticoat pattern that will be worn over the top of it all and under the gown or bodice skirt to fluff it all out and create a smooth line.
All of these items are essential when creating an authentic 18th century look, especially the stays. "Stays" are what we call 18th century corsets, and are the stiff boned foundation garment that supported the bust, trimmed the waist, held the shoulders back, and supported the gown worn on top.
Here is a short "Intro to Stays" video that may answer some questions you might have:

The biggest "shortcut" novice costumers make is to skip the stays. Many believe they'll be uncomfortable, or they're not necessary, or that their persona wouldn't have worn them. All of these ideas are incorrect, my darlings! The most uncomfortable I have ever been in costume was when I thought I'd just not wear my stays that day - the waist seam of the dress cut into me badly and the weight of the dress hung on my shoulders. My how I wished I had worn the corset!

Left - NO underpinnings; Right - all the correct underpinnings. See what a difference it makes?
Another big fear beginners have is that stays will be hard to make, but this is where I will help you most in the upcoming posts. Stays are not difficult to make, but they take time, especially the binding on the tabs. Everyone dreads that, but like anything lovely, it's worth putting in the time.
So, in writing:
Who wore stays in the 18th century?

Women of all classes wore stays. The lower classes often wore strapless stays, which did not impede the movement of the shoulders. The upper classes, and especially aristocracy and royalty, wore more restrictive stays. Lower class women did not lace their stays tightly, but upper class women are often depicted tight-lacing. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was known for tight-lacing her stays, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Stays - 1st quarter of 18th century - The Met - these are strapless stays made of linen, cotton, and whalebone. This style would have been worn by a working class woman.
What were stays made out of?
18th century stays were made from wool, linen, twill/jean fabric, stiffened linen (buckram), and silk brocade. The interlining layer was the stiffened layer, while the outer layer could be something decorative. Boning was whalebone/baleen, reed, or wood bents, and the stays had a lightweight lining loosely tacked in that could be replaced easily. We often see surviving stays without their linings. Stays were commonly bound in leather, but the edges were also finished with linen tape, self fabric binding, or grosgrain.
When and Where were stays worn?
Stays were worn for all of the 18th century. They changed shape with the changing fashions, but were ever present. This is, of course, a Western fashion. Women throughout Europe wore stays, as well as European women in the colonies.
Why were stays worn?
Stays were a support garment. They were the bras of the 18th century, supporting the bust from the waist instead of the shoulders. Stays lifted the bust, trimmed the waist, held the shoulders back (for those with straps), and created a smooth support for the garments worn on top.
How were stays worn?
Stays go on over the shift/chemise and under the skirt supports. There is no need to lace them tightly - just snug enough to do the job.

How were stays made?
Ironically, staymakers were usually men. This was not a garment a woman would be making in her home, for herself, but a garment made by professionals. Why men? The processing of baleen required strength and stamina. Baleen would be boiled, split, shaped, and installed in a pair of stays, sometimes requiring springing, which was all quite hard labor.

Staymakers were usually men.
How can I make my stays today?
These days we don't have workshops of men to make our corsets for us, but we also don't use baleen anymore. Some good modern alternatives are German plastic synthetic whalebone, zip ties (my personal favorite), steel, or we still have the period correct material of reed.
With a good pattern, the right interlining and boning material, and a bit of determination, you can whip up a functional and comfortable pair of stays in a week (that's machine sewing, dears - completely by hand will take longer of course).
Once you have your stays, everything else becomes possible. If you do a good job on them, they'll last you an age - I still have my very first pair of stays made 10 years ago! The Simplicity 8162 stays pattern is a good, highly adjustable, easy to alter pattern that will serve you for nearly all of the 18th century.

Excited? Ready to get started? Good!
Coming up next in the series I'll give you the hows and whys of the changes I've made to my Simplicity stays that you can work into your own version.
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