Sunday, June 11, 2017

Discomfort and Discourse: Myths of 18th Century Women’s Fashion Part 2

by Danielle Funiciello

In March, we dove into some myths about women’s fashion with an article about what was and wasn’t considered scandalous dress in the 18th-century. Today we will be continuing that thread with some myths about the ‘corset’ or, more accurately, ‘stays’. I will not be covering the terminology shifts in this article, but within the 18th-century, ‘corsets’ were actually a soft garment quite the opposite of the rigid stays that we have come to think of as corsets (if you want more on the distinctions and history of the terminology this fascinating blog by The Dreamstress should do the trick). For the rest of the article, we will be using the 18th-century terms; ‘stays’, ‘pair of stays’, or ‘pair of bodies’. Whatever the terminology, I have never done a program in historic clothing where someone has not wanted to know about my underthings. The questions and assumptions about these garments are almost always the same, so without further ado;

The Myths: Stays are uncomfortable torture devices that make it impractical to do work or breathe properly and caused women to feint frequently. Women needed to be laced into their stays by a servant or their husband. Historically, men used stays to subjugate women, as a way to keep women as the fragile, weaker sex by limiting their movement and preventing them from doing work.

For Disney fans, the arguments may sound familiar. Emma Watson had strong feelings about wearing ‘corsets’ as Belle in the March released live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Her concerns were based in feminism and the idea that stays restricted women and made them incapable of action (if you are not a Disney fan, just Google ‘Emma Watson corset’ to see the dozens of articles surrounding her decision not to wear structure garments). The film is slated as a fantasy setting, so delving too deep into the “accuracy” of various costume pieces would be unproductive, but it is worth pointing out that the majority of costuming fits into the late 18th-century and, as we shall discuss today, stays had different fits, purpose, and societal meaning within the 18th-century than they do today.

The author in full 18th-
century kit, with stays
Let us first address something from personal experiences (my own and those of other female reenactors I have spoken to); worn properly, stays are not uncomfortable. Or, more accurately, stays are not much less comfortable than modern support garments. Like modern support garments, the intent was two-fold – as the name suggests, they offer support, and they create the ideal female shape as proscribed by the culture of their time. That shape was much different from what we consider attractive today – a stiff, conically shaped torso which gave contrast to the soft swell of the bosom and tapered down to jut out at the hips with the help of wide skirts, padding, or paniers.
Also like modern support garments, there are trade-offs to the structure offered. Stays support the lower back and create good posture. However, they can cause chaffing depending on the fit and the quality of the shift - the linen underdress worn beneath the stays. For us modern folk who are not used to wearing stays, the posture created also uses muscles we are not accustomed to using, which can ache on new or infrequent wearers.

Talk to many female reenactors and they will tell you; sitting for long periods of time is more problematic than standing, dancing, or performing labor. With these latter actions, properly worn stays can act as a back brace and make labor or movement more comfortable over the course of a day. Few describe breathing problems or feinting spells, even amongst reenactors who wear stays on a daily basis.

As for getting into stays? Believe it or not, getting out of stays by yourself is typically more difficult than getting into them (think getting stuck with an XXS t-shirt halfway over your head!). No servants or husbands required here - at least, with 18th-century stays. There are two key factors that make this a one-woman job in the 18th-century. The first is that stays did not exclusively lace up the back. In the mid-1700s in particular, many stays laced front and back to accommodate a fashion called a stomacher. This would allow a woman to easily lace herself up from the front. The second factor is the way the lacing was done – cross-lacing, as is commonly seen on modern corsets, was not the preferred style of the time and as thislacing how-to on the Hand Bound blog says: “seems to be reserved for lace-up bodices only, as you often see it in images of working class girls”. In other words, cross-lacing was only used, if at all, when it was at the front of a garment where a woman could see what she was doing. For most stays, straight-lacing, also called spiral-lacing, was used. 
Corset lacing, or cross-lacing, shown left, is what you may be familiar with from corsets after the mid 19th-century. Spiral or straight-lacing, much more common in the 18th-century is shown on the right.*
Compared to cross-lacing, straight-lacing does not create a lot of friction when pulled, and so can pulled from the tail of the lacing, rather than from the hard-to-reach center of the back as one would have to in order to properly cross-lace. Straight-lacing also has the benefit of lying flatter under garments and allowing for more flexibility. In the later 19th-century, cross-lacing was adopted because the friction created prevented the lacing from loosening during tight-lacing (see below) – a particular problem with upperclass garments which used silk lacing.

Children's stays in the collections of
The Metropolitan Museum
Within the 18th-century, many physicians praised stays for their support and the posture they created. There were arguments for the ‘beauty of the human form’ that this created as well, but people within the 18th-century seemed to consider stays, worn properly, to be first a boon to health, and second a fashion item. While the whale bone used in upper-class stays could be cost prohibitive for some, materials like thick reeds could be substituted, which allowed women from all walks of life to wear them for support. They were considered so healthful, that even children – male and female – in wealthier households grew up wearing stays. We’ll come back to this later.

You may have noticed a key mantra in the preceding text; “worn properly”. NOT tight-laced.

Tight-lacing, waist-cinching, or waist-training, as it has become known in modern times, has been practiced as long as these stiff, laced undergarments have existed (since at least the late 1500s). It became particularly popular during the Regency Era (1795-1820), again in the late Victorian Era (1837-1901), and has had a rebirth with celebrities like Kim Kardashian who advertise their use of spanks and waist-cinchers (often no longer laced) as a way for women to look thinner by wearing their undergarments too tightly.

Rather than allowing a woman the bracing effects intended by stays, tight-laced stays can create all of the issues in our myth – they cut off circulation, make it difficult to move and breath, and create the unrealistic Barbie-doll-like figures oft’ criticized in the modern era.

"A cutting wind" shows the perils associated with tight-lacing c. 1820
Within the Schuyler’s lifetime, tight-lacing was practiced by both men and women to create a fashionable figure, but it was also heavily criticized by physicians, satirists and other contemporaries. It was denounced as vain, unhealthy, and dishonest, much as some consider similar practices today. It should therefore be thought of as an extreme fashion, rather than typical use of the garment within the 18th-century. The wealthier one was within that century, the more likely one was to practice tight-lacing. After all, the negative symptoms, particularly the difficulty of movement, were not as much of a strain if one did not have to perform any labor. As one might today wear Spanx™, or even stiletto heels to a party - but not on a walking tour or around one’s house - tight-lacing and other uncomfortable fashions were often reserved for formal and public occasions.

Men's stays from the Bard Graduate Center.
As far as feminist concerns about stays go – while stays were a standard part of women’s dress during the 18th-century, as eluded to earlier in this article, many male children in wealthy families wore stays as well. George Washington, for example, wore stays until he was around 5years old. These stays were designed to alter the male form into the preferred shape, à la binding practiced by other cultures. In this case, the ideal male form included low sloped shoulders, which gave the illusion of a longer neck, and which was created by lightly binding the ribcage. This in turn pulled the ribs, and thereby the shoulder sockets, down and inward. One can extrapolate that if stays were, to any degree, forced on women because they were known to be unhealthful and cause weakness at
the time, the Washingtons, and other wealthy families, would not have applied such practices to their sons.

"Lacing a Dandy" shows the numerous padding
and garments that could go into sculpting the
fashionable male form, 1819.
As the 1790s progressed into the 1800s, young men of the fashionable set began wearing a male version of stays more regularly. We might now refer to such a garment as a girdle, but the express purpose for these garments was to create the slender wasp-waist that was popular with both men and women. As waists got artificially thinner, criticism of tight-lacing became more prevalent. Health concerns caused by the fashion trend were broadcast by more and more physicians in the 19th-century. In order to discourage men from practicing the trend in the late Regency Period, tight-lacing was often shown as feminine and emasculating. While criticism was also pointed at women, the narrative of it being feminine led to more of a “girls-will-be-girls” attitude when it came to tight-lacing, which in turn led to the stereotypes we forged about stays/corsets throughout the Victorian Era.
"A Dandy fainting or_ An Exquisite in Fits" simultaneously criticizes the negative health consequences of tight-laced garments, and begins to feminize "dandy" fashion trends, including tight-lacing.

Want to learn more about women in the 18th-century, the Schuyler Sisters, and even handle a pair of stays yourself? Check out our Women of Schuyler Mansion Focus Tours, Saturdays at 2:00pm through October 31st, 2017. Reservations are required by calling the site. See Facebook for more information.

*Image sources:


  1. Thank you for writing this article. I have a question. How does one sit in 18th century stays? When I sit in mine, the underarm part digs into my armpits a bit. This is not a problem when I'm standing; the stays move up when I sit.

    Is there a certain way to sit in stays, or do you think they might be too long for me?

    Thank you very much.

  2. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes in 18 cent stays. From my experience from some time ago....

    sit in a chair with a flat high seat. Modern chairs with a low seat that slope backwards are fine for modern clothes, but not for 18 century garg.

    sit on the edge of the chair, even to the point it is uncomfortable. I've read that younf girls were forbidden to sit far back, all in the name of posture. probably know this already, but hold the top of your back high and well back. It's uncomfortable for us today, but it helps to get the body in the right shape for the stays.

    Does this help...please let me know.

    Please visit my blog on corsets and stays