Friday, October 16, 2009

A Shape in Neat Stays

Beauty and Fashion

Then of late, you're so fickle that few people mind you;
For my part, I can never tell where to find you;
Now drest in a cap, now naked in none,
Now loose in a mob, now close in a Joan;
Without handkerchief now, and now buried in ruff,
Now plain as a Quaker, now all of a puff;
Now a shape in neat stays, now a slattern in jumps,
Now high in French heels, now low in your pumps;
Now monstr'ous in hoop, now trapish, and walking
With your petticoats clung to your heels, like a maulkin;
Like the cock on the tower, that shews you the weather,
You are hardly the same for two days together.

-London Magazine, 1762

Stays (the English word for "corset" in the 18th century) are a wonderful garment that I personally wish had never gone out of style. They support the back, promote good posture, and give women of every size a gorgeous shape. (Not to mention what they do for the girls- is there anything more appealing than a pushed-up bust?) It is a personal pet peeve of mine (and of many reenactresses) when I hear descriptions of how uncomfortable, unhealthy, and impractical 18th century corsets were- and this often from people who are supposed to be in the know! It is one thing for the writers of "Pirates of the Caribbean" to be misinformed on the subject (afterall, they can't even seem to decide what year the movie takes place in- the Golden Age of Piracy was 1690-1720, and yet the costumes of the movie drift idly from 1740 to 1780), but it really puts my knickers in a twist when supposedly reputable educational sources start bashing the practice of wearing stays (as in this article). So, here I hope to argue against some of the more popular misconceptions regarding an item of clothing that I take great joy in wearing, and perhaps I will convince more than one lady out there with an antiquated sense of fashion to give them a try.

1. Stays are uncomfortable. This is the big one. Let me start by saying right now that I have been wearing corsets of the 18th century and 19th century style (and yes, there is a difference! see #5) for the past few years, and provided that the garment fits you properly, you should NOT feel any discomfort. But as Hamlet would say, there's the rub- it is very difficult to find a corset that fits you without having it made specifically to your measurements. (The great burlesque artist Dita von Teese knows this, and in this
interview she says she never wears a corset that hasn't been custom made to fit her. Incidentally, she can get her waist down to a remarkable 16"!) The reason for this is simple: stays and corsets are garments that are meant to fit and support your body exactly. Imagine wearing a bra that was entirely the wrong size, or jeans that were too tight and too short. You wouldn't be very comfortable, would you?

2. Stays make it so you can't move/breathe.
"I think I'm going to faint!" I'm sick to death of that old chestnut. (Except when Aunt Pittypat does it in "Gone with the Wind"- then it's positively droll.) First of all, the frail damsel fainting dead away is one of those remnants of the Victorian mindset, when an attractive, well-bred woman was supposed to be delicate and easily distressed. It's amazing how much of history is STILL being viewed through the Victorian-tinted glass. (The Golden Age of Piracy being one victim of Victorian sensibility- I'm looking at YOU again, PotC!) But let's forget about that for a moment and get practical. Stays were not strictly an upper class garment. Stays were worn by everyone. That includes the lower class, servants, and working women. (Whether slaves here in America wore them often is not yet known, but I believe there is evidence that at least some of them- house slaves perhaps- did.) Stays were meant to be lived in, worked in- they supported the body. In fact, stays were considered so necessary for a woman's well-being that there were charities formed with the sole purpose of providing stays to poor women. Now, if stays restrict your movements and suppress your breathing, how exactly are you supposed to work effectively? I would argue that if anything, stays facilitate the kind of work that women had to do around the house. For lifting heavy objects like firewood and pails of water, and supporting your back when sitting on a backless stool, there really is nothing better than a well-made set of stays.

But I'd hate to make some sort of supposition about working women wearing stays without backing it up with some hard evidence. Luckily, this past weekend I picked up a copy of "The Servants Directory, Improved; or House-Keepers Companion," by H. Glass, published in 1762. Mr. Glass advises house maids to "be up very early in the morning, as indeed you are first wanted; lace on your stays, and pin your things tight about you, or you never can do work well." Well said, Mr. Glass.

3. Stays were made with whalebone. This is only partly true. The "boning" in stays was actually made from baleen, the plates in whale's mouths that they use to filter plankton out of the water for food, which are made of keratin (the same stuff that makes hair, fingernails, and horns). If you've ever handled dry bones before, or anything carved from bone, you'll know that bone is either very brittle, or very strong and inflexible, neither of which would make for good stays. Baleen, on the other hand, is quite flexible- in fact, many historical clothing makers swear that plastic is the next best thing to baleen for making stays. Steel boning didn't come into use until the 19th century, but it is less flexible than baleen and doesn't breathe as well, which is probably why all those Victorian ladies were fainting left and right. (I kid.)

4. Tight-lacing was widely practiced in the 18th century. What a joke! That's like saying everyone today wears a girdle, because it's fashionable to be skinny! Not to mention everything we went over in point #2- it's simply wouldn't be practical for most women to tight-lace. In fact, tight-lacing was widely looked down upon as being unhealthy (which evidence seems to support, although some modern women swear that it's not provided you properly train your body for it), not to mention vain. There are a number of very funny extent cartoons on the subject, including the one I put in my first post.

5. 18th century stays and 19th century corsets are the same. Not so! When most people think of corsets they think of the "hourglass" or "wasp-waist" figure. The hourglass ideal didn't come into being until the Victorian era, after the straight lines of the high-waisted era (think Jane Austen) went out of vogue. In the eighteenth century, the fashionable shape was more like an ice cream cone with a flat front. (For those of us with a narrow bust, like me, it may come out more like a cylinder. Sigh.)



In fact, stays so alter the shape of one's torso, that a gown that fits you when you're wearing stays probably won't fit if you're not wearing them. In my experience, this is because the stays compress the bust and push it upwards; without the stays, the bust sticks out too far to fit in the gown. Overall, 18th century stays tend to compress the body less than the 19th century corset, in that the former molds to your body and holds it in place, while the latter compresses the lower torso and waist to create the desired shape. Even so, I've worn corsets in the 19th century style, and I can honestly say that as long as you wear one that fits and you don't try to lace it too tightly, it can be quite comfortable.

In short, there are a lot of myths and notions out there about stays that simply aren't true. I personally love to wear stays, and I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. They're wonderfully supportive, surprisingly comfortable, and so flattering! But don't take my word for it- ask Glenn, Uma, and Kirsten. Just don't ask Keira.