At this time of year, when we are all thinking about shedding as much clothing as possible in the heat, I think with even more sympathy about the layers of clothing that women were encumbered with in earlier years – and corsets, or stays as they were more usually known in the early 19th century in particular.
Stays could be made of leather, which was then not washed (a fairly dreadful thought!) or a substantial fabric, which at least could be laundered. Stays normally laced at the back but, before the invention of mass-produced metal eyelets, they could not be pulled as tight as Victorian stays were because the fabric would rip. Their shape and their constricting powers therefore depended on their stiffening of whalebone or thin cane. They pushed the breasts up rather than cupping them and were normally fitted with shoulder straps.
The print by Gillray is plate 1 from a series called The Progress of the Toilet, dated 1810 and shows a lady being laced into long stays. She is wearing fashionable clocked stockings and, rather daringly, drawers, caught in tight at the knee. Because they resembled masculine costume, drawers were considered very fast.
Jane Austen’s letters contain virtually nothing on the subject of underwear, but she did have very definite views on the subject of stays. In September 1813 she was able to pass on the latest intelligence from London on the subject to her sister Cassandra. ‘I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.’
Stays could be made to measure, but were also available off the peg and Mrs Clark, whose shop was at no.56, St James’s Street, advertised in 1807, ‘…a large assortment of corsets of every size, and superior make, so that ladies may immediately suit themselves without the inconvenience of being measured.’
Ladies living out of town could order stays by mail order as this advertisement from the Morning Chronicle of November 1 1810 shows.
HER MAJESTY’S STAY-MAKER. – MRS. HARMAN No.18 New Bond-street, London, has the honour most respectfully to announce to those Ladies who attend to the elegance of the female figure, that she has now ready for their inspection a very large and fashionable assortment of her much-admired LONG and SHORT STAYS. The great number of Ladies of Rank and Fashion, who honour Mrs. Harman with wearing her Stays, is a most convincing proof of their pleasantness, utility, and superiority to every other Stay. Mrs. Harman’s Stays are finished with that novelty and taste which has procured for her the countenance of Royalty, and the patronage of the first Nobility. Ladies living in the country, by sending a letter (post paid), will have proper directions sent them to send their own measure, so as to insure their fitting.
Newspapers were not constrained by notions of modesty when commenting on ladies’ fashions and undergarments, or their appearance in them as this piece from The Times in 1799 on the flimsiness of fashionable gowns and the fashion for false bosoms shows:
“If the present fashion of nudity continues its career, the Milliners must give way to the carvers, and the most elegant fig-leaves will be all the mode. The fashion of false bosoms has at least this utility, that it compels our fashionable fair to wear something.”
And The Statesman on 2 September 1808 broke into verse to criticise modern fashions compared to those of the days of Queen Anne, managing to incorporate a furniture pun about chests and drawers in the process!
When panoplied in whalebone stays,
Such as were worn in Anna’s days,
Our fair kept Virtue in their breasts,
And lock’d her safely – in their chests.
But, since their chests are open’d, how,
And where, do they keep Virtue now?
Is she protected by their lawyers?
Or do they keep her – in their drawers?
Historical re-enactors have told me that they find their stays are supportive, and help prevent backache when they are working in kitchens, so perhaps there was something to be said for stays. What do you think?