Monthly Archives: November 2020

Lace Up Tight – In Corsets, Stays or Jumps?

I was puzzling the other day over whether it would be more correct for my heroine to be wearing a corset or stays – or what exactly jumps were – so I did a little research.

To begin with Stays: the Oxford English Dictionary has “Stays (also a pair of stays). A laced under-bodice, stiffened by the insertion of strips of whalebone (sometimes of metal or wood) worn by women (sometimes by men) to give shape and support to the figure: = CORSET.”

The word is used in the sense of ‘staying’ something – securing it or holding it firm.

The earliest use given is 1608 and the use of the plural “is due to the fact that stays were originally (as they still are usually) made in two pieces laced together.” Presumably in the same way that we speak of a pair of drawers, which used to consist of two separate legs tied at the waist.

As for the Corset, the OED goes back to 1299 for the first use of the word, although that was a medieval outer garment. The earliest example they give for it as an undergarment is in The Times for 1795 – “Corsettes about six inches long [presumably this means the depth top to bottom], and a slight buffon tucker of two inches high, are now the only defensive paraphernalia of our fashionable Belles.” From the spelling and the timing it would appear that this term comes via the French and relates to the light, often uncorsetted, Empire fashions of the Revolution. They also quote a patent application of 1796 for “An improvement in the making of stays and corsettes.”

And finally Jumps. A jump was man’s short coat (17th & 18thc) also used generally, in the plural, for clothes, especially in country areas. But also a “kind of under (or undress) bodice worn by women, esp. during the 18th century, and in rural use in the 19th; usually fitted to the bust, and often used instead of stays. From c.1740 usually as plural jumps (a pair of jumps).” Oxford English Dictionary.

They seem to have been laced at the front, often had shoulder straps and were only lightly boned, if at all. This made them particularly suitable for women performing manual work and for nursing mothers.

A pair of jumps can be seen here c. 1770. The jumps are on the far left, with a corset hanging next to them.

For those British ladies not following extreme French fashion, the ‘long stay’ was the most used until about 1810. It is well illustrated in the satirical drawing at the top of the page: Gilray, Progress of the Toilet: The Stays published in February 1810. It laces right up the back (with one lace), covers the hips and is made to cup and support the bust. Unusually for this early date the lady is wearing knee-length drawers.

The fabric for long stays was jean (a strong twilled cotton) or buckram (a stiff cotton or linen soaked in a size such as wheat starch).

At this period, before the mass production of metal eyelets, the lace holes were simply strengthened with buttonhole stitch and would not take the strain of ferociously tight lacing. Shape therefore depended a great deal on the original cut of the garment and on its stout cloth and boning.

Many styles of stays were invented, experimenting with various fabrics for more flexibility, support and comfort and some stay-makers advertised more than fifteen varieties.

The extreme compression of the long stay gave rise to various health concerns, to say nothing of discomfort, and from about 1810 the short stay came into fashion, along with the ‘Divorce Corset’ designed to push the breasts apart.

Even with the short corset, there were critics. C. Willett Cunnington quotes one (unfortunately without attribution) as ranting in 1811: “…in eight women out of ten, the hips squeezed into a circumference little more than the waist; and the bosom shoved up to the chin, making a sort of fleshy shelf disgusting to the beholders and certainly most incommodious to the wearer.”

By September 1813 Jane Austen was writing to her sister Cassandra with the latest fashion news from London. “I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady [presumably her lady’s maid], to my high amusement, that the stays are now not made to force the Bosom up at all: that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.”

The short stays were much more like a modern bra and did nothing to restrain the stomach or hips. A French pair from 1810 are shown above in a print designed to show how easy they were to put on.

This pair, for which I do not have a source, are laced up at the front.

The advertisements in La Belle Assemblee show how stays were promoted, with makers striving to differentiate their products.

In February 1809: “The much approved entire new Cotton and Brace Corset, invented and made only by Misses Linckmyers, No.12, Frith-street, Soho-square….entirely obviate every inconvenience frequently attending long stays…”

In April the same year these two adverts appeared:

Mrs Barclay is also operating in Frith Street, a short distance from the Misses Linckmyers. Not only are her corsets ‘fashionable’, but they are also ‘cheap’ and the increasing desire for comfort can be seen in the reference to ‘the simple vest’.

After all that my heroine is definitely opting for a short corset, if not a nice comfy pair of jumps!

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The Story of a Square 8: Soho Square

Soho Square was built in the 1680s by Richard Frith who had obtained a license indirectly from the landowner, the Earl of St Albans. The area had been farmland that had become a popular location for hunting and the most likely origin of the area’s name is that ‘So-Ho!’ was a hunting cry. By the 1670s building in the area was gaining momentum and it was popular with significant courtiers and aristocrats.

The Square had forty one houses by 1691 of which the most significant was Monmouth House on the south side, London home of Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. The print of c. 1700 below looks south across the Square towards Monmouth House with its forecourt behind railings. Monmouth was executed after his failed rebellion against his uncle, King James II, in 1685. The house was eventually demolished in 1783. In John Evelyn’s Diary he records spending the winter of 1690 ‘at Soho, in the great Square.’

The Square was also known as King Square after Charles II. In 1720 John Strype wrote that the Square ‘hath very good Buildings on all Sides, especially the East and South, which are well inhabited by Nobility and Gentry.’ He described the garden in the centre as ‘a very large and open place, enclosed with a high Pallisado Pale, the Square within neatly kept, with Walks and Grass-plots, and in the midst is the Effigy of King Charles the Second, neatly cut in Stone to the Life, standing on a pedestal.’ It stood in a basin of water with figures representing the rivers Thames, Trent, Humber and Severn. The sculptor was Caius Gabriel Cibber. Stow’s view below looks north.

Soho or King’s Square, for ‘Stow’s Survey of London’, pub. 1754 by Nicholls, Sutton (fl.1700-40); hand coloured copper engraving; (out of copyright)

In 1748 a new wall and railings were erected. By 1839 the statues was ‘in a most wretchedly mutilated state’ and in the 1870s it was removed and sold, the last owner being  W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. A half-timbered tool shed was erected in its place. The statue was returned in 1938, but without its basin. The view is looking south to where Monmouth House once stood.

The most fashionable residents abandoned Soho Square in the 1770s and moved westwards towards Mayfair but the area remained respectable and desirable and many merchants and country gentlemen had houses there, with various foreign diplomatic missions as neighbours.

By the beginning of the 19th century the residents were mainly professional men such as lawyers, doctors, architects and auctioneers. On the corner with Greek Street is what is now the House of St Barnabas, a Grade I Listed house built between 1744-7 and leased in 1754 to Richard Beckford, an immensely wealthy Jamaican plantation owner. It is now a charity for the homeless – one wonders what the slave-owning Mr Beckford would have made of that.

In 1816 Trotter’s, or the Soho Bazaar, was opened at what is now 4-6, Soho Square.  John Trotter was an army contractor and had built numbers 4, 5 and 6 as a warehouse. Having made a vast fortune from the war he turned his warehouse into a bazaar, or indoor market, to offer an outlet for craftwork created by the widows and daughters of army officers. They could rent a counter or stall at a cost of 3d per day per foot and sold jewellery, millinery, baskets, gloves, lace, potted plants and books. There was also a druggist in the bazaar, as a charming children’s book entitled A Visit to the Bazaar (1818) shows. The little book was intended to explain the origins of such goods along with moral lessons and instructions on how to make some of them.

The highly successful venture was patronised by the royal family and lasted until 1885.

If you leave the Square today and go around to Dean Street you can peer through the iron gates at the back of the original warehouse.

The print of 1812 shows the south-west corner of the Square. Frith Street enters to the left and the entrance to Carlyle Street can be seen top right. A mixed herd of cattle and sheep are being driven towards Greek Street, perhaps heading for one of the butchers serving the numerous eating houses in the district.

Soho is a fascinating area to explore. You can find it in Walk 5 in my Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walks 5 and 6 in Walks Through Regency London and discover its treasures, even at this difficult time, with the help of StreetView.

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