Thursday, January 14, 2010

Peeking at Ladies' Underthings

This pair of stays is rocking my world.

Let's chat for a moment on why these are so fab, shall we? First--the fabric. This, friends, is indulgence--the La Perla, the Agent Provocateur of the eighteenth century. This is underwear made of silk damask. Clearly, this is a garment for a well-to-do lady. Middling sorts would have had stays made of linen; the poorest even wore leather stays.

These are not only of a luxurious fabric, but the cut is very fashionable, too. The front will lay nearly flat when the stays are laced, the bosom will be "fluffed" as we jokingly refer to it, and the torso will be molded into a conical shape, the shoulders pulled back by the straps.

A few points on these. First, the high bosom. Notice the horizontal stitching, which is either reinforcing or boning casings. Earlier stays mostly have only vertical boning, but these put a horizontal band in which would have lifted the bosom and put additional emphasis there, which appears to be a later development in eighteenth-century corsetry.

As for the conical torso. We often think of corsets as creating hourglass figures, but this is not a corset--this is a pair of eighteenth century stays. The point is not curve, but cone. I could get into a lot of my cockamamey theories on how the cult of domesticity and heightened belief that women were weak critters can be traced through the increasingly feminizing corsets of the Victorian Era, but I'll skip it for now and just note this : A woman wearing this pair of stays would have stood with exceptional posture, with a figure based more on angles than curves, and her shoulders back.

About those shoulders. Upper-class stays like these often include shoulder straps, which would have trained the shoulders back for what your grandma would praise as great posture, but also would have limited movement. Working women (farmers, tradesmen's wives, the women who had hard days of manual labor) would have been impeded by this, so seem to have skipped them more often than not.

Some other time, I'll launch into how I plan to make a very similar pair to replace my worn-out ten-year-old stays, and how (no really) they aren't terribly uncomfortable. But for now, I'm just going to bask in how lovely these are.

Photograph from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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