I always notice and cringe a bit at chatter about corsets and their inhumanity and historical novels in which women symbolize their independence or free-thinking by ditching their corset. I often have visitors to reenactments gape over my stays and insist that I must be terribly uncomfortable. Then I read Isis's lovely argument against this kind of thought, and decided I could add to her thesis by sharing my experience with actually wearing stays.
First off. Eighteenth century stays and nineteenth-century corsets are two different things. On the left/bottom, you can see the hourglass shape created by the nineteenth-century corset. Even tightly laced, eighteenth-century stays on the right/top are still essentially cone shaped. They don't constrict the middle of the torso the way later corsets do (think Scarlett O'Hara and her sixteen inch waist). They follow a natural line of the body pretty closely.
Second, that bit about tight-lacing. Most women would not have tightly laced in the eighteent century or, I imagine, in the ninetenth, either. It quite simply wasn't practical for a working woman, and any woman but a woman of leisure would have worked--cooking, cleaning, farming, gardening, and coralling children. Colonial Williambsburg's collection of stays, at my last understanding, had the smallest pair measuring a waist circumference of 24 inches. Certainly a pair of stays for a thin woman, but not a device intended to drastically reduce anyone's waist size. Upper-class women did tight-lace on occasion, but seem to have been made fun of for their vain practice, as this famous cartoon shows:
My interpretation of this satire is that women of higher classes certainly did lace tightly, but that it was seen as "fashion" rather than necessity (as the title of the cartoon, "Fashion Before Ease" indicates). Additionally, this fashionable practice, like the giant hair of the 1770s and the large false rumps of the 1780s, was satirized for its extremity. In other words, most people thought it was pretty silly, but fashion is what it is: Extreme, a bit ridiculous on occasion, and indulged in its fullness only by the wealthy or those aping their betters.
So, why does an eighteenth-century woman wear stays? First, because they didn't wear bras. Seriously. That's your support--and not only does it support the bust, but it supports your back as well. It also gives your petticoats and gown something to hang on other than your hips and shoulders, which is surprisingly helpful for that weight. And, let's be honest--because it gives the clothing the fashionable shape. Modern women have stopped wearing Mom Jeans for the same reason (remember SNL?).
But it has to restrict your movement, right? Not really. I wear my stays for reenactment all weekend long, and am working in camp constantly. The only thing I can't do in stays that I can do in jeans and a t-shirt is bend at the waist. This just forces me to lift heavy items with my legs instead of bending and using my back--which is actually better for you. I can haul water and firewood, help drag our cannon (and it's pretty darn heavy) and have even sprinted across a mock battlefield on multiple occasions. By the end of the day, I'm dying to take off my shoes, not my stays!
And as for restricting breathing? Only after I've been sprinting too long...and let's be honest, that probably has more to do with the fact that I'm not in great shape! Breathing is normal. The one experience that is entirely different in stays? Sneezing. Sneezing feels like a tiny bomb going off in your chest, and my sneezes in stays always sound like "A-ah-choo!Owww...."
If a woman didn't wear stays or a corset, she wouldn't have had any support and her clothing would not fit. That's not to say that some women, on the fringes of society, may not have worn the normal undergarments. But this would be akin to choosing not to wear a bra with a business suit--it's noticeable, it's probably uncomfortable, and it's a deliberate statement and choice. Even very poor women owned stays--some towns actually distributed leather stays to the destitute, illustrating the perceived necessity of the garment.
So--in short, I hope this helps at least explain why women wore stays and corsets, and why, perhaps, writers should choose other ways to illustrate their protagonists' independent attitudes. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know your thoughts!