Saturday 7 November 2015

17th century stays and boned bodices, part 2

Part 1 can be found here.
Stays after 1650

Salmon pink stays, 1660-1680 at V&A. Made out of ten pattern pieces, giving it a slightly more curvaceous shape than earlier stays and making the waist more round rather than oval. One layer of watered silk and one layer herringbone weave linen, possibly ticking, bound with silk grosgrain ribbon. Laced in front over a boned, T-shaped stomacher. The boning channels are stitched with silk and boned with whalebones. Ten skirts with six gores inserted between the front ones. The gores are not boned. The stays are not lined, but the seams are covered on the inside with silk grosgrain ribbon. 3/4 -length sleeves are attached with ribbons to the shoulder straps. Though they are more advanced in cut than previous stays and probably also made in a different country, they still have similar construction method.

Silk and wool stays, dated 1671-1680. The front is covered with silk brocade and decorated with silver gilt braid and spangles. The back is covered with blue wool and it is lined with linen.

Yellow silk stays, either late 17th century or early 18th century. The cut of stays didn’t change abruptly at the turning of the century and it is difficult to say exactly on which side of 1700 they were made. These are covered in silk, making the boning channels invisiböe and is decorated with silver lace.


Boned bodices

The 1630´s ivory silk slashed bodice in V&A has a boned lining, but it is different from other extant bodices. It is open in the front it is probably that there was originally a stomacher as well. The foundation is built from several layers of buckram and linen canvas, reinforced, not fully boned, with whalebones. The boning is wider than in other extant stays and bodices, about 12 mm and in the back the boning is put in horizontally. It also differs from other bodices in that it cut above the waist and has no tabs, which is in keeping with the current fashion which had a raised waist.


Pale-coloured silk satin bodice, 1660-1669, V&A. Decorated with parchment lace. The boned foundations is made from twelve pattern pieces, reinforced at places with up to three extra layers of linen. The middle side panel is unboned but stiffened with buckram and wool and may be a later addition to increase the size. The foundation is made by two layers of linen and has ten skirts. Boned with whalebone, at the back are four horizontal bones placed on top of the vertical ones. A pocket for a busk is placed at the center front. Lined with ikat woven silk.

Green silk bodice, Museum of London, 1650-1670. Decorated with silver bobbin lace and silver alloy spangles and heavily boned.


Silver tissue gown with a boned bodice from the 1660’s, Fashion Museum, Bath. Photo by Ludi Ling

Iron stays

Several iron stays have been preserved, most of them dating to the decades before and after 1600. They are usually rather elaborate and elegant in shape, the metal perforated in patterns and the shape follow the form a fashionable female torso should possess; a cone. When worn they would have been padded on the inside and covered with fabric, making them a bit more comfortable than they look at the first glance. Their purpose is not completely clear though and there are more than one theory to their function.

Iron corset, 1580-1599, York Castle Museum

The rigidity of their shape could have served a medical purpose, like correcting scoliosis. Children were certainly fitted with stays to correct mis-happen body’s and it is not impossible that grown women could be in need of corrective help as well. It is also known that Eleonora of Toledo, who suffered from rheumatism and tuberculosis, had metal stays made for her, They were not listed among her clothes, which indicate that they were used for medical purposes.

They could also have been worn as an expression of piety, an unyielding sister to the hair shirt, that a noble woman could wear for religious reasons while at the same time retaining a fashionable shape. It is also possible that the extreme rigidity could be something sought after for the most ceremonial and formal occasions. A woman in full court wear was a display, an ornament or a showcase of wealth and then iron stays may have provided the perfect frame for it. They must have been quite heavy to wear but considering the weight of a farthingale, several  petticoats and a heavily decorated gown, perhaps the extra weight of a metal corset wasn’t too much of a burden, especially if they were just worn for special occasions.

Anonymous, Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, c. 1600

Despite the small sample material and the difficulty in finding information, some conclusions about stays and boned bodices can be drawn. Hopefully there will one day be more in-depth research on the subject which undoubtedly would provide more and better information than this short article can provide.

  • Stays and boned bodices in the 17th century moulded the figure. The pattern pieces fit like a jigsaw puzzle, making the stays two-dimensional. Later, in the 18th century seams started to curve on each other, creating a garment that to some extent adapted to the female body’s natural curves. In the 17th century it was the body which had to adapt to the stays, pushing the breast up and stomach down.
  • Stays and boned bodices were always fully boned and the boning channels, when they can be seen, are vertical. There is one exception to this; the ivory, slashed satin bodice in V&A. Apart from this example, stays and bodices both from the early and the late 17th century are heavily boned.
  • The shoulder straps on the stays are placed in correspondence to how the fashionable neckline was cut. The Effigy stays have shoulder straps that cover the shoulders as fashion dictated in 1603, later stays have straps that are off the shoulders.
  • Stays from the first half of the 17th century are front-laced, both with or without a separate stomacher. They have few pattern pieces.
  • Stays from the second half are a bit more varied. There are the front-laced stays from V&A, which has a stomacher and attached sleeves. Most of the extant stays are back-laced, however, and they are covered so the boning channels are invisible. The front are decorated and sometimes the fabric that covers the front is more expensive than the fabric in the back. Stays are made of several pattern pieces.
  • All extant boned bodices, apart from the slashed satin one, are back-laced. They too are constructed from several pattern pieces. Most of the extant stays are decorated and/or covered with expensive fabric, indicating that they were meant to be visible and not solely regarded as foundations underwear. Stays with attachable sleeves further blur the line between stays and bodice.

Gerard ter Borch, The Concert, 1655


Arnold, Janet Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen's Dresses & Their Construction, London: MacMillan, 1977

Arnold, Janet Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes For Men and Women c1560-1620, London: Macmillan, 1985

Arnold, Janet “The ‘pair of straight bodies’ and ‘a pair of drawers’ dating from 1603 which Clothe the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey”, Costume, vol 41, 2007

Hammar, Britta & Rasmussen, Pernilla Underkläder: En kulturhistoria, Stockholm, Signum, 2008

Kunzle, David Fashion and Fetishism: Corset, Tight-lacing and Other Forms of Body-sculpture, New ed., Stroud : Sutton, 2004

North, Susan & Tiramani, Jenny (ed.) Seventeenth-century women's dress patterns. Book 1, London : V & A Publishing, 2011

North, Susan & Tiramani, Jenny (ed.) Seventeenth-century women's dress patterns. Book 2, London : V & A Publishing, 2012

Pietsch, Johannes Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Bestandskatalog der Männer- und Frauenkleidungsstücke; Studien zu Material, Technik und Geschichte der Bekleidung im 17. Jahrhundert, The Hüpsch Costume Collection in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, 2008

Ribeiro, Aileen Fashion and fiction: Dress In Art and Literature in Stuart England, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005

Sorge-English, Lynn Stays and Body Image In London: The Staymaking Trade, 1680-1810, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011.

Steele, Valerie The Corset: A Cultural History, New Haven; Yale University Press, 2001
Wiseman, Richard Several chirurgical treatises, London, Flesher, 1676

Online sources

To Stay or Not to Stay..., Anèa Costume

Tuesday 3 November 2015

17th century stays and boned bodices, part 1

This article was first published at Foundations Revealed in April 2015. Due to length and amount of picture, this article will be posted in two parts here.


Pieter de Hooch, Mother Lacing Her Bodice Beside A Cradle, 1659-1660
17th century stays is a rather neglected subject  in fashion history and little have been written about it. There are also very few remaining examples of stays and boned bodices and even fewer of those have been properly analyzed. This article will take a brief look at the history of stays and discuss a few extant garments to see if any conclusions can be drawn on how they were constructed. The focus will be on the upper classes and examples in text relate to Northern Europe in general even if the extant garments described are mostly from Great Britain.

Interesting and related topics like staymaking as a trade, critique against stay wearing and how stays were worn by different social classes will only lightly be touched upon. I am not mentioning kirtles either. In the 17th century stays could also be called a pair of bodies, a straight pair of bodies or a pair of stays, but for ease I use stays throughout the text.
A brief history of 17th century stays and fashion
Stays emerge in fashion history in the late 16th century though the exact dates and evolution process are not known. By the beginning of the  17th century stiffened stays were an indispensable garment in the upper class woman’s wardrobe. It is important, however, to remember that stays served more than one purpose. The most obvious one being to shape the body into a fashionable shape, a foundation to which the clothes were fitted. But they also served as breast support and they served a moral purpose. A female body in stays were a decent body. Stays could also be used for medical purposes, especially for children, both girls and boys, were laced into stays to ensure that they grew straight.
English School, Portrait of A Lady, 1610-1615
In the early 17th century women’s fashion were rigid and very formal. The bodice had a long narrow waist, large ruffs were still worn and so was the cumbersome farthingale. Around 1620 fashion grew less formal, and the waist crept up above its natural place.

Anthony van Dyck, Anne Sophia, Countess of Carnavon, 17th century
The high waisted fashion were quite temporary, though, in the 1640’s the waist was once again in its natural place. At the same time the boned bodice became popular, they were essentially stays covered in fabric and with sleeves permanently sewn in, making them both stays and bodice at the same time. With some variations this fashion kept up until the 1680’s. The gowns were less decorated than in the early 17th century and necklines were near or off the shoulders.
Even if the boned bodice seems to have been extremely popular, ordinary stays were still worn. Some types of garments, like riding habits, needed stays as they were not boned. There were also a growing trade of ready-made stays for the lower classes who did not rely on the boned bodice in the same way. Sweden started to import ready-made stays in 1667, for example.

In the 1670’s the mantua became a popular fashion. It was a gown that got its shape from being pleated around the body and now separate stays really came into their own. The boned bodice remained for formal wear,but the mantua kept its popularity throughout the rest of the century.

Gabriel Metsu, Woman Playing Viola de gamba, 1663
By the second half of 17th century, stays were worn by all classes and even a working woman could own more than one pair. In 1662 a maid in the Finish town Viborg, had three pairs stolen from her and in Sweden in 1684, simple stays were part of a female servant’s salary. As a result, stays were made for all classes. Upper class stays was constructed from linen canvas, buckram and silk, stiffened with whalebone and perhaps also paste and paper. For the lower classes stays were made from linen, wool or leather. Whalebones could be used in less expensive stays, but they could also be stiffened with reed, cane or pack-thread (hemp-cord). Leather stays may not have needed additional boning to give support. The lower classes could purchase their stays ready-made or second hand while the upper classes bought bespoke stays where the staymaker visited the customer’s homes to take measurements and fit the stays.

Simon Dequoy, Anne de Souvré, 1695

Stays had become an essential garment for women of all stations in life even if material and rigidity changed after the user’s need. A few years into the 18th century, in 1712, a leather bodice with a stomacher, valued to 2 s,8 d (modern value around £10) was seen as part of the clothing minimum for girls in a London charity school, indicating that it was seen as must even for society’s poorest members. Between 1684 and 1700 the records of Old Bailey lists stays as stolen property twenty-nine times. The value of them varies a lot, the cheapest are valued to 2 shilling, the most expensive ones 40. That means that stays were quite expensive, in modern pricing they would range between £8-160. Material is more rarely noted, one pair is made of stuff, usually a wool fabric and then made of silk.
In the beginning of the 17th century stay were made by the tailor, but gradually staymaking became a trade in its own right, in France, for example, that happened in 1660. Making stays were considered a man’s work, just as tailoring clothes was and even when women, in the last quarter of the century, got the right to sew clothes for their own sex, staymaking continued to be a man’s trade.

In 1688, The Academy of Armory and Blazon (Book III) describes the construction of stays with great detail. They are made of seven pattern pieces, the back, the side parts and the fore parts and the shoulder straps. Stays can be open in the front or in the back. If laced in the front then there is also the stomacher that goes under the lacing. The stomacher has a pocket for the busk, a flat piece of wood, horn, whalebone, metal or ivory that help to push the breasts up and the tummy down. The busk was often richly decorated. The boning channels are marked on the pattern pieces before they are stitched down. Whalebone is cut to size and inserted.The bottom of the stays have skirts, tabs. Stays are lined with fustian or linen and the edges are bound. The lacing holes are whipstitched. The laces have metal tags at the ends to keep from fraying. When the stays are finished, the are covered in the fabric of the gown and sleeves are attached.

Bernhard Keil, The Lacemaker, after 1660

Stays before 1650

Stays are difficult to date and there a few guidelines on how they evolved. As of now only three pairs of stays known to still exist that can be dated between 1600-1650. The oldest is known as the Effigy stays in Westminster Abbey. They were found on the effigy of Elizabeth I and was probably made for her funeral in 1603 by her tailor John Colt. They are very simple and the stays the Queen wore were covered in silk or satin. The Effigy stays are made of double layers of twill fustian and are bound with green leather. The boning channels are stitched with linen thread and it is laced in the front with twenty-nine pairs of lacing holes. They are made from three patterns pieces (the lining has four) and the side-back seam is slightly curved. They are long-waisted and the front deeps down in a peak. They are boned with whalebones.

Crimson stays at Manchester Galleries. Photo by Annika Windahl Pontén
Crimson stays, 1638-1650s The Gallery of Costumes, Platt Hall. Cut from four pattern pieces, but the seam at the center back is straight and may be a result from an effort to save fabric, not because it is necessary to have a seam there. Made from one layer of crimson silk satin and one of herringbone weave linen and bound with pale blue silk ribbon. Laced in the front over a stomacher. Boning channels sewn in pale blue silk thread. The center front is shallower and more rounded than on the Effigy stays. Six skirts with two unboned gores inserted between the skirts at the front. The seams are covered with wide metal lace.

The Sittingbourne stays were found under the floorboards of an old inn and are dated to 1620-1640. They are dated to 16 and are made of linen twill, or possibly fustian. They are front-laced and made from three pattern pieces, bound with leather. The shoulder straps are cut off the shoulder. The stays are worn and patched and have evidently been in heavy use. They have five skirts and the front goes down into a shallow peak. There is no armscye, from the high back panel the top is a straight line and it is possible that they would not encase the breasts much, if at all. Perhaps they would have looked similar to this painting were the breast support seems to be the shift as it is pressed against the bosom with the help of the stays.

Anonymous, Rich Man and Lazarus, c. 1610

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