Courtesy of Eliza West
As a Revolutionary War re-enactor, a person can choose how “authentic” one wishes one's outfit to be. I had no difficulty in deciding. I knew that I wanted to look like I had stepped two hundred and fifty years out of the past, as close to the real thing as I could get. This meant wearing linen and wool; this meant long skirts and lots of them, this meant wearing stays, and wearing them to advantage. Wearing stays is not as easy as you might assume. To do them justice, one must first understand them in a historical context, then in a physical context, and then must actually figure out how to put them on. In fact, why you would want, or need to wear them is probably the first thing that you'll want to know. The answer is that nothing makes you look more like a part of the past than having on the right underwear.
A pair of stays (the garment that we now think of as a corset, and which is plural in the same sense as a pair of pants) was about as close to a bra as one could get in the 18th century. I like to explain stays like this because when I have tried to explain them in other ways people will tell me what they think of them, or more likely, what they think of Victorian era corsets: that they were used to torture women, that they were uncomfortable, that they deformed women's bodies, and so on. These thoughts are incorrect. Stays are clothing, and clothing's first requirement is that it be wearable, so stays are wearable. I know; I made a pair.
These days professional stay makers are few and far between and custom stays cost a pretty penny. There are a few sutlers that sell pre-made pairs and it is on them that I blame the stereotype of stays as uncomfortable. Sutlers sell stays in generic sizes instead of custom made, and they use materials of less than the best of quality. If, like me, one is an impoverished student and a decent seamstress, one might as well make one's own pair.
Just like any piece of custom clothing, stays should fit well, but while most clothes are made to follow the shape of your body, stays are made to change and mould its shape. The desired silhouette of the 18th century was conical. A woman, from the bust to the waist was supposed to present a smooth line and her torso was intended to look a bit like an ice cream cone, with head, shoulders and as much cleavage as possible serving as the ice cream on top, as it were.
Because of the smooth line one is going for, a pair of stays needs to be stiffly re-enforced in the front. Originally this was done with strips of whale baleen (a plastic like substance which certain whales use to filter krill, like bone but more flexible). Since whaling and the possession of baleen is now illegal, modern corsets and replica stays are boned (note that the material is still called boning) with plastic, steel, reed or wood. Mine are boned with strips of pounded ash wood. The strips sit side by side all the way around the stays at varying angles. The different angles, straight in front and then angled towards the center front, around the sides, work to shape the body into the ideal silhouette of the 1700's.
Wearing stays, while not uncomfortable, feels different than normal clothing. For one, you cannot bend your torso like you normally would; in fact, you can only bend at the waist. Similarly, you cannot turn your shoulders without twisting from the waist. One of the most interesting preventions of movement in my mind is having to carry your arms a little away from your body with the elbows slightly bent. When I first started researching this period of fashion I saw many paintings and etchings of women with this gracefully curving arm. I assumed it was simply the era's definition of good posture. I never imagined that it was simply the most comfortable way to hold your arms when wearing stays.
This posture, which at first feels foreign to us 21st century-ites, soon becomes natural in a well fitting pair of stays, however, if your stays do not fit well you will find yourself constantly confused by where your body seems to want to go. It will feel as if you, or your stays, are doing something wrong. If you guess that it is your stays fault you'll be right, so don't bother wearing stays if they don't fit. As I said earlier, that is a recipe for torture. They pinch, they dig in, they flop about in funny ways and worst of all, they sometimes leave you feeling unprotected. I think stays should feel like armor, or at least like a really good sports bra. After all, since they have a solid layer of boning in them, they work like armor (though I have yet to test the armor-stays theory in actual combat). So find yourself a pair of stays that fit you really well.
What does that mean? To fit really well, stays should be snug to your body, not so tight in the waist that you feel uncomfortably squeezed and not so tight in the chest that you can't breathe. Stays are laced up the back and they are designed so that that there should be about a two inch gap all the way up. Unlike in Gone with the Wind, you don't have to lace your stays so tightly that you can't take a deep breath. However, if you do breathe in deeply, because the stays are constraining the diameter of your chest, instead of your chest visibly expanding outward like it normally would, movement in limited to an upwards direction.
Your stays should not cut up into your armpits and neither should they slide down nor should they need to be pulled up regularly. Your stays should not dig into your hips or waist, and this problem is perhaps my biggest irritation with any pair of stays. This is prevented when the stays have well made tabs around the bottom edge. Tabs are created when the bottom of the stays splay out into narrow strips for a few inches and the boning continues into the strips. These tabs look like fingers pointing downwards or like the little strips with phone numbers on them at the bottom of a homemade advertisement. They serve to spread out the pressure and the weight of skirts, which put their weight into the stays, instead of directly into one's waist, as skirts worn without a corset do.
If you are planning to wear stays at a reenacting event it probably means you are going to be wearing them all day, two days in a row. Now, if you've never worn stays before, don't try to go the whole weekend on your first attempt. Lace yourself in for Saturday but give it a rest on Sunday. However, if you've got comfortable stays, and they have been worn enough to be “broken in” then by all means wear them, and be proud of yourself for doing so. You will be aiding in the correct portrayal of an era's fashions in the most basic way, by having on the right underwear.
I realize that there is a possibility that your aren't wearing stays to a reenactment, but rather to some other place entirely. It's not something I do very often, because, well, I look like a fool walking around most places dressed for the wrong century. Also, I can't wear my regular clothes over my stays; they don't fit right. Stays change the way your body looks and the way that clothes fit over it; this means both that that wearing historic clothes without stays looks wrong and also wearing modern clothes over them is next to impossible. If, for example, you were to try to wear a fitted blouse over a pair of stays, you would find that below the bust you would not be able to button it at all and that at the bust you would have extra fabric. At the same time your arms would not be able to figure out whether they needed to be held back in 18th century posture, or rest at your sides in 21st century posture.
Just physically getting into your stays can be a challenge for the uninitiated. Most stays lace up the back, which means that you either have to find a way to lace them behind your back, or get someone to do it for you. When first getting the hang of it I'd recommend the latter. If you have an opportunity to practice at home in front of a mirror however, it's a good idea to get the hang of it yourself. Eventually you'll figure out a way that works for you, though it will always take a little time, so don't expect to get dressed in less than ten minutes. I lace my stays with them on backwards, then twist them around and tighten them up behind my back. Don't forget to adjust everything so as to get maximum décolletage (a low cut neckline, or French for “cleavage”) once you've got your stays on. There is not much point wearing them if you're not showing anything off, now is there?
Stays, having been intended for use in the 18th century world, and with 18th century technology in mind, can be a challenge in today's overly ergonomic world. Car seats, for instance, are made for you to be able to recline in, your back is supposed to relax and curve into the seat. Unfortunately, stays were designed with the opposite posture in mind. If you have to go somewhere in a car in your stays, try to find someone else to do the driving. I have heard stories of women finding almost impossible to drive in their stays, and one of a woman who nearly had a panic attack because she was un-able to draw a deep breath. A similar problem, though less dramatic, happens with sofas. Most sofas are meant for you to drop into, they have lots of cushions and deep seats, which you need to lean forward and use your back and stomach muscles to get out of, however those particular muscles are rendered useless by an effective pair of stays, so be prepared for more of a struggle getting up than you were expecting.
A few other things to keep in mind; first, if you have a tan, it probably stops at the neckline of your lowest shirt. You may be thinking that 18th century woman were the picture of modesty but in reality you will most likely show more of your chest in a 1777 outfit than in a 2007 outfit. So be aware of the possibility of an awkward skin tone change. Also, this area of your body may be unused to the sun. If you are not careful, you can end up with what the reenacting community refers to “bosom burn.” And since you've got on such an effective pair of stays, your hat may not quite be able to manage the job of sun protection. So use some sun screen or wear a kerchief around your neck. These finishing touches should help your stays wearing experience to be both pleasant and authentic.
To understand something, one must understand its parts. And so to understand an era, one could do worse than to start off with understanding its underwear. I hope that you now have the beginnings of an appreciation of 18th century stays, what they do, and how to wear them. Perhaps you can put this information to work in understanding America's colonial history, or perhaps in understanding women's fashion through the ages. I also hope that if you ever find yourself needing to wear a pair of stays, that you will approach them with an open mind, and good posture.