18th-Century Stays

I may not be the world’s biggest historical costume buff–in fact, my knowledge would be considered pretty basic by some. I know most of the terms–things like robe a la polonaise and pannier. I know my waistcoat from my stomacher. There is still a lot I don’t know, however.

So, last night I had a grand old time looking through YouTube videos on 18th-century dress. I was particularly interested in leaning more about 18th-century stays. Stays are not quite the same as corsets. As is said in one of the videos, the aim was not to shrink the waist to unnatural proportions like Victorian corsets did. The aim was both support and an upside-down triangle shape. The waist became slightly more round instead of being compressed.

There are a lot of myths about stays/corsets, most of them directly out of Hollywood. In Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, Elizabeth is laced into her stays so tightly that it’s difficult for her to breath. Firstly, stays shouldn’t be laced that tight; basically, if you can’t breathe, you’re doing it wrong. Secondly, the movie shows her maid tugging at the laces from the back (like in the movie Titanic). This isn’t wrong, per se, as stays were often laced in front and back. But many people don’t realize that many stays laced up the front. Otherwise, it would be impossible for a woman to dress herself, and not every woman had a maid to help her dress every morning, believe it or not.

I’ve read some books on the subject before, but none of them were nearly as helpful as the videos, which are hands-on. It’s much easier to get an idea of what’s being said when you can see it happening. Here are a few videos I particularly liked:

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