Staying in Character

Posted by Donna on 9:33 AM with No comments
There are two elements key to historical interpretation – knowing your subject and dressing the part.

During Weston’s 300th anniversary celebration, I had the opportunity to meet Steph Smith and Hattie Larkin, both beautifully (and authentically) costumed in 1770’s attire. While chatting with Steph, I learned about The Hive, a living history community group with a focused interest on the Minute Men and Battle Road, the scene of the first shots that launched the War for Independence here in Massachusetts. The Hive helps people develop, improve and grow their 18th century impressions through workshops and meetings. Steph said if I was interested, there was a workshop scheduled for early December – stays, in the neatest fashion.

Of course, I was.

Stays were the foundation of 18th century women’s clothing. The predecessor to the corset, girdle and the fashionable but not necessarily functional bustier, stays were an essential undergarment stiffened with whalebone (baleen), wood or reed. They helped create the straight-backed posture and conical-shaped silhouette that was popular throughout most of the 18th century.

1770's stays from the Snowshill Wade Costume Collection
While in Williamsburg over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time with the milliner and mantua-makers, chatting about stays and the stay making process. Making one’s own stays is outside the norm. Eighteenth century women had their stays were fitted and made by skilled stay-makers, primarily male, who would have made nothing else. – 10 pieces that were to be cut from linen, hand-stitched, boned and sewn together.

Eighteenth century stays were laced up the back, and how a woman living alone was able to get herself in and out of them still remains a mystery to me. Eighteenth century stays were meant to support the body; frankly, my dear, they were not meant to be pulled tight to accentuate a tiny waist (No apologies for the Gone With the Wind reference, and despite Mammy and Scarlett’s on-screen demonstration, stays weren’t pulled that tight in the antebellum era either.).  Women of all classes wore them – upper classes for fashion and working class for support.

My stays pattern was fit to my body, just like it would have been done in the 18th century. The 10 pieces were transferred onto linen and a worsted wool and I basted through the three layers to outline the shape of each piece. And then the real sewing began.  I’ve logged about 60 hours sewing tiny stitches with waxed linen thread, about 10 stitches per inch, to create more channels than I care to count. Reed was slid into each channel. The 20 eyelets lining the back were made with an awl and stitched by hand before the finished pieces were whipstitched together.  But, I’m not done yet. There’s seam binding, top and bottom binding and lining still to do.
Front of my 1770's stays

Stays interior

Close-up of the eyelets

While it seems like a significant undertaking and investment in time, I actually found the process quite cathartic, and am every excited to see them actually taking shape (no pun intended). The stays are needed to properly fit a gown, and that class is scheduled for February 8!