After the number of interesting comments following my post on 18th c. stays last week, I made the question of stay-lacing one of my top priorities for my quickie trip to Colonial Williamsburg this week. The majority of women employees who are wearing historic dress are also wearing stays (the ones without stays are representing women of the past who would not ordinarily wear them, such as enslaved African American women and Native American women.)
Once Abby had the lace through all the eyelets, she slipped the stays over her head and over her shift, and settled them in place, above right. Then, reaching around behind, she gradually began pulling the lace tight, above left. The goal with 18th c stays is about an inch or two gap. The edges are not intended to meet, so as you can see, Abby did an admirable job, working by feel. When she reached the bottom, she pulled the lace tight, and wrapped it several times around her waist before securing it with a bow, lower right. Yes, Abby made it look easy, lower left, but this was clearly a process that required practice as well as flexibility!
Why didn't women wear front-lacing stays, which would have been so much more simple? Tradition, and fashion: back-lacing created a smoother, flatter front that was the ideal. The majority of surviving 18th c. stays are back-laced, though there are a handful that lace in front, designed to please some forgotten independent ladies.
Many thanks to Abby Cox for serving as my 18th c. lady, and to Angela Burnley of Burnley & Trowbridge for sharing her expertise and hospitality.
Photographs copyright ©2011 Susan Holloway Scott