Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Teeny Tiny Corsets

Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Susan reports:

Whenever we discuss corsets or stays (as they are called in the 18th c.), we're usually referring to the ones that adult women wore to give them fashionable shapes, and "improve" on Nature. But ladies weren't the only ones who began the day with a tight lacing. Most well-bred European children, girls and boys alike, also wore stays from the age of three months onward. 

The goal was not narrowing the waist, but to encourage proper posture and make standing straight a lifetime habit.  You know, being "upright" and "upstanding."

Costume collections have many of these tiny corsets, some measuring only sixteen inches around the chest. (The example, left, is a recreation by the Colonial Williamsburg mantua-makers; here's an antique example from the CW collection, and another from a private 
collection.) They're substantial, no-nonsense garments, quilted layers of stiffened linen and buckram, reinforced with baleen boning. The two young children in the painting below are clearly wearing stays beneath their fashionable clothing.

By the time boys were ready for breeching at about age five, they put aside stays along with the rest of their uni-sex baby clothes,
and began to dress like miniature men. Girls never gave them up; ladies wore stays their entire lives, even while pregnant. The girls of the later 18th c. did have the advantage of reaching womanhood in the brief era of the high-waisted Regency styles, and would have been spared whalebone for twenty years or so of their lives. But one wonders if the famously willowy figures of the time resulted from the stays worn as children.

To modern parents, the idea of toddlers in corsets seems horrifying. But every generation has its own ideas for raising healthy children. Those of us of a certain age (cough, cough) will recall the peculiar emphasis put on "correcting and supporting" children's feet in the 1950s and 60s. Kids were weighed down by clunky, reinforced oxford-style shoes with rigid arch inserts and tight lacing over the top of the foot. The more things change....


Jane O said...

These corsets are fascinating.
I can't help wondering what ever possessed people to start wearing them in the first place. They weren't around in ancient times or during the middle ages, were they? And some of them were so hideously uncomfortable — the metal Elizabethan ones, the tight lacing of the later 19th century, the "Merry Widows" of the 1950s. I remember the last one — there were times when the best part of a date was getting home and being able to take it off!

LorettaChase said...

Jane O, according to the exhibition catalog for Bound by Fashion (more on this at a later date), "precursors to the corset existed as early as four thousand years ago in ancient Crete." But the modern corset originated in Renaissance Europe.

Linda said...

I follow your blog on Google Reader and have enjoyed all the posts on early clothing. Since I have to 'travel' back across the internet to post a comment, I have not done so in the past. But, I want to say something about corsets. I have one of my great aunt's corsets along with the original (very pretty) box. Aunt Fanny was born in the 1850s and lived to be almost 100. One of her daughters told me that she continued to wear a corset, even when working in the flower garden, saying w/o it she would have such a back ache. I wish I had a digital camera so I could show you a picture of the corset and the box. Thanks for all the interesting posts.

nightsmusic said...

I actually like wearing a corset. My back often hurts and, providing it's not laced to shrink my waist by 12 inches :P , it helps to give me the support I need on those days when no position gives me any relief.

The added benefit of pushing boobs up and out doesn't hurt either ;)

I wore those horrible shoes as a kid in the 50's because my ankles turned in. They were huge, weighed several pounds a piece and I am convinced that I wouldn't be nearly as clumsy today as I am if I'd not worn them. Talk about wearing shoes you could break your neck in!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Jane O, Loretta's right -- there are pix of corsets in ancient Crete. I distinctly remember the statues and paintings of women wearing long flounced skirts, tight waist corsets, and little short jackets (I think I also remember that they were bare-breasted under those jackets, but hey, it was ancient Crete!) But corsets weren't much in evidence in Greece, Rome, or throughout the middle ages. I have no idea why they suddenly appear in the 16h c. or so, or why after that they became so firmly entrenched with European women...but it's endlessly fascinating (which is why Loretta and I keep returning to it.)

Abby said...

I'm so glad that you all are having a great time researching in Williamsburg. I think this post would benefit from the other children's stays that they have in the shop, such as the pasteboard one, and the other pretty older girls' ones that are not fully boned, but in fact have few pieces of boning. Just like the corded corset provides a visual for the development of stays throughout the too did the children's stays change along with the adults.

Looking forward to future posts!! :) :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Abby -- Do you mean the blue-and-white (almost a ticking) stripe children's stays from the shop? I have photos of them, too, though alas, I can't use everything at once: not only would the post be far too long, but I think I might fry Blogger if I include too many images.I don't remember the stays appropriate to an older girl -- hmm, one more thing to ask Janea about next time we're in CW.

And thank you for commenting -- surely your knowledge of 18th c. stays exceeds ours! *g*

Abby said...

Yes I'm talking about those, they're a favorite for interpreting. :) In the baby basket there should be other versions..there's at least a pink and a white version that are for older girls. I was an intern for the shop summer 2007... ;)

I also wrote my Master's dissertation discussing stays and comfort, so this subject is a close personal favorite. :) :)

and also, a huge thank you for posting all the lovely Christmas's a favorite time to visit for my mom and I! :) :)

nightsmusic said...

I'd love a link if anyone has one to any possible pictures of the corsets/stays from ancient Crete!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I was dredging through my old art history-memories when I mentioned the corset'd women from Crete, but (amazingly!) I wasn't far off the mark. They're listed as either the island's snake goddesses or high priestesses, but most of the mentions I found on line seem to say that ordinary women dressed in a version of this style, too. It's pretty impressive. Here's a representative:

nightsmusic said...

Very interesting! I'd never seen that picture before. Makes one wonder what makes a style like that come and go.

DD2 and I were watching Grease today. She commented as to how I could wear the clothes featured in the movie, to which I had to explain that they weren't 70's styles like she thought, but 50's. She said she'd never be caught dead in those clothes.

One of the girls wore skin tight capris with a high waist. I pointed out that, except for the waistline, she wore 'those clothes' quite often. Wish I'd taken a picture of her face! lol!

Nothing is old that doesn't become new again.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Abby, I just added the pictures of the baby's stays. Please feel free to comment and add more info! :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, there are lots of pictures of those Cretan statues on line. Google "snake goddess" or "Knossos" and they should come up.

nightsmusic said...

Found some more. Thanks. :)

Unknown said...


My name is Arielle and I am a fifer in a colonial fife and drum corps. My group also does quite a bit of Revolutionary War re-enacting and I am working on an outfit for this. I'm so excited to be able to re-enact as a female instead of a fifer boy!

I came across your article when I was looking for information on stays. My sister and I are small (size 0-2) and all of the stays I can find, especially through Townsend, are a size 6 or above! You speak of how stays were made for smaller women and, very interestingly, for children. Do you know, by any chance, where re-enactors can buy smaller sized stays or, as you call them, "teeny tiny corsets"?

Thank you so much for your help!


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

How exciting that at last you get to portray a girl! As much fun as participating in a colonial fife and drum corps must be, the clothes ARE much prettier for 18th c. girls than boys. :)

Alas, I'm not aware of any suppliers for "teeny tiny corsets." As you've discovered, most of the market is aimed at adult reenactors, and there's not much available in smaller sizes.

Are you familiar with the website of Burnley & Trowbridge? They're based in Williamsburg, and supply many reenactors. More importantly, they offer workshops on reproducing 18th c. clothing and, yes, stays, that are taught by the tailors and mantuamakers of Colonial Williamsburg. While B&T might not offer stays to fit you on their site, they might be able to recommend a seamstress who could make a custom pair for you.

Their web address is:

And on Facebook:

Good luck!

Victorian Corset said...

Always good to read your blog.
And I've learnt something new today.
I didn't realise the children wore corsets/stays from as young as 3 months.
I feel a little sorry for the boys having to wear them until they were 5 years old.
How things have changed.

Kate Knudson said...

Almost wish I had been made to wear a corset as a child, my posture is terrible!

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