Thursday, October 15, 2015

Leather Stays for 18thc. Working Women

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Isabella reporting,

My trips to Colonial Williamsburg usually include a report on some luscious new silk gown for a lady from the mantua-makers (which I promise I will do next week.) But here's something different, for a different kind of 18thc. woman: a replica pair of leather stays (corset) made by another of Colonial Williamsburg's historic trades, the leather-breeches makers.

While more affluent women in the Georgian world wore stays that were an elaborate construction of linen and buckram reinforced with strips of whalebone, women of the laboring classes wore stays made of stiff leather. Not only were leather stays substantially less expensive (they were the stays given to poor women as "charity stays"), but they also were much sturdier, and offered more back support for jobs that required physical exertion. They also gave the fashionable conical silhouette to women couldn't afford the whalebone stays. Like all stays, leather stays were never worn next to the skin, but over a shift, and under the wearer's other clothing.

Saddler and leather-worker Jay Howlett (we have shared his craftsmanship making 18thc.-style leather breeches here and here and replicating one of George Washington's leather field cases here) and intern Emma Cross recently completed new leather stays for two of Colonial Williamsburg's tradeswomen: apprentice blacksmith Aislinn Lewis and apprentice tinsmith Jenny Lynn, lower right. Both had discovered that whalebone stays were insufficient for the kind of manual labor their work involves, with fraying linen and errant whalebone popping through the stitched channels. Leather stays should be the answer, just as they were for their historical predecessors.

Based on 18thc. originals in English and Colonial Williamsburg collections, these stays, above, are in three pieces: two front/back pieces, and a stomacher to fill in the space left by the lacing in the front. The steer leather is insole shoulder, the thick leather used for the soles of shoes. It IS thick, too - see the scrap piece in Jay's hand, right. The pieces were designed to fit the future wearers and drafted as a paper pattern, above left, by tailor and stay-maker Mark Hutter before they were cut from the leather.

The pieces were scored (a shallow cut), lower left, where they needed to bend to accommodate the curves of the body, and eyelet holes were punched in the front and back for the 1/4" linen laces. The top and front edges were finished with a soft goatskin leather binding, both to protect the wearer from chafing, and to add a bit of style. The stomacher was covered with fabric to be make it possible to pin the woman's bodice, worn over the stays, into place. The leather tabs at the bottom flared out over the wearer's hips to help support her petticoats (skirts.)

The stays took Jay and Emma about twelve hours to complete - as opposed to the fifty or more hours required for a pair of whalebone stays. In the 1770s, a pair of leather stays would have cost about eight shillings, while a whalebone pair could have cost anywhere from twelve shillings to several pounds for ones with extra-fine boning and a silk cover.

The leather stays had just been delivered to Aislinn and Jenny, and neither have had a chance to wear them to work yet. Before they can, the stays will require wet-shaping - soaking the leather and wearing them wet until they dry, to help conform to the wearer's shape for a personalized fit. I'm looking forward to hearing the experiences of the two women as they adjust to their new leather stays, and how the stays adjust to them. Updates will be coming!

Further reading: Mark Hutter recommends Stays and Body Image in London: The Staymaking Trade, 1680-1810 by Lynn Sorge-English; the 18thc. stays on which these reproductions are based are described in this book.

Many thanks to Jay Howlett, Emma Cross, and Jenny Lynn for their help with this blog.

Top photo courtesy of Jenny Lynn.
All other photographs ©2015 by Susan Holloway Scott.


Lil said...

Fascinating. How did you care for them? Did you need to oil them so they wouldn't get dried out and stiff? How late did women continue to wear leather stays? 1800? 1850? 1900? I can imagine them being practical on the American frontier.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify--you state that "women of the laboring classes wore stays made of stiff leather." It would be more accurate to say that *some* women of the lower class had leather stays--not all. From the evidence we have, boned stays were still more common for the lower class than leather.

Anonymous said...

In order to function properly the leather needs to be quite stiff,insole shoulder is not just thick but under goes secondary processing after tanning .This process is known as sammaing ,the leather is dampened then rolled or pounded to compact the fibers and make it denser.Except for some Scandinavian folk costumes I have not encountered any 19th century examples.But truthfully I have never looked 19th century is outside my area of interest.JMH

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Even though I think you are splitting hairs about phrasing,I do find that I have to agree with your statement.I do not think leather stays were universal or even a common choice for those who had a choice.Honestly, I was somewhat disinclined to put more leather stays out there as I feel they have become over represented in the reenacting/living history community.However most of the "reproduction" examples I have encountered were so poorly realized,that I felt it was important that we show some based on surviving examples.
The young women who will be issued these stays are apprentices at the public armory,and as such would have been provided their clothing by the Master at public expense .I am comfortable with the choice of leather stays in this case and excited by the interpretive opportunities they will present. JMH

Anonymous said...

In One of Liza Picard's books she mentions that as the leather stays aged they got rather more flexible, and that they were not uncommonly pawned -which implies a certain level of value.

Quinn said...

I would honestly love to try wearing leather stays for barn chores, especially in winter. I had a heavy fabric version made by a corset-maker, and it really helps support my back and keep the chill off my spine. This thick leather would be even more supportive, I'm sure.

Renee said...

Nerdy history girls, I am trying to pin a date down for the use of the word 'unmentionables'to describe a Civil War nurse's underclothes. I can't seem to find anything definite, and an editor I am using to edit a novella tells me that word wouldn't have been used in that sense in the mid-19th century? Do you concur?

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