Thursday, May 19, 2016

Update: More About Those 18thc Leather Stays

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Last fall I shared a post about the replica leather stays that were being made at Colonial Williamsburg. Following historical examples, the stays were made by leather-workers Jay Howlett and intern Emma Cross for two of CW's apprentices: blacksmith Aislinn Lewis and tinsmith Jenny Lynn. When I wrote more about Jenny's 18thc clothing on Monday, reader Adam Cyphers asked if there was an update on how the leather stays were working "in the field."

The answer is a little mixed. In the pictures above, Aislinn is wearing her stays. As a woman working in a physical trade, she might well have worn the stays like this as an outer garment, and without a bodice or gown over it. Yes, stays were undergarments in the 18thc, but since they were always worn over a linen shift and not against the skin, it wasn't scandalous to wear them like this; it was considered practical.

Jenny's stays weren't as successful, with the original measurements just enough off to make them uncomfortable to wear for a full day's work. Because the stays are cut from single pieces of leather and scored instead of seamed, there isn't a way to adjust or modify them, and the stays are now being used for display in the Margaret Hunter Millinery shop, left. As you can see, however, Jenny did wear the stays long enough for them to begin to assume her shape.

While Jenny waits for another pair, she's wearing a different kind of stays that were popular with working-class women. Hers are stiffened not with whalebone (baleen) strips - used in the more expensive stays of the 18thc - but with thin oak splints that are also used in basketmaking. These stays are Jenny's favorites for everyday, and for now, they're more comfortable, too.

Top: Photographs ©2015 Colonial Williamsburg's blog, Making History.
Below: Photograph ©2016 Susan Holloway Scott.


Kathleen Lynagh said...

I must a missed one of your lovely issues. But can you explain why 18th century women wore these items? For back support or something to do with the culture of the times? Thank you.

Merrian said...

If you delve into the deep past on Marja of Before the Automobile's blog. She made a pair of 18thC unboned leather stays and wore them on a re-enacting route march, camping in them

String said...

I made a set of leather stays roughtly based on the child's stays on display in the Dewitt gallery, they are made with a single front panel, and two back panels. They worked for many years (still sort of fit, but I replaced them recently with something better) but getting the fit right was tricky. I ended up cutting them down to a smaller size at one point, and then almost immediately gained weight. Mine are made out of 1/4" saddle leather and were comfortable as long as it was cold out, they are pretty incredibly hot in the summer.

witness2fashion said...

I'm certainly not going to argue with the researchers at Colonial Williamsburg, but Aislinn's stays look much too small for her. That big gap in back must put the back support in the wrong place (at the sides instead of over the back muscles) -- and the odd, very high placement of the curved top in front could use some explanation.
As for why women wore such corsets, when I made several copies of a "Diderot corset" for an opera production I was surprised to find that the boned tabs that go over the hipbones are really important in supporting the breasts, and, when worn under the costume, the tabs also distribute and support the weight of the yards of fabric in petticoats and skirts. Wearing 18th c. skirts over a corset is -- surprisingly -- more comfortable than going without the corset.

Moonshhade said...

I was approached by someone from Colonial Williamsburg years ago and asked to make a pair of leather seats based on a pattern taken from an extant set of regular stays. I did not charge for them as it started me thinking about how they were actually made and worn. I never heard back from the woman. I made my own set (they included shoulder straps that fastened to the front with ties) and found that measurements were key in comfort as they were too high under my arms and dig into my armpits. After quite a few wearing I also found that I needed reinforcement at the front closure (i found an example of this in a book a friend had) so I glued a thicker strip of leather down each side. In subsequent sets (I've made 7 so far 2 for myself as I gained weight) I've found them to be very comfortable to wear and I work in them all day. My last tweak was to make the tabs a bit shorter so they don't curl up as much with wear. They are just as hot to wear in the summer as any other stays. You can see the set I made for CW on my business FB page and the second set I made for myself as well. In the album titled "pirate"

Moonshhade said...

I agree that they were way to small for her.

jhowlett said...

At the time the photo of Aislinn was taken her stays had been grabbed off the bench in the shop and laced on just to get the photo,as they are made from insole shoulder which does not bend much when dry they had to be shaped to her body by being worn wet.I believe the shape is markedly altered now, at least I have heard no complaints.Though employees at Colonial Williamsburg do buy costume pieces for outside activities, any that were authorized for wear or display here in at least the last 18 years were the work of my own hand or my employees working in close cooperation with the Sr.Taylor.These have been made in intentionally limited numbers so as not to over represent leather as opposed other types of stays.

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