Well, it appears that, courtesy of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and others that we’re heading back to the 18th century idea of tiny waists, so we had to take a quick peek at the 18th designs; not the best piece of news for those of us that enjoy our cakes and chocolate, or maybe an essential item!
These items of undergarments are often mistakenly referred to as corsets, so let’s begin this blog by correcting the term ‘corsets’. Corsets did not in fact exist until the 19th century, until that time they were known as ‘stays’ and were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe. The most fashionable stays were designed to pull the shoulders back until the shoulder blades almost touched. The resulting silhouette, with shoulders thrown back, very erect posture and a high, full bosom, is characteristic of this period and no other. They were used to support and create the fashionable shape of a woman’s body and to provide a rigid form on to which a gown could be arranged and fastened.
They were originally made from thick linen on to which cane or whalebone was sewn, thereby making the garment extremely rigid. The garment was so tight around the waist and rib cage that it’s no wonder women were prone to fainting as it must have been almost impossible to breathe. It was more common for stays to be worn in England than it was in France and this applied to all classes of society, although the ‘working classes’ usually only possessed one, often made of leather which was worn constantly without washing!
Getting dressed must have been quite a performance, perhaps the only saving grace was that knickers hadn’t been invented at that time. Not something we would advocate doing in polite society today, but apparently, it was not unknown for women to expose part of their breasts. It was socially acceptable to do this at that time, but to expose your calf could have had you expelled from polite society.
By the 1770s steel was being used in stay to increase their strength, but this, of course, made them even more rigid. This combined with tight lacing began to cause concern amongst doctors and others who voiced their concerns about this fashion – does that sound at all familiar?
The alternative to ‘stays’ was the use of ‘jumps’. These were less boned and much softer and comfortable to wear. They laced up the front but still provided support for the bust making them far easier for a woman to put on herself without assistance. These became very fashionable and were more accepted by the medical profession.
We came across the following publication ‘The enormous abomination of the hoop-petticoat, as The Fashion Now is‘ looking at the hoop petticoat and stays from the perspective of a gentleman who proclaims himself ‘not to be a woman hater‘, so quite why he felt compelled to write about this subject we have absolutely no idea!
His article written 1745, described how the fashion had changed over recent years with the petticoat getting larger and larger to the point where it makes it impossible to sit close to a woman as her petticoat had taken over all available space. The sight of the curved hoop, he said was ‘enough to turn one’s stomach.’ He went on to say
‘In general, can anything be more out of nature, grosser insult upon reason and common sense, than this monstrous disproportion between the upper and lower part of a woman? It is an old observation that women by their laced bodices, or stays, as they are now call’d, make themselves the reverse of what nature made them. Men are bigger about the chest and more slender about the waist than women: and there is plain reason for it, which I need not mention. Yet the females have skrew’d and moulded their bodies into a shape quite contrary’.
As always our blog would not be complete without a caricature or two, so we have a couple of 19th century satires, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Collection.
We end with a video showing an eighteenth-century lady getting dressed.
24 thoughts on “The Original ‘Waist Trainer’ – 18th Century Stays”
Good heavens, I had no idea it was socially acceptable for women to expose their bosoms at the dinner table. The potential for risque jokes is almost infinite but it would probably be unsisterly to exploit it. Mind you, I used to know someone who’d do it in the pub at the drop of a gin bottle so perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think.
Possibly best not to go down the risque jokes route or we could be there all day and clearly we have similar acquaintances lol 🙂
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My lips and my stays will remain sealed. 😉
Ah, the art of diplomacy rules OK lol 🙂
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Properly fitting stays do not restrict breathing. This is a myth that keeps getting passed around and no amount of debunking seems to be able to stop it.
Thank you so much for reading our article and for your comments.
It seems likely that there will continue to be conflicting opinions about their use. The medical profession in the 18th and 19th centuries had concerns about them restricting breathing and seemingly clinicians have continued to report a variety of concerns about their usage as shown here in British Medical Journal. The first being a report originally written in 1903, the next 2003.
‘Dr. Williams asserts that the injurious pressure of the corset on the lower ribs and the abdominal viscera interferes with digestion and assimilation, and produces dilatation of the stomach and gastric ulceration with subsequent anaemia, whilst at the same time by compressing the base of the thorax corsets throw the diaphragm out of action, and thus are responsible for the thoracic respiration of females which is described as both abnormal and insufficient. In addition, however, to these injurious results, lateral curvatures of the spine are also said to be due to the injurious pressure of the corset upon the spinal muscles, and Dr. Williams concludes his heavy indictment with the statement that by the use of corsets the majority of women are permanently deformed as to their skeletons at 24 years of age, and permanently crippled at 30. Most observers will admit that numerous evils result from the abuse of corsets, nevertheless it is a fact that many women live to old age in good health, in spite of the compression to which they subject themselves, and it is difficult to see how the use of corsets is to be dispensed with so long as it is the custom to wear skirts and petticoats, which are most conveniently suspended from a structure which has a basis of support upon the hips … Until some series of garments is devised for female wear as becoming and comfortable as those which are at present customary but capable of being worn without corsets, there is little hope that the latter article will be dispensed with. (BMJ 1903;i:388) BMJ 2003;326:1014’
The second being from 2003. A registered nurse with a Ph.D. in clothing design carried out a study with reenactors who wore two styles of corsets (hourglass and straight-front) on the exercise treadmill to determine several physiologic parameters, had spirometry testing, and kept a diary of their comfort levels through a re-enactment day. She asked her volunteers to lace their waists only three inches smaller than their natural measurements, (compared to seven to ten in earlier times).
Her findings were
‘…that they showed very distinct changes in their O2 uptake, CO2 production, and capacity to work. Despite considerable discomfort all wore their corsets throughout their normal work
period, with the reasoning that they “didn’t want to be the only one to remove the corset.” This peer pressure was distinctly of their own making, but may account for similar comments which I read in early journals and magazines of the era’.
And her conclusion being that she could see problems in the future if women continued to wear them.
That may be their observation, but it doesn’t correlate with the experience of a vast community of dedicated re-enactors worldwide. They’re linking this across Facebook today and wondering why they haven’t noticed that they can’t breathe through the lungs that are in their waists.
Joanne was a seventeenth-century re-enactor for many years, and had a hand-made, made to measure set of stays which were as historically accurate as could be. Because they fitted so well they were comfy (surprisingly so to her at first but they were made by a fellow re-enactor and comfort had been in mind). But the one problem she did find was that if she’d laced them tightly she’d have to sneak off and loosen the laces before eating, if she wanted to clear her plate. She also had to get used to not slouching when she sat down, it being much more comfortable to sit bolt upright with the support the stays gave to her back.
Joanne’s own personal view, having worn stays, although albeit not the eighteenth-century ones we discussed, is that there were people who would be sensible and go more for comfort and support, and those who were prepared to lace a bit tighter for a better silhouette. Also, wearing stays that were not ‘made to measure’ and perhaps had been intended for someone with a different body shape would make them significantly more uncomfortable, a bit like wearing a badly fitting bra today. The problem is that you can look at the garments that have survived, but you can’t know the body shape of the person who wore them, nor how they wore them.
(compared to seven to ten in earlier times)
Did Gau actually use those numbers? I don’t remember that, and that’s definitely not the case. If you examine antique clothing, you find that the wearers’ bodies were in proportion and not horribly distorted. I can see how you would get to that idea by thinking about modern waist measurements and the stereotypical Victorian 20″ waist, but bodices with 20″ waists generally have bust measurements from 25″ to 30″, which is normal even without a corset if you’re that thin. And it’s not applicable to the 18th century, where extant stays tend to be thicker-waisted.
I have some problems with Gau’s methodology (namely to do with the fact that we don’t know how the corsets fit prior to the tight-lacing), but most 1910s-and-earlier medical studies on corsets are highly unscientific. It had been previously “decided” that corsets were unhealthy, so the object was to show that corsets were unhealthy, rather than to find out the effects of corsets on the body.
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Many thanks for your comments they’re much appreciated. The reference to Gau’s research has been taken directly from the BMJ article. We thought it might be of interest to readers to see how the medical profession have viewed the wearing of stays, corsets etc over time. Naturally views do change over time and it’s quite feasible that this evidence has now been discounted.
I’m guessing the author has never worn stays. As a reenactor, I’ve worn repros of 18thC stays, late 18thC transition stays, and a mid 19thC corset. As with today, the health-threatening extremes were done by some of the fashionable elite. 18th century stays support the bust and can actually make the waist measurement a bit larger. They smoothed the torso into a cone that was the basis of fashion. Most women wore stays, as most women wear bras today, an ordinary item. There were differences in rigidity and shape depending on the decade and amount of structure — upper class vs lower class, dress vs undress.
Small waists came into fashion in the 19th century, and the last satirical print is from the 1830s. Dr. Williams seems to be addressing 19thC corsets, and the hourglass and straight front describe 19th century corsets as well. Still, 19th century costumers and reenactors are able to build and wear their corsets comfortably as well, and don’t need to severely constrict the waist to get an elegant and fashionable shape. Articles are written today on the dangers of high heels, and yet there was a recent report of women banned from the red carpet for wearing flats!
I’m curious about the source of the statement of exposing the breasts for comfort. Certainly one could do so for breast feeding, although there is one extant set of stays with little doors built in. Décolletage was the style, but could be concealed with a neck-handkerchief. (Good to protect from sunburn, too!)
Thank you for taking time to comment on our post, hopefully our replies to Cathy & Cassidy address the comments you’ve made. You are correct the last satirical print is from the 1830’s but if you’re familiar with our blog we try, where possible to include satirical prints and although slightly later was too amusing to resist.
We found about exposing the breast came on this fascinating website so decided to include it, sorry for not including the link previously
Interesting page, thank you! The blogger says, “Many fashionable women in the late 18th century even went so far as to expose one or both nipples on occasion; or their bodice was cut so low that with the slightest movement a nipple might make a surprise appearance.”
I still didn’t see the part about pulling stays down for comfort.
There are some Regency era portraits where a sheer layer does not quite conceal, either. They generally are of young women, which fits with the idea (from the comments on that blog) that it might be a way of portraying purity.
With reference to your comment about pulling down the stays ‘for comfort’ for some strange reason we’re struggling to find the source which is unlike us as if we don’t include it we can usually go to it straightaway, so rather than misinform we’ll remove that sentence for now. If we can find it then we’ll reinstate the sentence and add the source.
Waist trainers are alternatives to the modern day corset. Corset training began in the mid-18th century, as most Georgian women are using it. A corset waist trainers make you stand tall by supporting your lower back, which encourages good posture. Thanks for the info you shared!
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I’m wondering- does the 18th century corset compress the breasts so that the wearer is almost flat-chested? And were small breasts thought as more beautiful/socially acceptable/more upper class than significantly more voluptuous bosoms?
The corset would have pushed the breasts upwards, as can be seen in many paintings and caricatures of the period and the dresses were low cut so quite a bit of the breast would potentially have been visible (depending upon the size, of course). As to the second part of your question, we really have no idea, but maybe one of our readers will be able to answer that one.
I’d like to leave a comment if I may. This is only an observation from seeing real late 18th century and 19th century clothing ( as I have never worn a corset ever) is that the references to 20 inch waists is not altogether inaccurate as having seen a few dresses ( and shoes too) I could see that the women in those times were tiny! Tiny in as the whole skeleton/frame- tiny shoulders, natural tiny waists ( as seen in the Regency Empire line dresses) and tiny in height- about 4 feet 11 inches to 5 feet 1 inches. These women were the size of a modern 12 year old . Their shoes looked like a size 2 or 3! So when we see these corsets in photos or in displays on their own we ought to think about the overall size of the woman who wore it- much much smaller than a modern 21st century woman. Even women in the 1950s were smaller- a size 12 back then was 34-24-24.
Thank you so much for the additional information 🙂
Oops sorry meant 34-24-34 for the 1950s woman!
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