Primary Source of the Month
In the eighteenth century, young children of both genders wore stays. Although boys usually shed their stays when they graduated to breeches or trousers, girls continued to wear them into adulthood. Stays or corsets were believed to encourage good posture, provide support, and form a fine figure. The effect of stays from a young age can be seen in the shape of most adult clothing from the eighteenth century. Garments for men and women have sloping shoulder lines, flat backs, and prominent chests because stays molded the shoulders and torso into that shape.
Stays were considered essential for properly dressed women in eighteenth-century Anglo-American society. Many period sources, such as letters, diaries, advertisements, portraits, and prints document that white women from all social levels wore stays. The foundation garment was considered so essential that Englishwomen living in poorhouses were expected to have stays in their wardrobes. Although some American women in backwoods areas neglected to wear stays, especially in the hot summer months, this practice was not considered suitable behavior for a lady, certainly not for public appearances.
It is not clear how many slaves wore stays. Plantation records do not list stays as part of the yearly allotment of clothing for field slaves. Many runaway advertisements, however, mention stays—indicating that some slaves, particularly highly visible house slaves, did wear them.
During the 1700s, doctors and other enlightened educators sought an end to the practice of wearing stays. Out of concern for possible injury, they admonished women to at least avoid tightly lacing, or "straight" lacing, their stays. Women who did so out of vanity were openly mocked in satirical prints, including John Collet’s 1775 print, "Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease" (above).
Fashion-conscious women continued to wear stays throughout the eighteenth century.
By the nineteenth century, stays became corsets. The desired shape had changed
over time, but fashion—and a small waistline—continued to trump
both comfort and health. Fashion before ease, indeed.
Source: Drawn from Linda Baumgarten,
What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal
America (Williamsburg, Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002).
[For additional information about 18th-century clothing and its relationship to social status, please explore the "Dress the Part" student Web activity.]