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Did Stays Make you Bulky?

The Bulkiness of Stays:

This is an intriguing topic – it began for us atleast, when we were sampling our very first pair of Stays. We’d already discovered 4 ways in which to make a bad pair of Stays and were just coming to the finalised product that was similar in feel, shape and weight as the original in the museum. (This is our Bath Stays, based on BATMC1.27.865 and currently found in the Online Shop).

We’d read somewhere that Stays were not always worn as tight as they could be and so while we tested out our new Stays we decided to see what it felt like and looked like to not have the Stays laced up fully. The result was Bulk – pure bulk! When they were laced up tightly there was indeed a feeling of slimness but not too the same degree in which the un-stayed body can be, but have them only a little looser and both the photographs and the spacial feel of the body was much bigger.

As we carried on with our research so we began to notice certain drawings in which the lady look slender around her neck and arms but the bulk of her torso seemed out of proportion. In the back of our minds the thoughts stirred….


This is not a declaration of fact – please let us be clear.  Consider it, instead, as us laying down what we’ve found before you and seeing if you come to the same conclusion. You may not – but please join in the discussion and lets see if we can’t finally get the mysterious world of Stays pinned down in our understanding!

The first images is Paul Sandby’s – Hairdresser – dated after 1745.Hairdressing a lady in the mid 18th century by Paul Sandby, example of a lady in stays, HandBound made to measure Historical costume, hand made Historical and period clothing, re-enactment costume, theatre and film costumiers,  custom made corsets, HandBound Corset and costume research

There’s so much in this sketch, but, more than anything, what we find precious about Paul Sandby’s work is the normal-ness of it – the amazing ability he had to make the subjects of his paintings so ordinary. We realise it’s labouring a point, but when you look at his sketches they somehow make it feel like the scene before you is ordinary for you too.

Painted as part of a group of sketches he made while in Edinburgh after the rebellion in 1745, these quick snatches of street scenes are fascinating. Here is a hairdresser dressing a lady’s hair. She sits patiently in a beautiful floral Robe a l’Anglais with large-ish sleeves and possibly a folded up, loose cuff by the looks of things. We’ve used her because, contrary to her neck and arm her torso looks quite forbidding. It seems to be much larger than it should be. Just for interest and detail, she also wears a handkerchief about her neck and a long white apron – classic Undress or Day wear.Lady Maynard by Paul Sandby - c.1757, ladies costume from the 18th century, Undress for wealthy women in the mid 1700s, example of a lady in stays, HandBound made to measure Historical costume, hand made Historical and period clothing, re-enactment costume, theatre and film costumiers, custom made corsets, HandBound Corset and costume research,  After Rebellion in Edinburgh series of Sketches by Paul Sandby, Royal Collection of Art, Yale collection, Historical costume research, Goergian dress and fashionable shapes

– Lady Maynard 1757.

You are more than welcome to disagree with us entirely here but we find Lady Maynard a little bigger than expected in this next painting. Painted around 1757, this portrait of Lady Maynard could just be slightly sketched wrong, or her arms are hiding the neatness of the waist but when we first saw it we thought it was another possible example of either A) One not wearing her Stays laced in as tight as she might. Or B) Where her Stays make her look slightly bigger than reality.

It’s also an image of a Lady wearing her Apron tucked up slightly to one side. We have noticed this in a few of the working women portraits but not in a wealthy woman’s one. It’s just for noting that’s all.

The uselessness of this topic is that really there are no answers! How are we ever going to know if Lady Maynard in her Undress wore her Stays slightly looser? Or if this bulk that we imagine here was just a wrong move of a paint brush? Or even if women thought that Stays did make their shape bigger but as the use of them was so normal and the structure they gave to the body so essential, that it meant that this fact was simply accepted. Perhaps it could even be that this was a part of the development for slimmer stays in the later part of the 18th. The truth is – this is all pure conjecture – fun! But conjecture all the same.

Another image is again from Paul Sandby’s Edinburgh sketches and is entitled ‘Man on Grass’ Evidently it is not the man we are interested but the women, beautifully painted in faded watercolour sitting just beyond him -like  a hazy day in the sunshine!

Edinburgh Sketches by Paul Sandby- c.1745 - HandBound

Looking at the ladies in the background!

We’ve only really included this image, not because it contains any direct proof, but more because it continues the image of this bulkier lady. No matter what size you are, wrapping yourself with closely sewn whalebone and layers of fabric is always going to add some sort of bulk to the body. We know the Stays can be pulled in to enhance the waist and they certainly control and place very firmly the bust in one place and one place alone but the overall effect is of a much more imposing shape than the natural body. This cannot be helped – it is the very definition of a pair of Stays.

The next image is even better for seeing the way the Stays hold the body – the lady is definitely not slim nor slender but in this image you can see very clearly what a pair of stays can do to a larger figure – especially if not worn tight. The pure fact is that you are pulling into a rigid shaped corset all the stomach and bust. Where as some clothes can disguise a larger shape, a corset can’t – it solidifies it and contains it and holds it rigid and therefore the finished impression can be almost war-like.

Meat Mkt after 1745 - P.Sandby - HandBound

Meat market by Paul Sandby – after 1745

Copley - American artist of 18th century fashion, HandBound Costumes research into 18th c. fashion, Hand Made period and historical costume, Made to measure period clothing, Historical costumes speciallising in 18th century underwear, custom made corsetry and 18th century Stays, Theatre and Film costumiers,

1764 – sitter unknown

Isn’t she splendid! Please just appreciate Paul Sandby’s talent for capturing life and it’s reality. You can see from the above image how broad she is around the waist.

– J.S.Copley – Sitter Unknown – 1764.

The following image shows the same effect, though American and therefore an image we tend to leave in the American section of our research, but it shows this solidity so very well. This is actually a very interesting dress. It appears to not be CF opening gown but has an open skirt front to the skirts of the gown – possibly a wrapped over front that secured down one side? – Similar to Tudor costume? Or a CB Closing gown?

The next image is a detail from C.Phillips painting ‘The Tea Party at Lord Harrington’s’ and dated 1730. Both ladies look to our eye a little but larger than life in the torC.Phillips-Tea_Party-1730-HandBoundso department but in the case of the lady in the background this may just be the busyness of her robe. However, the lady in salmon-ish pink in the fore ground is a little more distinctive. Again, it could just be the artist’s skill, but it does look like she’s larger than her proportions suggest.

She also looks to be wearing a Lappet cap with the lappets folded up, which is nice to see!

It’s much easier to excuse slim looking drawings as flights of fancy – that ideal delicate, small waisted girl – like our modern day fashion drawings, quickly sketched with super long legs and barely any waist to speak of. Infact we can sometimes find it hard not to draw slim women – adding a larger waist somehow takes more imagination! But these larger drawings would’ve certainly been unwanted had it not been a kind of realistic look, wouldn’t they? And the Artist would’ve wanted to atleast not insult his subjects, even if he wasn’t going for flattery? We’ve put question marks on these almost cried out pleas as we are well aware that our modern-day outlook could be clouding our view.