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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Research in a Pinch - or "Why do they call them STAYS?"

Going Under Cover with Debra E. Marvin

Corsets, stays, underwire bras. Sounding and appearing as some sort of torture devices gives these "foundations" of female undergarments a bad reputation. But how would you know? Really?

My first encounter, not literally, but literature-ly, came with Mammy and Scarlett. Darn that Scarlett and her insistence on an 18" waist.  (I think mine was 18" in elementary school!)  Gone with the Wind, the movie, shows Scarlett clinging to her bedpost, sucking in her stomach and breath, while the lacings are pulled ever tighter.

Seriously, out of all those women around the world that wore stays and corsets over multiple centuries, I don't think they all were going for the tiny waist. A comfortable waist and some control over the rest of their female anatomy was probably good enough.

Case in point:
my day in stays.

It all started with some fun (doesn't it always start with fun until someone gets hurt?)  Playing dress up is a great way to experience history. I'm researching and studying the War of 1812  which happens to fall during the British Regency period (think Jane Austen). Voila. A great excuse to join in.

It started with a chemise:  think muslin nightgown with a drawstring neck.
This pattern is "Regency Underthings" From Sense and Sensibility -Pattern Designer
Over that: stays (at other times called a corset). An effort to keep things under control and effect a  pleasant form.
(Here's a link to another's experience creating these stays)
The Regency profile was rather unusual in an anatomical way. Consider this quote:
"A fashionable lady's bosom looked like a shelf aimed at her chest."

How Uplifting!
This is the answer to above question. Things seem to stay where put.

I chose the 'working class' stays to start. This means you don't have to have a lady's maid to help you dress. It still took practice and work...which I won't go in to here...
This pattern is  Regency Era Wrap Stays from Daffodown Dilly - I met Dawn in Canada. She knows her stuff!
My current project involves this style:
"Regency Corset/ Long Stays" from The Mantua Maker.
The report after a day of stays is: They're not bad. Actually, they're nice back support. Now, I didn't run up any hills but I was able to breathe somewhat normally. I think.

The dresses do possess some challenges: Walking on your hems. Granted... ladies of the upper crust had less need of functionality and the dragging-on-the-ground look was very feminine. For us, it meant a lot of "Get off my dress!" and "Don't back up!"
My friends were good sports (and now they want to do it again) That's me on the far left after I dumped the hat and fichu for a night on the town.

My next 1812 dress will be purely working class and I expect to make it shorter and much less foofy.
Check back in a year!
My collection of historical fashions on Pinterest

Great  Pattern resources and help:
Spencer's Mercantile - online and in Hamilton Ontario. Excellent knowledge and customer service!
Past Patterns - a huge variety of historical clothing patterns.

 Debra E. Marvin tries not to run too far from real life but the imagination born out of being an only child has a powerful draw. Besides, the voices in her head tend to agree with all the sensible things she says. Debra likes to write, weed and wander and is blessed to have the best family and friends in the world. She has decided she needs to live closer to her grandchildren. She’s thankful each day that God is in control, that He chooses to bless us despite ourselves and that He has a sense of  humor. Her work has finaled in the TARA, Great Expectations, Heart of the Rockies, Maggie, Fab Five, Daphne DuMaurier and the overall winner in the CWOW Rattler.
That War of 1812 story? It was a semi-finalist in the 2013 Genesis contest. 


  1. I hope Blogger is behaving today. Let me know if you'd be willing to dress in the period of your favorite historical novels!

  2. You really make me appreciate today's undergarments.

    I write WWII but I don't find the clothes particularly attractive. It is a real challenge when I have to describe an outfit.

    If I was going to wear anything, it would be prairie era. Lots of cotton calicos, a natural waist and pretty collars that don't dip down too low.

    Peace, Julie

  3. Oooh, I love the clothing details. Even the underthings are lovely.

    I don't know if I could stand a corset all day, but I could probably use the shaping.

    LOVE your Pinterest page!

  4. I'd love to wear the old style gowns. Would totally be down for it, except that they're not very practical for the way we live now. Regency would work better than many eras though!

  5. Thanks ladies!

    JULIE! I will say it took some time to get all the under 'stylings' in place. Multiple draw strings and garments and once the stays are tied or laced, it's a pain to have to adjust the chemise neckline.

    I grew up in the fifties when dresses were all cotton and needed to be ironed, women wore slips all the time, and I recall a few dresses with scratch crinoline type things underneath. But I like the style of the forties, though it looked like a lot of work. You could be curvy then but the dresses seems rather narrow at times.

    Have you read any of Nike Chellimi's suspense set after the war. She does a great job with period details I think!

    I'm looking forward to reading your stories! I'll be seeing you (in all the old familiar places? ) no I mean in Indy???

  6. I did enjoy it and we decided that even in the heat, the air flow was nice and we were cool. EXCEPT the warmth of having those stays glued to your torso! oh well.
    LISA - the 'working class' dresses were much more relaxed and comfortable. not all that full and the sleeves could be rolled up. I want to make an apron someday.

    I noticed that many of the 'camp followers' that wore 'working' styles has a tad bit lower waists than the non-working class.
    Again, I have no idea how those ladies danced in those dresses when there was a long trailing bit behind them. I had to walk and turn very cautiously if the terrain was not completely flat.

    now that I introduced them to the fun of historical costumes we are looking at other periods. Regency was probably the best to start with. Making a 1880s-1890s dress with bustle and jacket will be much more work AND FUN!

    DEANNA - I gathered a lot of photos for reference and ideas. It was great fun. I can't wait to do the dress that was my first choice (I'd make it this week if I wasn't busy ahem, writing, instead) There's another reenactment I might visit soon but I think I'll leave the costume at home.

  7. one thing I wanted to say -

    we found that being dressed as fine ladies also had the rewards of being treated as fine ladies. People were very polite and the gentlemen were very gentlemanly. What fun!

    A woman that was selling little bouquets with flowers and herbs (I can't recall the name and it's on the tip of my tongue) gave me a little bouquet to carry around.
    We had our photos taken quite often throughout the day -
    that was a surprise!

  8. Oh my word, what fun! Some day I'm going to do that... as for right now, I've been living in "chemises" for the last week and have rediscovered the joy of "support underwear."

    I think to a certain degree ladies of this day and age have it a lot harder than women in other eras when it comes to clothing... their clothing worked FOR them to create the desired body type of the day. Even up to the '50s and '60s in the 20th century. These days clothes seem to work against us, (except for Spanx, which will be my next major wardrobe purchase), unless, of course, you are a waif.

    Was the little bouquet called a tussie-mussie or a nosegay?

  9. Great post, Deb! Love the pics--your dresses turned out amazing.

    I tried on part of my stays last night (yes, World, I am going to wear stays for ACFW conference costume night. And a dress, of course. What sort of costume were you thinking?). I do not have much to make a shelf, per se. Alas. But I like the stays so far. Much more comfortable than modern, er, options.

  10. How fun. I'm sure I would pass out if I had to wear those things in the heat!

  11. Niki, I have to admit that I'm old enough to have owned something like a girdle with garters (can I say that here? too late) Before panty hose. not that I needed a girdle at 13 but it was the 60s and fish net stockings were groovy.

    As Susie said, the stays are not all that bad. As Mary says... they can be a bit warmer than that modern French intervention ... the brassiere!

    Thanks for commenting, Mary! It's great to see you.

    Susie has yet to get the LACING part of the stays which will be part of the fun at ACFW!

  12. I had this skinny ribbed jersey dress with short sleeves, a turtleneck and it was navy blue and burgundy with tiny horizontal stripes. Blue fish net stockings.
    I loved that dress.

    I am sure I was giving TWIGGY (the model of the day!) some fits for competition, eh?

  13. That is so cool, Deb! Great article and I love the picture! How long did it take to make the dress?

  14. I had some help with cutting and trimming one day. The bodices are the most work - the most important part to fit properly, and the skirts, etc are quicker. We made chemises, stays, dresses, reticules and decorated hats. It was a lot of fun. A dress can be done in a full day==if I had a FULL day to work, but it was mostly bits and pieces over a couple week period.

  15. Deb, you're a fabulous, creative seamstress, and I appreciate you and your hard work!

  16. thanks Susie! I love fabrics and the creative process in taking them from flat to fashion!