At the beginning of the 16th Century in England and France, it became fashionable to wear the bodice and skirt separate from each other, where as before the fashion of the Renaissance period favoured a one piece dress for a more flowing silhouette. The fashion at the beginning of the 16th century was to have a tighter, straighter bodice and fuller skirt. To achieve the new fashionable figure, a tight, heavier bodice was needed that was worn underneath the dress. The original word used for this stiffened undergarment was called “pair of bodies”. It would of been quite simple. Made of linen, stitched together and the front part stiffened with horn, wood, whalebone or ivory. This was know as a “busc” which was wider at the top and finished in a point at the bottom.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the “corset” as we call it today was then called “pair of stays”. The stays were considered an essential part of a woman’s sillouitte. This meant the making of stays became a specialist craft and separate from the dress maker. Corsets and clothes was originally only allowed to be made by male tailors, who would make clothing for both men and women but in 1674 the French King Louis XIV (also known as the Sun King) granted a law which gave women the right to make clothing for themselves or other women, but were only permitted to make petticoats, jackets, bodices, wrapping gowns, skirts and clothes for children. The making of stays was strictly a male profession.
Through out the 18th century stays became more and more complex and by the middle of the century the standards had become very specialised. The stays would either be half boned or fully boned and when they were fully boned the thin bones would be stitched very close together. All sewing was done by hand in this time.
When I was in Venice, visiting the Palazzo Mocenigo – a palace built in the 16th century, which showcases costumes and textiles, especially fashions from the 18th century. I saw a beautiful 18th century pair of stays, the craftsmanship was stunning with many thin bones stitched perfectly in place.
The stays of the extravagant court dress (le grand corps) were stiffened with whalebone and hand stitched extremely close together. The fashion was for a very deep neckline and shoulder straps- which were worn off the shoulder, worn with the enormous pannier and the gown lavishly decorated, was the expected attire for court wear and this fashion remained until the revolution.
The corset was such an important part of high society fashions, as it symbolised a social class that need not work. The dressing of oneself in a corset, pannier and gown, needed assistance from a maid. The lady needed her waist to be reduced by pulling the laces until until her waist reached the desired size so the ball gown would fit. The narrow waist was so crucial to achieve the feminine ideal. Children as soon as they could walk were laced into corsets, as it was thought the corset would give the child a proper posture. As she would grow the corset would mould her ribcage and waist to the desired shape and eventually her body would become used to the support she got from the corset.
I made 18th century stays for Johanna Blackstone’s opera dress, and the total number of bones I cut and filed was 50 bones. Corset makers don’t use whalebone anymore, we use steel and spiral boning. I used straight steel for this particular design. Johanna decided not to have the shoulder straps on this corset. The tabs at the bottom of the corset were designed to help keep the panniers or pocket hoops on the waist. The undergarments were the most important piece in a lady’s wardrobe to help achieve the fashionable look of the day. So special attention must be paid to the under structure when creating dresses from history. More images of the dress coming soon!