Case Study of 18th Century Stays
By Sally A. Queen
Cloth and clothing connect us to the past at the most personal level. Underwear beneath the fashions is the most personal of all articles of dress worn by everyone to shape and protect the body according to the custom and fashions of each period. Underwear was covered by the main garment until the recent fashion trends of underwear as outerwear. In this article, I want to share information of a stay, the foundation garment of the eighteenth century, in the collection at George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Stays, 1750-1770, flat:
The Foundation is the steward for Kenmore, home of Fielding Lewis and his wife, Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington's younger sister. The clothes in the collection are examples of eighteenth-century dress but none of the items have a known provenance. So, what clues can the extant object tell us without written knowledge of its owner or owners?
The featured stays were probably worn by a young woman as the measurements show an adult size body with a 30" bust and a 23" waist The most unusual feature of these stays is the addition at the top of the stay. Perhaps as a young woman grew taller, she needed the additional inch in length.
Stays in colonial America were worn by young children-both boys and girls-to create the desirable posture and shape. Boys wore stays until they were breeched around the age of seven. Girls continued to wear stays throughout their life. Worn over a shift, stays formed the foundation on which to drape the gown, the outer garment worn by a woman. Primary sources of letters, wills, diaries, ads, prints, and portraits document the wearing of stays at every social level and for the majority of women with the exception of field slaves.
There is a possible second scenario for the addition on the top of the stays. Perhaps they were constructed by an inexperienced staymaker and the initial garment was made too short by 1". The stays have seven sections allowing for custom fitting to the wearer, and the seams show alterations as well as the current lining.
Early-American women obtained their stays from professional stay makers in the colonies, such as Robert Steele of Norfolk, Virginia who advertised in the Virginia Gazette on May 12, 1768:
The subscriber lately arrived from London in the Theodorick, Capt. Hugh Wyle, makes all sorts of Ladies stays and jumps in the newest and genteelest fashion, at Mrs. Cann's, in Church Street, Norfolk. All those who are pleased to favor him with their orders may depend on the greatest care and punctuality in their being complied with…
Stays could also be purchased ready to wear from milliners and colonial stores. Catherine Rathell, Milliner of Fredericksburg, advertised in the Virginia Gazette in 1766 that she was selling women's and girls stays (Purdie & Dixon Virginia Gazette, April 25, 1766, page 3).
Thirdly, stays could be home produced, but generally the boned-style foundation garments were made by professionals due to the strength needed to cut and push the baleen into the channels.
Clues to dating stays can be found in the placement of channels for the stays (both the boning and the garment are called "stays"). The style of stays evolved from the flat, straight-channel front in the mid-eighteenth century, to angled channels and a rounded front in the 1770s and 1780s, to a shorter- waisted, rounded front in the 1790s. Tabs at the waist were common to provide a smooth fit over the hips until the stay shortened in the 1790s.
Stays, circa 1750-1770 Accession #86-530
Outer fabric - plain weave, brown undyed, linen
The cloth and construction details are typical of ordinary stays of 1750-1770, but I have not seen alterations where they lengthened the garment after initial construction. These stays have a 1" extension across the top, both front and back. Detail of extension [Extension.jpg]
Evaluation of the stays indicate they were lengthened after initial wearing, perhaps as a young women grew taller or to modify a used pair of stays to fit a taller wearer. A CT scan by Kenmore board member Dr. Larry Southworth showed that baleen pieces were glued to the original stays to provide consistent support for the extension. The baleen extension pieces came from back channels in the stays, and reeds were inserted in several back channels to replace the baleen. Detail of reed:
The stays have been altered over time and wear with available scrap cloth such as the cotton binding on the top edge. The lining was replaced at some point and has not received much wear. The fabric, construction, and style indicate an average, utility foundation garment worn by a middling woman. The extension and reed substitution for baleen document the use and remodeling of expensive clothing-a rare example of everyday life in early America.
To learn more about Kenmore, contact:
To learn more about underwear and historic fashions, contact:
Sally Queen is the owner of Sally Queen & Associates, the author of Textiles for Colonial Clothing, and the publisher of the historic fashions calendar series and a swatchbook series on textiles from 1750-1880. She is a member of ALHFAM as well as the Costume Society of America.
Photography courtesy of George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation
Sally Queen & Associates