Today’s photo shows an object from our collection, one that perfectly illustrates the idea that one historic artifact can illuminate a much larger concept, trend, or era. At first glance, it’s difficult to tell what this object even is, as it’s in a somewhat battered state:
This worn textile fragment is the remains of a pair of stays found in a rat’s nest in the attic of Hammond-Harwood House in 1994. Stays are 18th century women’s undergarments, and are often mistakenly called corsets. The term corset was not used until the 19th century, when such garments were designed to drastically reduce the size of a woman’s waist and give her a fashionable hourglass silhouette. Stays served a different purpose; they gave the wearer a smooth, conical shape and the posture that was thought proper, with the shoulders drawn back and the chest held upwards. Women who did attempt to use their stays to reduce their figure were satirized in prints like this one:
Stays were usually composed of several layers of fabric with channels sewn to insert boning. While they were rigid, if they fit properly they were not painful. Even babies and children were put in stays, though theirs were not as heavily reinforced as those made for adults. The stays fragment found in Hammond-Harwood House was taken to Linda Baumgarten, the Curator of Textiles of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, for analysis. She was able to determine that these stays were made between 1770 and 1785 and boned with baleen (whalebone). The outer layer of fabric and the thread used were both silk, so the stays were definitely made for an upper-class woman. But they were patched with coarser linen, suggesting that the stays were handed down to someone of less wealth by their original owner.
Thanks to an industrious rat, we have this piece of history that relates to so many topics: clothing, fashion trends, the reality of women’s lives… I’m glad that he’s no longer in residence, but I feel grateful to the rat nonetheless!
To see examples of 18th century stays, visit the 18th Century Notebook