More Underwear Obsessions

I am on a quest and I will not be denied! Something in me won’t accept that 18th century working class women in America would have worn stays similar to that of the wealthier women. My logic is simple – they had too much to do to voluntarily hamper their movements! Of course, vanity to the point of sacrificing one’s well-being may not be just a recent thing.

Some opinions/resources:

A site called The Staymaker shows examples of 18th century front-laced stays called fustian stays. Not to be confused with “Faustian” which would imply a deal with the devil – which might be appropriate given the design of some stays over the years!

This writer asserts that women of all levels of society wore stays and that money was even collected for homeless women so they could be decently dressed.

Here’s an example of an 18th century leather stay, reportedly worn by working class women. Like the example above, it is front lacing. I can imagine that leather would be a useful material for working class women – it was fairly available, if you weren’t looking for fine quality. Plus, it would be a sturdier material than silk or linen, able to stand up to working class demands while not requiring boning. While whalebone would add to the expense of stays, I can also imagine it would hinder movement. A supple, but firm leather stay seems to be much more effective for holding a woman’s shape while allowing her to tend the garden, plow the fields, make soap, wash laundry – or whatever was on her list that day.

Of course, the other reason for wearing stays besides a fashionable conical shape (during the 18th century anyway) and back support would be to support the breasts. Bras weren’t invented until sometime around the end of the 1800s and not massed produced until the early 1900s. So while the stays pictured may appear like full-body armor and highly uncomfortable, I suspect many women were glad for their support.


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