A brief post spurred by the discovery of this odd garment:
I found them in this auction listing on eBay. All the eBay seller has to say about them is this perfunctory description: “Circa 18THC, a cream silk brocade corset or stays with polychrome florals and ties. In mainly strong condition, there is wear and splitting, but overall good and strong. All items we list need to be cleaned.”
The maddeningly menial mishmash of adjectives gives no clue as to the history of the piece, so we are left with the pictures to be our sole diviners.
This looks like a fairly standard set of 18th Century stays. However, a second glance and you will notice that something is “off” about them, particularly the back lacing:
Yup. It’s sewn on decorative ribbon– not actual spiral lacing!
When you turn the stays over, it reveals a secret: a second pair of stays!
The darker linen with all of the boning channels is the original stays. You can still see the original sets of eyelets in both the front and back!
The inside set of stays is fully boned and much smaller than the newer pair. It originally had front and back lacing, perhaps designed to be worn with a boned stomacher like these:
Stays with Stomacher, circa 1750 (French, FIT)
Stays with Stomacher, circa 1770 (Italian, The Met)
This style of stays is from the early 18th century, about 1720-50, though in some countries the style is found as late as 1770. It may even have been a fully boned bodice with matching tie-on sleeves, like this:
Stays with Sleeves, circa 1770 (European, FIT)
However, this particular set of stays was repackaged into its current form somewhere in time. The back was sewn up, the outside recovered with the floral silk, tabs and the faux lacing were added, and the front opening enlarged with unboned (except the front edges) lacing extensions. Why this was done is a mystery, but there are a few possibilities: it could be a refashion in the later 18th century to extend the stays for a larger woman, turn an old pair of stays (possibly bought second-hand from the booming resale clothing market) into a bodice, or, and I believe more likely, the stays were refashioned in the 19th century for wearing to a Victorian fancy dress ball. That would explain the faux lacing and unboned front (since a Victorian lady would likely be wearing her usual corset underneath, so the antique “stays” would not have to support her breasts), and 18th century “shepherdess” costumes were all the rage:
“A Shepherdess Costume” from Thomas Hailes Lacy’s Female Costumes Historical, National and Dramatic in 200 Plates, circa 1865
“Shepherdess” by Leon Sault from L’Art du Travestissement (The Art of Fancy Dress), circa 1880
The stays at the time would have already been over 100 years old, if that’s the case. I wonder if it drove any Victorian historians (the best set of rhyming words ever) mad with frustration the way modern costume historians rage over Edwardian dresses that were turned into Halloween costumes by adding a zipper up the back?
More frustrating still is that the photos from the eBay listing aren’t the only pictures of this intriguing garment! Another photo of them can be found floating around in the blogosphere and archived on Pinterest:
Each photo, however, leads to a dead link–at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! Once upon a time, these stays might have had a collections page (and therefore all the juicy, delicious information about era, provenance, etc. we historical costumers crave) on the Met’s website, but they were decommissioned and the archive page (and all that tasty data) was deleted! Even the controversial “Way Back Machine,” which serves as an archive for websites, does not save copies of museum collection webpages. I know that even if a page did once exist, the Met’s archive pages aren’t always the fount of knowledge we’d like them to be, but perhaps you or someone you know may know more about this unusual piece of history, some other pictures, maybe? I have been combing the web looking for more info, but all I have gathered is this welcome pittance from In Pretty Finery’s Pinterest board:
“18th century, Italy – Stays – Silk, linen”
That is the only extra shred of info I could dredge up about them. If you have an image of this pair of stays on your Pinterest board or blog and perhaps you had the foresight to copy down the information about them, please add a bit of a description to the image so that others can use the information, as scant as it is. If you have a blog containing an image of this enigmatic garment, feel free to share a link below. This might be the last time we see this object before it disappears back into a private collection!
I often find objects just like this all over the web. I try to archive many of them by saving them to Pinterest boards as part of my ongoing project, The Ephemeral Museum. I have Pinterest boards about some of these objects here and here. There are other websites that do similar work, like All the Pretty Dresses, if you are interested in seeing more extant antique garments “in the raw.”