An Appetite for Fashion Decadence: A Brief History of Stomachers

Just Let me Pin on My Flat, Frilly, Fancy Abs…

11_xl_AC04854

Stomacher and matching Gown, mid 18th century

Stomachers were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe beginning with a rise of pairs of bodies and stays (the ancestors of the corset). There is evidence that stomachers have been in use since the 16th century, but stomachers became a fashion staple between 1590 during the brief reign of the French wheel farthingale and the trend continued well into the 18th century. Bodices were made with open fronts and the stomacher was used to cover the stays and chemise behind the opening. The stomacher would be pinned to the lady’s stays or to the inside of the bodice to hold it in place. Some stomachers also have ties and silk tabs to help keep the stomacher in place. While many stomachers were made to blend seamlessly with a dress, other stomachers were made to compliment the dress with a contrasting patterns or color. Early stomachers were decorated with blackwork, polychrome silk embroidery, redwork, metal lace, and scads of jewels if you were rich enough to afford them.

Capture

“Portrait of a Woman” by Giovanni Cariani, early 16th century

“Anne of Denmark” by Isaac Oliver, circa 1595
The complex fashions of the nobility in the late 16th century involved a lot of work on the part of a lady and her maids. Here, Anne shows of her status with a delicate linen collar (made of linen so fine it could be passed through the eye of a large darning needle), an embroidered velvet bodice, and peeking out from behind her gigantic diamond pendant, a bejeweled blackwork stomacher. Wealthy ladies would contract out such embroidery work to a skilled embroiderer or tailor, though some still took pleasure in creating their own decorations.

“Portrait of a Lady, probably Elizabeth Southwell née Howard,” circa 1600

“Portrait of Lucy Hutchinson” by John Souch of Chester, circa 1643

Bodice, circa 1630-40
This punched-silk bodice was made to be worn with a long stomacher. 17th century stomachers were longer than 18th century stomachers and were often done in contrasting rather than matching designs.

Polychrome Stomacher, circa 1600-1615
You can’t tell from this black and white photo, but this wide stomacher is actually embroidered with bright, colorful silks. It would have covered the entire front of a lady’s stays and is basically half of a bodice. The curved corners at the top are for armhole allowance. It would have allowed plenty of flexibility for different bodice styles and sizes.

Having an open-front bodice was quite practical. It gave the lady multiple options for outfits by mixing the open bodice with different stomachers and petticoats. It also allowed for changing body shapes, like weight gain or loss and pregnancy. All a lady had to do was change the width of her stomacher to accommodate her changing body. Purchasing or making a fresh stomacher was much easier and less expensive than replacing a whole gown.

Because 17th and 18th century stays were cone-shaped with smoothed fronts, stomachers are usually triangular in shape as well. In the early 18th century, heavily embroidered stomachers blooming with polychrome flowers came into fashion, as did faux lacing and frilly bows.

Stomacher with Applied Faux Lacing, circa 1720

Stomacher, early to mid 18th century

Sacque Gown with Embroidered Stomacher, circa 1735-40

ma-17596484-web

Caraco Jacket with Stomacher and Embroidered Petticoat, circa 1750/altered 1780

Since they were worn as a piece of outer clothing, stomachers were often highly decorated with embroidery, spangles/sequins, metallic braid, bows, ribbons, and more! A popular decoration for upper class courtesans was a large, long brooch or jewel that covered the whole front of her stomacher or over a closed-front gown to mimic the look of an ornate stomacher.  These bodice jewels were also called “stomachers,” so it can get a little confusing.

Stomacher Jewel, circa 1750

 These huge, long brooches stayed popular throughout the centuries, and Queen Mary, consort of King George V (1910-1936), had quite a collection of stomacher jewels she wore over her Edwardian dresses.

Anyway, back to cloth stomachers!

The open-robe gowns of the 18th century, just like their 17th century forebears, required a stomacher to close them. Dresses from 1700 to the 1730s often had stomachers that did not directly match the fabric of the dress, but rather complimentary stomachers made to match a variety of colors were popular. By the mid-18th century, stomachers began to match the dresses and jackets more directly, using the same fabrics and trims as decoration. Many court dresses had stomachers that were heavily boned and layered with decorations.

“Portrait of a Noblewoman” by Donat Nonotte, circa 1760

“Portrait of a Lady” by a student of Alexander Roslin, circa 1760

 “Maria Josefa de Lorena, Archduchess of Austria” by Anton Raphael Mengs
Anton Raphael Mengs is one of the premier painters of the 18th century. His soft, pale ladies swathed in rich, sculptural dresses. He perfectly captures texture and light. His images have inspired many modern artists in the Neo-Rococo movement.
In this particular portrait, a resplendent Maria Josefa de Lorena is dressed in a gown of royal blue velvet decorated with gilded ribbon and lace. You can catch a glimpse of the pannier’s form under her gown. Her stomacher is heavily boned to achieve a perfectly smooth conical shape.

 “Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1768
On court gowns, a richly decorated stomacher contrasted beautifully with the wide, smooth walls of fabric draped over a noblewoman’s panniers.

Stomachers could be boned for more support or left unboned for a more rounded silhouette. Adding a lace ruffle to the top or a row of faux buttons down the front of the stomacher became popular mid-century. Stomachers could have rounded, pointed, or squared bottoms, depending on what shape was most flattering to the style of the gown and the body shape of the woman wearing it.

“Infanta Maria Luisa de Borbon, gran duquesa de Toscana” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1770
This is portrait the epitome of an 18th century lady. She’s got it all: the huge lace cuffs, the pearl choker, the powdered beehive, the fan, the mitts, the ruffles, the bows! Her luscious gown in ice blue even has a perfectly matched stomacher edged with lace.

Gown with matching Stomacher and Petticoat, circa 1770-79

matching stomacher

Jacket with Matching Stomacher, mid-to-late 18th century

TSR 26.56.47_CI50.40.9

Closed front gowns and open-front gowns had co-existed together for over a century, but the reign of the stomacher was waning. By the 1790s, the fashionable elite had moved on to chemises a la reine and slim, neo-classical gowns (the Regency silhouette), but some ladies, mostly older generations and peasants,  held on to cone-shaped stays and stomachers even into the earliest years of the 19th century.

therabbitseller

“The Rabbit Seller” by William Henry Pyne, circa 1805
This British peasant woman is selling wild game. While her wealthy clients have adopted the fashionable new Empire silhouette, she is still dressed in the manner of the previous decades. Though her bodice may not necessarily be a stomacher bodice, the style was still present in the peasant class. Her outfit is made of cast-off clothes from the upper classes. There was a huge market for cast-off clothes that had been going on since the 17th century. After wearing a dress a few times, court women would sell their now-passe gowns to lesser nobles who would in turn sell the clothes after more wear, and so on down the line until the clothes passed to the poorest of the poor. It was not uncommon to see a flower merchant or candy seller wearing a velvet skirt, though it would be in quite rough condition after being worn and re-worn for many years.

Check out these resources to learn more about stomachers:

18th Century Stomachers” – A thorough database on larsdatter.com, the best research site for early history!
“Making a Stomacher, Start to Finish”
on Fushia’s 18th Century Dress Project
The Costume Historian
– Information on early 17th and 18th century stomachers
Multiple Pinterest boards here (gowns and examples), here (stomacher jewels), and here (many eras/styles)
The Stomacher Wikipedia Page
Daily Life in Elizabethan England” – Not really a stomacher resource per se, but a really interesting excerpt nonetheless!

UPDATE: This amazing picture from “Before the Automobile” (aka The Artistocat) answer a few questions about how pinning a stomacher together works:

How a stomacher is pinned to a (beautiful!) dress.

The Ladies of Rococo: Beyond Bows and Ruffles

Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour

18th Century fashion usually gets pegged as being full of pink, light blue, ruffles, skirts wide enough to get caught in doorways, lots of escaping bosoms, and tall wigs coated with flowers, ships, bows, and lace. All of this is very true, but just like today, fashions changed immensely from 1700-1799, riding multiple trend waves like all those miniature boats on giant wigs. The world was in a great upheaval: kings gave way to parliaments, colonies gave way to nations, frivolity gave way to reason, and then it all reversed again. Every nation gained power, then seemed to lose it. Fashions fluctuated just as wildly as the times, but the haze of forgetfulness and generalization has condensed most of these fluctuations into the brief world of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) and Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). But even these ladies didn’t remain stuck in one fashion trend their whole lives. Over the course of their lifetimes, the world and fashion changed drastically.

___________________

Madame de Pompadour

This is truly the lady who took fashions to the extreme. As mistress to the king, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, aka Madame de Pompadour, indulged in fashion from the start. Born to a relatively unknown family, Jeanne was considered a commoner by the French nobility.  1745, however, she received a Marquise estate as a gift from the king who made her his official mistress.  In order to prove her worth, the highly intelligent woman began to craft the most luxurious outfits she could. If a lady had fifteen bows on her gown, Jeanne had twenty. She adored fabric prints, exotic imports from the East, and watercolor-like “ikat” or “chine” weaves. Silk was the only material any proper lady would wear to court. There were even laws banning imported cotton just so French silk weavers would be assured a brisk business.

As a patron of the arts, Jeanne adored the Rococo style, commissioning artists and architects to lavishly decorate her palaces for her. Her gowns were just as much artistic and architectural endeavors as her chateaus. Her favored sleeves were made of tiers of lace and ruffles that cascaded from her elbows. They were called “Pagoda sleeves” after the tiered Japanese towers. Her gowns were also held out at the hip with large panniers and her tiny, pointed waist was the result of a heavily-boned corset, giving her the silhouette of an upside-down tulip on a stem.

She also popularized the turkey or sack back style dress, which had a cape built into the back of the bodice that melded with the skirt, like the back feathers of a bird. This back is often seen in Robe à la Français (The French Dress), which are what most people picture when they think of a Rococo dress. This style of gown is supported with panniers, unlike it’s sister, the Robe à l’Anglaise, and is considered much more sumptuous.

Madame de Pompadour was very aware of her age. She never fully left her luxury behind. She was a Grand Mistress to the end, making sure that even in her last portraits, she had a little wink in her eye. As she became older, her spirit stayed young, but her body began to lose pace. Jeanne adopted dresses with more coverage. Jeanne took to wearing a bonnet tied with a bow to hide her tiny double chin , but still teased the king with glimpses of skin from her low bodice. She was mourned greatly when she died at age forty-two from tuberculosis.

____________________________

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the court, there was another lovely lady trying to avoid knocking over vases with her panniers:

Marie Antoinette

Even during her lifetime, Marie Antoinette went through fashion changes. Her famously gigantic balloon dresses, even 300 years later, are still some of the most talked-about fashion creations ever sewn. Many of her richer gowns were born more out of courtly expectations and loneliness (since her husband paid little attention to her), than pure folly. Clothes and make-up became two of her few socially acceptable forms of self-expression. Marie Antoinette loved soft blue; it was the color of choice for many of her portrait gowns. Held out on either side with panniers (fashioned by cane arcs in fabric or by padded “dumplings” of fabric) that sat at the hips, her huge silk skirts were dripping with every form of ornamentation possible. The sleeves and bodice of her gowns fit tightly, exposing her bust and lily shoulders in a sensuous curve.

When she wasn’t at a ball, portrait studio, or public function, however, Marie’s dresses, though still rich confections of fine silk and lace, were much less impractical. Her skirts were slimmer and clung to her legs.  Though she indulged in wild court costumes much of the time, she took to reading books and hosting salons when she had a moment to herself. After the birth of her children, Marie began to wear deeper, richer colors like browns and reds, and the shoulders of her gown moved closer to her neck with a little lace and long, fitted sleeves. This style of fitted overdress was known as the Robe à l’Anglaise (The English Dress), which had no pannier underneath to support it, relying on petticoats instead.

The extravagance of her gowns cost her a lot of public respect. It seemed that she couldn’t please anyone, so Marie abandoned the excess in favor of simpler fashions. She grew tired of the heavy rococo style. She had lost almost all of her influence in court and almost all her relationship with her husband, so she devoted herself to her children. Towards the end of her life, Marie’s huge gowns vanished from all but her more formal portraits, and she created the chemise dress: a plain, filmy gown with layers and poufs of fabric that draped around her. A wide satin belt delineated her waist and added a pop of color to the otherwise light gown. The French people were slightly upset about this, believing it to be unfitting of a Queen, but as the tide turned even more against her, even her simpler dress was criticized as too scandalous, even condescending.

Her big hair never truly left her wardrobe. When she was young, her powdery hair fell in straight ringlets around her neck. Later came the infamous pompadour and towering wigs, but unlike her friendly rival for whom the hairstyle is named, Marie’s wigs were more relaxed, even “fuzzy.” She preferred volume with air, rather than solid hair. By the end of her life, she was styling her hair in large upsweeps, much like the ladies of the late 19th century. She adopted many large hats and bonnets, feathered and lacy, and draped transparent scarves around her neck and shoulders. Dark velvets with delicate, contrasting lace and a flowing plain underdress became her favored outfits– foreshadowing the slim, unadorned gowns of the Regency period. By the end of her reign, Marie Antoinette was much more a regal matron than the seductive vixen the angry revolutionaries claimed her to be. She was executed in a plain white slip and bonnet at noon on the 16th of October, 1793. With her died France’s monarchy and the unbelievable lavishness of Rococo.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

Further reading and research you might enjoy:

Undressing Romance: 18th Century Underwear
Overview of Rococo
The French Revolution via SparkNotes
Fashion after Rococo: Regency