Accession number 1998-162-51a,b at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a pair of women’s stays in an unlikely size. Laced shut, they measure forty-six inches at the chest and forty-three inches at the waist, with a back length of eleven and three quarters of an inch. Even with no other information, we can deduce that they were worn by someone wider than average, and as they measure ten to fifteen inches wider than most other extant stays, they provide a unique example of how fashionable styles were adapted to fit less than fashionable bodies.
There are few extant examples of clothing for larger figures, and stays are no exception. It has been established that this is not due to a lack of larger bodies in the past (as there is abundant pictorial evidence of larger bodies in every strata of society) but due to wearing patterns– with a thriving trade in second-hand clothes, garments were more likely to wear out if they were in a common size, with very large and very small garments being less likely to find a second, third, or fourth owner. A garment that was too large might still be purchased and cut down to make something smaller, but a small item would not contain enough fabric to be worth cutting up, and so it would survive intact. The result is that the garments we find in museums are, by and large, much smaller than the average wearer. The Philadelphia stays are a rare find, having arrived along with a large collection of clothing and other items from the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a gift from the heirs of Paul D. I. and Anna Shinn Meier. It is not known who made or wore them, although some of the other items it arrived with had belonged to members of the Wistar, Morris, and Shinn families, all local to the area of Philadelphia and western-central New Jersey. It is likely that the stays ended up in storage after the wearer either lost or gained a great deal of weight, or possibly died.
The stays are made of tan plain-woven cotton, with self-fabric binding and blue silk stitching and eyelets. They are laced at both front and back, to allow a greater range of adjustment. The material is thin enough that the dark colour of the whalebone can be seen through it when the stays are placed on a white surface in good light. There are five panels on each side, with no lining. The edges on each piece were turned in and the panels whipstitched together, with beige linen tape laid over the join on the outside and loosely tacked down. They are partially boned– bones are dispersed according to where support is needed, with six rows of boning along the front and back edges, and the rest set either singley or in groups of two or three. The six rows of boning on each front piece are not parallel with the grainline of the fabric, but form a slight curve in at the top and bottom, which forces the center front edges to curve outward in the middle. Upon noticing the detail, I hypothesized that the shaping would accommodate a heavier bust. There is almost nothing in the way of tabs– there is a slit in the side back panel, and the last inch and a half of the seam connecting it to the back panel is left open. They do not have straps. Each panel has one edge that is on the straight fabric grain, and there are triangular gussets at the bottom of the seams on either side of the side-back panel. The two larger ones closer to the back match, but the two smaller ones on the sides do not match at all. The boning channels on the front and back edges are formed by folding the outer layer of material over the inner layer, turning the raw edge in, and felling it in place. The eyelets show signs of wear and strain– especially in the front midsection– but overall the piece is in excellent condition, which would indicate that the owner either did not own them for very long, or owned more than one set.
After taking detailed measurements, scans, and close-up photos of the stays in the study room of the museum, I was able to disassemble them in digital format and reconstruct the shape of each panel. I cut a mock-up out of some leftover upholstery fabric, boned it with zipties, and assembled a research team to try it on– Ann, Melissa, Francesca, Nic, and Abigail.
Ann is 5’10, with a 61” bust and 47” waist. She is extremely busty, and describes her figure as an exaggerated hourglass. She is a forensic anthropologist familiar with Victorian corsetry, and she was fascinated by the way that the diagonally-set side panels kept pressure from being exerted on the ribs. The stays were an underbust on her, but she has requested that I lengthen the pattern, and make adaptations for greater bust capacity and straps for extra support. She has every intention of wearing it instead of a bra for modern-dress.
Melissa is 5’6, with a 50” bust and 48” waist. She is quite busty, but her figure is not nearly as exaggerated as Ann’s. The stays were too short for her torso by about two inches, were too broad for her in back and did not have enough bust capacity in front, but were still able to support her satisfactorily with an uneven lacing gap in back– the top edges were just under an inch and a half apart, while the bottom edges were just over three inches apart.
Francesca is 5’2, with a 39” bust heavily weighted toward the front and a 30” waist. The stays were roughly the right length, but gave the illusion of a prominent belly and were still too wide even after removing the side front panels and lacing both front and back fully closed.
Nic is 4’10, with a 38” chest and 35” waist, with a smaller bust and a generally round figure. The stays were exactly the right length and general shape, if one were to narrow each panel by one inch. Francesca is short-torsoed, so the fact that the stays were the right length on both her and Nic is not surprising.
Abigail is 5’1, with a 45” chest and 43” waist. Her proportions are similar to Melissa’s, apart from the height difference. The stays fit her well in front, but there was space between her back and the upper edge of the stays even when they were laced shut, similar to how Melissa’s lacing gap was uneven.
Ann, Melissa, and Abigail reported that the stays were very comfortable and easy to move in. The lack of tabs provided control and lessened the formation of a “fat tutu” of displaced flesh that has been observed to form under the stay-tabs, and the potential for limited leg motion was compensated for by the higher cut at the hip, like one sees on children’s stays. We deduced that the original owner was within an inch or two of 5′, but with an intended chest circumference over 46 inches, it is unlikely that they were made for a child. My hypothesis about the front curve accommodating a fuller bust was completely wrong– the original owner seems to have been small-breasted and broadbacked, with a prominent belly. We dubbed her Christina, after the similarly-shaped Queen Christina of Sweden, but one can easily imagine her being a short, heavy-set working woman who ate a lot of bread and potatoes.
Special thanks to:
The Costume Study Room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art