Being a lowly A-cup doesn’t stop me from seizing whatever opportunities present themselves to draw attention to my rack. After casting it in plaster a while back, I set to work on a set of Regency short stays from Sense and Sensibility‘s “Regency Underthings” pattern. This project nearly broke me, especially when it got mangled by each of my three problematic sewing machines in succession, but at last the short stays are finished. They look passable, I think. (So far I’ve only shown them to men, who have seemed curiously uninterested in the craftsmanship.)
Short stays were fairly common at the turn of the 19th century and are basically the Georgian equivalent of the Wonderbra, pushing the breasts in and up toward the Regency ideal of a rack you can rest a teacup on. I’ve worn Wonderbras, actually, as well as many other kinds of modern architectural bra involving underwires, foam, gel and/or cleverly angled cups. The short stays do a better job than any of them, with more grace and much less artifice. Barring a single discreet pad to correct a slight asymmetry, that’s all me in there.
Sense and Sensibility Patterns is the brainchild of Jenny Chancey, an extremely dedicated American woman who researches extant garments and contemporary sources to produce historical patterns from the 19th and 20th centuries for modern seamstresses of all abilities. Her patterns are wildly popular because they’re simple, adaptable, generously multi-sized and exhaustively explained in the instructions and on her website. I didn’t cry once while sewing this, even though it was my first corset and involved a lot of pattern re-jigging and challenges I’d never attempted, such as sewing bust gussets and stitching together three layers of the same garment while trying to keep all the seams lined up.
I’d also never used boning before. Regency corsets were lighter, comfier and less rigid than the steel-boned, waist-compressing corsets of later eras, so I went with 1/4″ plastic bones from Macculloch and Wallis meant to approximate the weight and flexibility of whalebone. Here you can see what happens when you make the boning channels a little too narrow and have to work the bones in by force, but it was late and I was tired and I had already unpicked and restitched twice that day.
The infamous and somewhat exaggerated image of the corset as an organ-squeezing torture device (“Hold on ‘n suck in!”) didn’t develop until the invention of the metal grommet in the Victorian era. Until then, corsets couldn’t be laced all that tightly because of the tendency of hand-sewn eyelets to tear if too much force was applied. Which makes Keira Knightley’s corset-induced histrionics in Pirates of the Caribbean just that much more annoying — stays from that period actually would have been, if not comfortable exactly, then certainly more comfortable than your average pair of modern high heels. I sewed my eyelets with buttonhole twist while finishing my audiobook version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The short stays are snug but don’t hinder my breathing at all. They encourage good posture by pulling the shoulders back and down, but although I wouldn’t want to have to do any heavy DIY in them, they’re not prohibitively restrictive of movement.
Now all I need is a gown to go with them.