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Short stays!

July 19, 2008

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.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2013 12:54 am

    I linked to your blog to use your pictures as an example of the one I am making! I made the spencer jacket pattern from the same designer!

  2. September 2, 2012 5:57 pm

    I think that they look particularly stunning! :)

  3. March 11, 2012 1:38 am

    Thank you for this post.

    I’m very interested in bra design and bra-making. Your post has brought me to the conclusion that I have some things to learn from older support garments that I had not realized before. In general, I think I’ve assumed that everything before the bra was uncomfortable. (This is in part because of a bad experience I had wearing a corset while designing and making my wedding dress. Long story short: First I felt uncomfortable sitting, then I became claustrophobic and I had to get out of it.)

    If you do more work on support garments, I hope you’ll post your thoughts and experiences regarding those too. I’ve greatly enjoyed your writing here on your blog, as well as all the effort you have put into “Fashion on the Ration”. Loved it!

  4. Katherine permalink
    March 4, 2012 7:05 am

    They look way more supportive than a bra, especially if you have a big bust you’ll lose the discomfort of shoulder straps and underwires. They should bring the short stays back, and your design in retail! Very good job.

  5. Moira permalink
    December 23, 2011 7:53 pm

    Thank you for wrighting about this and the great pictures! I absolutely adore regency, and I’ve actually worn the fashion since before I discovered what regency was. I have this beautiful black top that looks like the top of a regency gown (low scoop neck that’s almost square, empire waist, and puffy short sleeves) I’m used to wearing a Renaissance bodice since I work the Renaissance Faire with my family, but I like this kind also. Bodices that go below the natural waist are a no-go for me, strictly fro reasons of mobility and comfort. There’s no reason that a bodice should be uncomfortable so long as it’s well fitted to your body.

  6. Rebecca permalink
    April 22, 2010 5:03 am

    I’m making a set of stays based on this pattern, only laced in the back and longer. I LOVE the job on yours. They look amazing!!!!

    I’ve been reading through your blog, and I must confess….i do a lot of the same stuff when I sew. I have to limit myself on how long i sew and how much, because otherwise I marathon sew for 6+ hours and then stuff starts getting soooo screwed up. But you do lovely things and I love how you don’t let screw ups completely ruin you. I also love the Fashion on a Ration bit. Please keep writing!

  7. January 21, 2010 2:29 pm

    I love that corset!!!! And you did such a fabulous job in making it. Your pictures are enough that I want to make myself one.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. January 21, 2010 9:04 am

    Hi, just lurking and having been going through your older posts. Love your stay – looks way more comfy than those full-on Victorian corsets which I had a crush on a year ago.

  9. July 25, 2008 1:34 pm

    I got a baby sister when I was five. No more undivided attention for me. I also think I started to “dress myself” more.
    I should note that I wasn’t always dressed up a la times-gone-by. Sometimes I wore boys’ clothing, because my parents thought if their second child was a boy, the hand-me-downs could then at least be useful. Oh, the wonderful contradictions that formed my early sense of fashion!
    On school picture day, though, you could usually find me in a homemade dress. Right up to Grade Six.

  10. Susannah permalink
    July 24, 2008 8:42 am

    I’m not that clever. Yesterday I spent four hours improvising a linen shirt I subsequently had to discard because I forgot to include seam allowances in my measurements and couldn’t make the sides meet around my waist.

    Your mom sounds AWESOME. What happened at age five? Did she lose interest? Or discover Jane Fonda’s Workout Book and abandon sewing for leg lifts?

  11. July 23, 2008 3:41 pm

    You are so talented! I can say this with some authority, because my mother is a master sewer and specialized for years in period costuming. She dressed me like a time-traveler up until I was about five (all dresses, petticoats, a coat with a cape! Hats!) and has steadfastly neglected to teach me how to sew. I am now desperate to learn, and a serger is on the top of my “to buy” list. Your projects are so inspiring. And I thought I was so clever for dying a stained pair of sweatpants in the microwave with some Dylon.

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