We had a couple of questions about the stays or corsets that our interpreters wear.I’ll try to answer them, but if I miss something or raise more questions than I answer, let me know.
There are precious few extant examples of early 17th-century (or earlier) stays. The one we use most is in the collection of the Nationalmuseum, Munich. Janet Arnold drafted and published a pattern from them in her Patterns of Fashion 1560 – 1620 book. These stays were the grave clothes of Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg. She died in 1598 at the age of twenty-two.
These stays were made of lightweight finely corded silk. Ms Arnold states that there would have been a linen lining and likely an interlining as well, but all that has disintegrated. If these stays were worn with a 2″ – 4″ gap when laced, as we have found ideal for proper support, then the Pfalzgrafin probably had about a 25″ waist.
Needless to say, these stays fit properly on only a few modern women. In order to fit everyone we have to make a lot of alterations.
I’ve only ever seen one other pair of period stays in person, the late 17th-century pair in the collection of the Pilgrim Hall Museum here in Plymouth. I’ve examined depictions in paintings (most in reproductions of paintings rather than in person), including the pink (probably silk) front-lacing ones worn by Elizabeth, Countess of Southampton in the c.1620 portrait. Incidentally, the Countess is also wearing an embroidered jacket, although the cut is very different from the one we’re making.
Then there’s the Queen Elizabeth I effigy pair, which some folks say are original to 1603, and some say are not. I don’t know one way or the other.
Carl Kohler describes a pair which (I think) he calls early 17th-century in his book History of Costume. Those ones are larger, and are front lacing. I’m not sure they’re early 17th-century, and I’ve never been able to track down what museum collection they’re in and so have never seen pictures of them, only the line drawing in his book.
All of which to say, I wish we knew a lot more about 17th-century stays. We’ve done a great deal of experimental archeology over about 20 years, figuring out by trial and error how to construct and fit stays to a wide variety of shapes and sizes and get them to look like the early 17th-century fashionable shape. I feel pretty good about our results most of the time, but I suspect early 17th-century women had more options than we have figured out.
And yes, the women interpreters can do up their back-lacing stays themselves. I guess it’s sort of like doing up a back zipper, you can do it yourself but it isn’t easy. We do make front-lacing stays, and front-and-back-lacing stays, but we’ve found that the Dorothea Sabina ones fit best on certain body types. The front-lacing ones work better on other shapes, and of course for nursing mothers.
The New England Lace Group invited me to speak about the jacket project at their monthly meeting in the library in Sturbridge, MA, yesterday. I had a lovely day, perfect day for a ride, thoroughly enjoyed meeting with them and of course loved talking about the jacket with people who get why I’m so excited about it. I even took a couple of pictures, but the camera is hiding. When it comes out I’ll share them with you.