Earlier this year I visited the Sittingbourne Heritage Museum which is housed in an old shop in East Street in Sittingbourne, Kent. It doesn’t look like a museum but it has a wealth of interesting artifacts found in the area, not least what is known as the Sittingbourne Cache, a selection of more than 500 separate finds, most of them textile objects found in various hidey-holes in The Plough Inn, which before it was demolished stood opposite the site of the museum. Pride of place in the display is a set of stays, or boned bodies that since their discovery and evaluation seem to have increased the number of extant examples from our period by 50%. The stays were found under the floorboards with two other items, a linen coif and what looks like the lining to a pair of breeches, but have also been described as a pair of drawers. When they were found, the stays had been flattened and folded in half. Now they have been opened out and displayed in a glass display case so that you can see the complete thing from the inside.
What struck me in when I looked at these stays was that they had obviously been worn for a long period of time; there are several rather obvious repairs patching up holes that must have worn in the linen during the working life of the stays. They may have started out as a high status item, but by the end of their useful life they look like they were being worn by someone well down the social scale.
Unfortunately it’s not possible to examine the front of the stays, but from what you can see it’s possible to deduce a lot about how they were made. They are in three main sections, a back and two fronts, mainly it seems in a linen twill or maybe linen-cotton fustian, like the effigy stays of Elizabeth I. These sections are layered, with umpteen evenly sewn vertical channels for the boning, and the sections are whip-stitched together. The whole thing is bound with a strip of fine leather all round the garment and each front piece is broken up at the bottom by three tabs that are part of the whole, not sewn on and stiffened as the boning channels extend into them. Each tab ends in a leather piece, presumably to prevent wear.
There is however, no real way to date these items accurately, so no cast iron guarantee that they do come from or around the 1640s. I wanted to write about them though as they highlight some interesting points about the stiffening or otherwise of garments for women in this period.
Ian Chipperfield has looked at these stays and has some interesting thoughts regarding their style and construction. The two previously surviving examples, the Effigy Stays of Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey and the Manchester pair in the Platt Hall Museum have provenance, the Effigy ones dated to 1600 and the Manchester ones possibly to the 1630s. The Sittingbourne pair correspond more closely in style to the Manchester ones since the shoulder straps are cut to be off the shoulder. Towards the end of the 17th century, the cut of boned bodices and stays moved towards shaping the torso with specially shaped panels and different alignments of boning, rather than providing comfortable support and the straight lines preferred in the early part of the century. All three sets of stays conform to this style, the boning is vertical in all three pairs which, he thinks, places their date to the first half of the 1600s.
The odd thing is that these stays that extend to a low waist but would have been worn, (if the dating is correct), in conjunction with bodices that had higher waistlines. They would not have matched up when they were worn with the fashionable things of the times. One theory is that for anyone larger than size zero, it proves more comfy to have the bodies longer, supporting the whole torso, preventing the boned edges from digging into the soft parts of the lower torso and hips. Another idea altogether is that the stays may have been worn at a later time, when the fashion for mantua gowns required a deep pointed front, but before the shaping of the torso preferred at the end of the century. Certainly for common women at this time many engravings show a much more curvy outline, much like the cucumber seller here from Cries of London 1655, something that would not result from wearing something like these stays underneath a waistcoat. One of my original thoughts was that these stays were made for a lower class wearer, but there is little or no written evidence (in wills for example) from the 17th century of stays being worn very much at all, thought there is some evidence from the 16th century. Perhaps the introduction of boned bodices had phased out the wearing of support garments? Certainly a lot of thought in this area is now inclining towards the idea that most women in the 1640s wore either a boned waistcoat or a petticoat that had a skirt on the lower half joined to a stiffened or more likely interlined body part on the top and that stays were worn only by the highest in society, if at all until the introduction of the mantua style gowns in the 1670s.
Thanks to the Sittingbourne Heritage Museum for help in compiling this article and also to Dik Whibley for showing me round and allowing the use of his photographs.