When writing a steamy scene based in the Regency era, significant research is required to understand what layers of clothing would come off.
One of the most complex subjects I encountered was the subject of stays. As a reader, I could get by with a vague notion that it was some sort of corset worn before the time period of ... well ... corsets.
Now that I was writing, it was imperative I attained a deeper (and more accurate) understanding of stays and corsets.
However, it is a subject of deeper layers (see what I did, there?) than I initially understood. Recently I was reading an analysis of stays versus corsets by a costume designer, Ilsa Gregoor, who did an in-depth article on the subject.
Ilsa points out that even the museums like Kyoto Costume Institute and the V&A date their underwear displays with notations such 1800-1825, or even more vaguely: “early nineteenth century”. As fashion shifted drastically between 1800 and 1825, that is quite a differential, not to mention that daywear would be different from evening wear (think what a woman wears for everyday wear today versus an evening out at an upscale venue).
This vague labelling was the precise issue I encountered in my initial research with large, illustrated books on historic fashion published by both institutions. This forced me into a deeper dive and I had to purchase an obscure reprint of a book from the early 20th century to sort it out.
The stays most commonly believed to be ... um ... common in the period are mostly based on an image in a book of trades—in other words, not selected by a professional in the dressmaking or corsetry fields who would actually have known what the extant fashions were.
Published in 1818, the below image lends to confusion on the matter. Lisa surmises that the stays on the left were most likely depicting structural garments from the 1700s because of the tabs along the hemline. The book implied them to be current to 1818, which is inconsistent with fashion in that year.
The article raised the question, which stays would my characters be wearing in 1820? With Ilsa's guidelines, I revisited the fashion plates I used for Inconvenient Brides Book 3, My Fair Bluestocking.
Based on the position of the breasts, near the level of the armpits, Emma would be wearing stays similar to a historic push-up bra under her evening gown for the ball at Balfour Terrace. I must read the article several more times before I venture a guess what the exact function of the lower part of the stays would be but I think it was to flatten and lengthen the torso for optimum empire gown form. 🤣
I love immersing myself in little details like this as part of my writing process. It allows me to visualize the scene and provide greater context. Hopefully, you enjoyed this brief summation of my findings on Emma's structural wear.