Extant 18th c. Stays from the Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Museum, Nevada

A little while ago I attended a fascinating lecture on underwear through the ages, presented by Jan the Costume Anthropologist at the Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center.  While this small and exclusive branch of the Nevada State Museum collects and preserves primarily clothing of the 19th century, they do have a few extremely rare items from before that time – that is, Nevada did not see its influx of settlers until around 1850, and so items from before this period were carried along with these pioneers, as family treasures.

What caught my interest was the first item we looked at, a pair of 18th c. stays belonging to the Billinghurst family, a prominent name in Northern Nevada (or at least a local middle school is named for them).  The museum had them dated quite early – 1760s – but I question that (I know, how dare I!) because of the shortness of waist (which you can’t see in the photos, but these stays were TINY, almost child-sized), and the boning pattern, which is interesting.  I would put them more at late 1780s – what do you think?

(Click Photos for Larger Sizes)

They’re not pretty – the outer fabric is pretty basic heavy linen, and the sandwich layer is a pretty coarse linen.  The lining would have been tacked in and then removable to be cleaned or replaced.  This image shows the outside, the wearer’s left side.  Check out those gnarly boning channels all crossing each other.
Here’s the wearer’s right side.  The stays lace in front and have no lacings in the back.  You can see on this side there is an addition up on the strap tab, perhaps a repair?  It’s not obvious from these exterior pictures how the straps attached, but a look at the interior photo shows that they were sewn in on the inside, but then perhaps cut off at a later date to be made adjustable.  There aren’t any holes, however, that indicate how they were attached after being cut off.
Here’s the inside.  You can see the rough quality of the fabric.  This was a stability layer and the lining would have been layed over this and tacked in place.  
The back view (my apologies for not getting it all in the frame!)   You can see that the boning pattern on the back is pretty simple, straight-forward verticals.  The straps are set at a wide angle, so they would have been pretty far out on the shoulders.

These, believe it or not, are the first pair of 18th c. stays I have ever seen in person.  They were TINY, and ugly!  Still, a fascinating bit of reference, particularly for that boning pattern.  It shows that there was no hard-and-fast rules on how to make these things.  We see similarities in shape and pattern, but also a lot of creativity in the way things were put together.  I would love to see these on a body to see how the funky boning pattern effected the shape of the wearer.

Your comments (and corrections) are welcome!  Please use these images any way you like, and if you fancy, please link back to me if you do.  So what do you think of these, ladies?


  • Alexa

    January 24, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    I think in their day they were probably decent-looking. I just imagined what a white bra might look like in 200 years, so I forgave them 🙂 I'm really curious to see what the boning pattern does too. My guess is that the wearer was just naturally very thin, and the boning was only there to move her slightly into the right shape. Kind of like if I just made a wire cage around my body.

    Are you going to make a set to try on yourself? Because if no one else gets to this I just might try it 😛

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    January 24, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    Perhaps it really was for a girl, hence the lesser amount of boning? The idea of children being laced is so horrendous but it did happen. Fascinating! 🙂

  • Lauren Stowell

    January 25, 2011 at 1:03 AM

    Maybe they were for a girl. They were THAT small. Hallie, that was my thought exactly when I first saw them, that they were transitional. I should have kept my mouth shut, lol – I brought it up to the historian, who said that a museum in the UK dated them. I have my suspicions, although I feel pretty lame thinking I know more than a museum…maybe they tested the whale bone or something crazy like that.

  • Rowenna

    January 25, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    The boning is really interesting–the criss-crossing looks pretty neato 🙂 Any chance they were somehow remade/reworked/bits salvaged from 1760s stays into transition stays (so in the end, everyone's right)? Though don't feel bad about questioning a museum…I know I've found some mistakes over the years…and probably made some while recording pieces when I worked at a museum!

  • Anonymous

    January 25, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    I think this is the first pair of stays I've EVER seen that are only front lacing. How odd! Definitely weird, and I'd agree that they are later.

  • Lauren Stowell

    January 25, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    Ah, maybe they were indeed altered! I don't know,it's hard to tell with these not-great photos. I do see that the side seams are not curved like I would expect to see in 1780s corsets, but there are only two body pieces – the front and the back – which lines up with 1790s transition styles too.

    Btw, if anybody wants to make these, please do and then tell us all about it so we can see how they shape the body – that may solve the mystery!

  • The Dreamstress

    January 27, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    Oooooh…what neat stays! I want to make these!

    I agree with you that they are later – museums make dating mistakes all the time. Just think about it – they can't afford to have an expert for everything on staff, and pretty much all museum workers all over are seriously overworked, so they can't afford to do a bunch of research, especially for an outside request.

    Also, museum's get given stuff all the time with family provenance and a legend that says that it was worn to Lincoln's inauguration/Victoria's Jubilee/a ball at Versailles etc.etc. And the legendary event doesn't match the date of the design at all. What really happened is that Great Grandmother attended Lincoln's inauguration, and here is one of her dresses – from 20 years later. But families get very attached to these legends and are quite offended when you date the dress to the 1880s!

    Whoops – sorry for the epic comment! Anyway, you (and I) probably know more about dating stays that most museums out there.

  • Lauren Stowell

    January 27, 2011 at 10:35 PM

    ah HA! Dreamstress, you just made my day with your museum insider information! And yes, please make a version of these, for I want to see them!

  • Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    It might be a more rural tailoring causing the irregularities – the different boning, the lacing in front-only etc. Still, very interesting to see!

    As for the small size, the people of the 17th through 19th centuy were considerably lower than previous and later centuries, due to what is called "the mini ice age" in Europe. But you've probably experienced enough to separate between historically small and abnormally small. So it might very well be for a growing girl. Sometimes stays were used as correctional devices, to amend crooked bodies. I don't know if this would have been such a "medical" pair of stays? That might account for the front lacing, so the girl could dress/undress herself? Merely guessing here!

    Other than that, I agree that a bit later date than what the museum said sounds more correct.

  • Lauren

    February 2, 2011 at 2:00 AM

    I would definitely say transitional. Probably between 1785 and 1795ish. The shape of the back is similar to some others I have seem from the time period. I agree, that the waist seems too high for 1760's.

  • HazMcMaz

    April 25, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    The trouble with dating clothes is that if it's been dated using a fiber from the fabric you can very easily get a result that dates the material rather than the piece of clothing. So you end up knowing when the fabric was made but not when the fabric actually became a garment.

  • ista

    June 5, 2012 at 9:38 AM

    Commenting a little late, re front only lacing – the Metropolitan Museum of art have 2 later 18th Century stays that are front lacing only – items 1983.242.2 and C.I.41.94. The Nordiske Museet in Stockholm has NM.0004796 though they date theirs to 1750-95. The Kyoto Costume Institute has 1790s that are front lacint (AC4197 82-5-5) and then Leeds Museum has a set dated 1790-1810 (LEEAG.1949.0008.0065).

    So I'd agree that these are later than the museum (whatever it was) dated them.

  • sam b

    August 10, 2018 at 11:10 PM

    Rereading this post, and two things came to mind that didn't previously…One: Regardless of the "average" size of women in any time period, there are always the exceptions–I've met several adults who were the size of a slender 10-year old; and two: Maternity! Shorter stays could be worn for the last trimester, and at this stage many women need some support, but gentler than typical 1760's stays. Not that many "maternity stays" (if any) have been documented from that era.
    I'd still love to know what the boning material is…the pattern is more like corded stays from the Regency.


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