18th Century Stays – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Ladies, now it’s time to get started on our Simplicity 18th Century inspired patterns! You’ve got two pattern packs – one with underpinnings and one with the outfit itself – but where do we begin?

I’m going to host this “hacking” series in a way that is accessible to beginning costumers. We’re going to really delve into the who, what, when, where, why, and especially how, of creating a complete 18th century outfit from the “skin out,” which means starting with the underpinnings and building the rest of the outfit on the resulting silhouette.
Underpinnings? Yup, all the garments you wear beneath the dress itself to create the correct shape. In the 18th century we have a shift/chemise, stays/corset, and, depending on the decade and style of gown, a variety of skirt foundations such as a bum roll, hip pads, or panniers. Simplicity 8162 has the chemise, stays, and bum roll, and Simplicity 8161 has the petticoat pattern that will be worn over the top of it all and under the gown or bodice + skirt to fluff it all out and create a smooth line.
All of these items are essential when creating an authentic 18th century look, especially the stays. “Stays” are what we call 18th century corsets, and are the stiff boned foundation garment that supported the bust, trimmed the waist, held the shoulders back, and supported the gown worn on top.
Here is a short “Intro to Stays” video that may answer some questions you might have:

The biggest “shortcut” novice costumers make is to skip the stays. Many believe they’ll be uncomfortable, or they’re not necessary, or that their persona wouldn’t have worn them. All of these ideas are incorrect, my darlings! The most uncomfortable I have ever been in costume was when I thought I’d just not wear my stays that day – the waist seam of the dress cut into me badly and the weight of the dress hung on my shoulders. My how I wished I had worn the corset!

Left – NO underpinnings; Right – all the correct underpinnings. See what a difference it makes?
Another big fear beginners have is that stays will be hard to make, but this is where I will help you most in the upcoming posts. Stays are not difficult to make, but they take time, especially the binding on the tabs. Everyone dreads that, but like anything lovely, it’s worth putting in the time.
So, in writing:
Who wore stays in the 18th century?

Women of all classes wore stays. The lower classes often wore strapless stays, which did not impede the movement of the shoulders. The upper classes, and especially aristocracy and royalty, wore more restrictive stays. Lower class women did not lace their stays tightly, but upper class women are often depicted tight-lacing. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was known for tight-lacing her stays, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Stays – 1st quarter of 18th century – The Met – these are strapless stays made of linen, cotton, and whalebone. This style would have been worn by a working class woman.
What were stays made out of?
18th century stays were made from wool, linen, twill/jean fabric, stiffened linen (buckram), and silk brocade. The interlining layer was the stiffened layer, while the outer layer could be something decorative. Boning was whalebone/baleen, reed, or wood bents, and the stays had a lightweight lining loosely tacked in that could be replaced easily. We often see surviving stays without their linings. Stays were commonly bound in leather, but the edges were also finished with linen tape, self fabric binding, or grosgrain.
When and Where were stays worn?
Stays were worn for all of the 18th century. They changed shape with the changing fashions, but were ever present. This is, of course, a Western fashion. Women throughout Europe wore stays, as well as European women in the colonies.
Why were stays worn?
Stays were a support garment. They were the bras of the 18th century, supporting the bust from the waist instead of the shoulders. Stays lifted the bust, trimmed the waist, held the shoulders back (for those with straps), and created a smooth support for the garments worn on top.
How were stays worn?
Stays go on over the shift/chemise and under petticoat (optional, but helps pad out the hip tabs), and under the skirt supports (bum roll, pocket hoops). There is no need to lace them tightly – just snug enough to do the job.

How were stays made?
Ironically, staymakers were usually men. This was not a garment a woman would be making in her home, for herself, but a garment made by professionals. Why men? The processing of baleen required strength and stamina. Baleen would be boiled, split, shaped, and installed in a pair of stays, sometimes requiring springing, which was all quite hard labor.

Staymakers were usually men.
How can I make my stays today?
These days we don’t have workshops of men to make our corsets for us, but we also don’t use baleen anymore. Some good modern alternatives are German plastic synthetic whalebone, zip ties (my personal favorite), steel, or we still have the period correct material of reed.
With a good pattern, the right interlining and boning material, and a bit of determination, you can whip up a functional and comfortable pair of stays in a week (that’s machine sewing, dears – completely by hand will take longer of course).
Once you have your stays, everything else becomes possible. If you do a good job on them, they’ll last you an age – I still have my very first pair of stays made 10 years ago! The Simplicity 8162 stays pattern is a good, highly adjustable, easy to alter pattern that will serve you for nearly all of the 18th century.———————–

Excited? Ready to get started? Good!
Coming up next in the series I’ll give you the hows and whys of the changes I’ve made to my Simplicity stays that you can work into your own version.


  • Unknown

    May 7, 2016 at 3:45 AM

    How wonderful! I'm so excited for this series! Even though this particular pattern doesn't come in my size, I'll be eagerly reading along. 🙂

  • AuntieNan

    May 8, 2016 at 7:33 PM

    WOWEEEEEE! I love the without/with photo! And I've been there. I once had a boned bodice and the mother heavy of all mother heavy skirts, made of cartridge pleated pinky beige upholstery damask for a skirt. NO STAYS. Yep, I had some very annoying ridges on my tummy pudge.
    I can't wait to see how you hack these patterns. I'm hoping to get them post haste so I can sew along. Thanks for this stellar post,
    Nancy N from NYC

    • Lauren Stowell

      May 9, 2016 at 7:58 PM

      Ouch! That sounds terrible (and I've so been there too, with really reallllly heavy gowns). It's amazing the difference the corset or stays make in dispersing that weight!

    • Lauren Stowell

      May 9, 2016 at 8:00 PM

      Hi Chris – Yes, the boning is in each channel sewn into the corset and creates a foundation garment that you then wear the bodice on top of.

      Bodices often had a couple strips of boning in them – usually the center front closure or edges, and the center back. Victorian bodices typically have bones on each seam. These bodices were still worn over corsets. The boning is there to keep the garment smooth on the outside rather than to shape the body.

  • Spinneretta

    May 12, 2016 at 12:51 AM

    Zip ties? Colour me intrigued! I picked up my patterns last weekend just so I can follow along. Even though I have no plans to wear the costume anywhere 😉 I'm thinking of it as a learning curve!

  • Spinneretta

    May 12, 2016 at 12:51 AM

    Zip ties? Colour me intrigued! I picked up my patterns last weekend just so I can follow along. Even though I have no plans to wear the costume anywhere 😉 I'm thinking of it as a learning curve!

  • Butterfly2017

    May 14, 2016 at 12:48 PM

    I've got stays but when wearing a dress over them i still get a bust crease in your no stays example. I just can't squish my bust any more. 28inch waist but 39inch bust that's an F cup.

  • Unknown

    May 17, 2016 at 10:57 PM

    Im still slightly taken aback at the zip ties….wondering how they would be rigid enough. Ive always thought spiral steel and solid for the busk was the best way to go.

    • Lauren Stowell

      May 18, 2016 at 2:49 AM

      It depends. With fully boned stays, I find the narrow zip tie throughout, and the big ones on the edges, to be very supportive. I've also found hemp to be a great boning material, as well as reed. The support is also in the fabric. It's important to note that the boning keeps the fabric from buckling, but it's the fabric that is keeping your body in a certain shape. If you use too-light a fabric, you'll find the stays not supportive enough. If you use too heavy a fabric, with too heavy a bones (like steel), it will be rigid, but uncomfortable to wear.

  • Rebecca

    August 6, 2016 at 5:24 PM

    Just cracked open my copy of this pattern today. (Congratulations again on being published by Simplicity!) I think I'd like to go with a solid front rather than the front-lacing style. Any suggestions for this hack? Would I simply mirror the center front piece or should I widen the piece a bit to account for the gap when laced?

    • Laura

      November 24, 2016 at 7:49 PM

      Do you ever do the solid closed front? If so I would love to hear how it went and see your gown. I am doing mine now. Got it draped on my dress form n redrawing the front piece now.

    • Holly1983

      November 4, 2020 at 11:22 AM

      Don't do it. I always have to have help putting my stays on, which is embarrassing and so I hardly ever wear them, despite putting in over 100 hours of work on them (entirely hand sewn). Argh

  • becomingandromeda

    October 24, 2016 at 2:46 AM

    So my patterns arrived the wrong size. So tomorrow will be spent studying pattern grading. I am in Finland so I can not just go out and buy them again. Thank you and congratulations! I am so happy you did this.

  • becomingandromeda

    October 24, 2016 at 2:47 AM

    So my patterns arrived the wrong size. So tomorrow will be spent studying pattern grading. I am in Finland so I can not just go out and buy them again. Thank you and congratulations! I am so happy you did this.

  • Crazy Empress Catherine

    May 16, 2018 at 9:09 AM

    Thank you very much! I always admired costumes of the 18th century and now, thanks to your advice, I decided to sew a suit. Now sew corset, very inspired by all of these.

  • Unknown

    July 21, 2018 at 2:23 AM

    Hello, I have a question that is not really technical, but more of a testament to my lack of organization. I have made the shift and the bum pad, and am ready to tackle the stays. I cut the pieces out some time ago and can no longer find the strap pattern piece. I am not sure that I have enough experience to”wing it”regarding this (I am really a novice but oddly fearless when it comes to costuming). Do you have any suggestions other than buying another pattern?
    I love you blog and videos! Very inspiring and entertaining.

  • Up North Mom's Musings

    March 24, 2020 at 4:30 PM

    Love this blog! As a writer, currently writing a fantasy novel that takes place in this period, it's nice to have a visual image of the kinds of garments the women wore then!

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