Pattern: A combination of Period Costume for Stage & Screen by Jean Hunnisett and Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh
Fabric and Materials: Cotton drill, cotton cord, bias tape, and wooden busk.
Start Date: October 2011
Finish date for Stays (not including eyelet and binding): October 2011
Complete Date (binding and eyelets) : December 2011
The shapes and sizes of costumes have changed drastically throughout history, from the late 15th century farthingale to the massive panniers that dominated the 18th century. Keep the many changing shapes of the Victorian era in mind and consider this: without the correct foundation the garment is just a pieces of fabric patched together into a meaningless shape.
The classically influenced fashion associated with the early 19th century is no different. By this time the French Revolution has swept the Ancien Régime aside in favour of adopting a more neoclassical fashion associated with the early history of man. Fashion is an ever-changing facet and even this simplistic style changed to keep up with the current events of the time.
Honouring the tradition of casting off all affiliation with the scorned Ancien Régime the early 19th century stays are nothing like the restrictive Grand Corps of the French Court.
Keeping my own golden rule of costuming in mind (foundation first) I set about to create the shape I wanted my costume to take. I drafted the stays based on a combination of the Jean Hunnisett and Norah Waugh patterns.
The first thing I did was to create a toile. After fitting it on my mannequin and making a few alterations I decided that perhaps Regency stays would be much easier than 18th century stays, something I might come to regret later when I reached the gussets.
After I was satisfied with the toile I cut the pieces out. I used two layers in order to “sandwich” the cord.
The first pieces I tackled were the gussets. The most important thing I learnt from the gussets was to make them NEAT (which I did not do very well on the first few but I did learn!). I made sure to stitch all the way into the side seam and then using a backstitch go back about half an inch. Next time I will know to cut the threads as I go along.
Eight gussets later I moved onto the center front which would prove to be extremely trying. Using my research from photos available online and my private photographs taken during my museum visits I drafted my own design for the cording.
When inserting your cording it’s best to think ahead, I took to my drawing board and planned out which pieces would be inserted first. I assure you, there was a method to this madness! Drawing the cord through was a learning process and was very finicky at times. The first step is to tape the edges. I researched the best way to draw the cording through online but it’s really just a trial by error experiment. What worked for others failed miserably for me and in the end I used a very long theatre hairpin which worked wonderfully.
I decided to sew the busk pocket in last so that I could fully utilize the space it would take up. In order to make no mistakes I started by sewing one channel under the bust on each side. Starting at the top with the first channel I pulled the cord through from the busk space. I pulled the cord so that it stopped right at the edge and would be caught when I stitched the busk pocket in. I then continued on until I got to the diagonal cording lines. I repeated the same process: one line at a time, pull the cord through, halt at the edge, repeat.
The next step was to sew the busk pocket and to very carefully catch the edges of the cord. After I placed my busk in I realized that I had a slight problem, my busk was a few inches too long. To remedy this technical error I had to sand down the edges.
The part I found most frightening was cutting into the center front to attach the gussets. If you will recall I cautioned you to keep the threads cut and to keep the gussets neat and this was why!
I ended up hand stitching the gussets in at the due to my fear of somehow placing them in wrong. But costuming is like learning to walk, you will stumble and fall but you will get back up and keep going. I did place two gussets in wrong and I did have to unpick them. But! I learnt my lesson well and the other six went in with no difficulty.
I added another cord in the sides based on extant piece I was able to study.
The corset went together very well. After attaching the sides I inserted the gussets using a machine stitch and then I hand stitched the points in.
The next step is to cut the cords and to attach the straps. After this I tried it on for the first time.
At the first fitting I was able to figure out where the straps would need to fit in and where to place the eyelets. The next process would be to bind everything.
Which eventually became the hardest part. I started off by binding the edges first and I realized that in order to make everything on the inside neat, I would have to find it all. I closed all seams together and then covered them with bias binding. The gussets were then trimmed down and bound with bias binding then stitched down.
The end result looks a little something like this! I decided to use peach silk ribbon to tie the bows together in order to draw everything together. One of my favorite books as a child was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. One line has stayed with me throughout the years and when costuming I keep it in mind: . ” . . . For Maria was one of your true aristocrats; the perfection of the hidden things was even more important to her than the outward show. Not that she did not like the outward show. She did. She was a showy little thing. . .” And when I create the small things mean as much as the little things.
I am extremely pleased with how the stays turned out. Even though the bust gussets proved to be the most difficult part (other than the binding) I am glad I did them. They helped to achieve the overall shape I had hoped to accomplish and they offered the support I needed.
As I explained in the beginning, foundations are the most important part of costuming. For the Regency period here are the undergarments I created in order to achieve the shape:
The first layer is called the chemise or the shift. It serves as a protective layer so that the lady does not perspire into her corset. It offers no shape and so it ends above the knees. It is usually unadorned but I have seen extant examples that have their owners initials embroidered just above hem in small cross stitch. My chemise was made from fine cotton and has a square neckline with a drawstring.
The next layer were the clocked silk stockings that I purchased from Dressing History. Even though the stockings reached mid thigh I embroidered a pair of garters so that I would have a complete set of undergarments. They read: “Halte là, On ne passe pas” which translates to stop here, you can go no further and are based on an extant 18th century pair.
My shoes went on next. I made these based on an extant pair of unmade Regency slippers I own. I altered the toe to be a bit more squared and I used leftover silk from my dress to line the inside.
Finally the stays are next! I created a pair of long stays because I wanted to maintain a smooth line from chest to hip in my costume and I felt that short stays would not accomplish this desire. Unlike the Victorian era corsets, these were quite enjoyable to wear. They were very comfortable and even though the wooden busk served as a gentle reminder to conserve a proper posture they are completely different from the uncomfortable 18th century stays (which force a proper posture upon the wearer).
The bodiced petticoat came next. This served as another protective layer that kept the dress from clinging in a most unbecoming manner. I decided that since my dress had a small back with a large gathered train I would need a small bum roll. This was in order to help make sure the dress would freely flow unhindered by the shape of my own body.
The bumroll was made of leftover silk and very easy to create. It also proved to be very helpful in encouraging the dress to fall smoothly instead of becoming encumbered by my derriere.
When worn it looks a little something like this.
The Early 19th century and the Regency brought about a great reformation in the manner that the Arts were perceived. This great change effectuated an awareness and respect for the past so vast that women and men adorned themselves accordingly. In their long Grecian gowns, ornamented with antiquated heralds of days long turned to dust the fashionable followed suit in the footsteps of our ancestors.