December 20th, 2010
As I continue to work on my new stays (which will be without benefit of front opening busk), the question of how I will lace myself into them continues to arise. I’m an old hand at tightening my own corsets, but I’ve never slid into one already laced closed before.
I decided to do a little research on Google books, and while I have yet to come up with 1850s directions for lacing one’s own stays, I did find a very humorous account in The commissioner: or, De lunatico inquirendo, published in Dublin, 1843, that is somewhat related. It concerns a young criminal named Joey who hides himself under the nose of the law by dressing up as a French mademoiselle.
In his own room Joey was somewhat puzzled. All his upper garments he knew he could manage well enough, but his stays he knew were neither so easily got rid of, nor so easily put on again. He therefore determined to go to bed in them, and a terrible night he had of it.
. . .
“Well,” said the hostess of the Half-Moon, ” if that be the case, I’ll do all I can to help you, Joey.”
“You can do nought to help me, fair Muggins,” replied Joey, “but keep my secret and lace my stays.”
“Lace your stays! Ha, ha, ha,” cried Mrs. Muggins, “that’s a good un. I’ll have nothing to do with your stays, Joey.”
“Mrs. Muggins,” said Joey in a solemn tone, “I am a decent young woman, and if you do not lace my stays I am lost.”
I believe this illustration is meant to show how well the young man succeeded in his masquerade — notice the “young lady” with the curls who is showing off “her” finely turned ankle?
The story is fairly illustrative of a few points on mid-19th-century stays. For one, proper undergarments were necessary to maintain a “decent” appearance — no lady would be seen in public without her stays. This of course leads to the fact that it was quite easy to tell if one isn’t wearing stays (just like you can tell today when someone is wearing a “period” dress without the proper undergarments).
I’ve noticed that stays are also common fodder for slightly ribald humor in the mid-19th century. Allusions to stays and corsets often carry sexual undertones. Much is made of Joey’s ignorance on the subject — though in the 1840s, well-dressed men were known to indulge in a bit of corsetry themselves — and Mrs. Muggins is rightly disturbed at being asked to lace him up. For further information on the erotic implications of corsetry in the mid-19th century, I refer you to Valerie Steele’s excellent tome, The Corset.
Alright, time to get back to serious research…and grommet setting.