Stays (a stiff corset) were essential garments in the fashionable woman's wardrobe throughout the 17th century. Some sort of stiffening of a woman's gown had been part of dress construction since the early 16th century. Sometimes it was added to the outer bodice; sometimes it was in the form of separate stays worn under the gown. Originally the stiffening served the purpose of preventing the expensive and elaborately decorated fabric of the gown from wrinkling. However, because stays could mould the female torso, they became essential for producing whatever shape was considered fashionable.
Materials & Making
The stays are made by hand-stitching the watered silk to a layer of linen in long narrow pockets. Thin strips of whalebone are inserted into the pockets to give the stays their shape. Whalebone is in fact not bone, but cartilage from the mouth of the baleen whale. It grows in large sheets in the mouth of the whale and serves as a kind of sieve to filter out tiny krill, the whale's primary source of food, from the seawater. Commercial whaling began in the early 17th century in the North Sea and quickly spread to the waters around Greenland and eventually to the Bering Seas as the whales were hunted almost to extinction. Baleen was used for women's stays and hoops as well as a wide variety of other items such as riding crops, whips, brushes, chair backs and bottoms, carriage springs and fishing rods. Whale blubber was rendered into oil and used for lighting. Whalebone was the preferred stiffener for stays because it was firm enough to hold the shape, yet flexible enough not to break when the wearer moved. The ribbons retain their original points, the narrow metal clamps at the ends. They prevent the ribbon from unravelling and help to thread it through the lacing holes. The points are made of tinned iron; normally they would have rusted away.