Stays were an essential item of underwear for women during the 18th century. By the 1780s, the fashionable torso consisted of an inverted cone shape. Achieving smoothness of profile and firmness of contour were the primary function of 18th-century stays, rather than emphasising the bust or constricting the waist. Although custom-made and very intricately designed, stays were usually very plain. In this example a narrow blue ribbon covering the seams is the only decoration.
The narrow rows of very fine, even hand-stitching form the compartments into which thin strips of whalebone were inserted. Although the stays appear very rigid, whalebone was quite flexible. It had the added advantage of softening with the heat of the wearer’s body, allowing the stays to mould to her shape. When worn, the shaped and boned tabs at the lower edge would splay over the wearer’s hips, giving further fullness to the petticoat tied at the waist over the stays.