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  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    1780s (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wool, linen, silk, baleen; hand-woven, hand-sewn

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the family of the late Mrs Jane Robinson

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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. On these stays a simple silk ribbon and linen tape serve as decoration and functional finishings.

The narrow rows of very fine, even handstitching 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 mold 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.

Physical description

Woman’s stays of red woollen broadcloth, interlined with linen, lined with glazed linen and reinforced with baleen. They are back-lacing with a high narrow back, a wide, decolletage and a point in front, about 2 inches (5 cm) below the natural waist. The stays are cut in 8 pieces and fully boned in stitched channels about ⅛-inch (3 mm) wide, the baleen extending into the skirts below the waist. A ⅛-inch (3 mm) wide silk ribbon covers the seams. The armholes and edges of the skirts are bound with linen twill tape. The armholes and edges of the skirts are bound with linen twill tape. There is a centre busk of baleen about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide. Another ⅝-inch (1.5 cm) wide strip of whalebone runs horizontally across the upper front edge. The stays are laced through 13 eyelets on each side at centre back arranged asymmetrically. The shoulder straps, each with an eyelet, extend from the front and fasten to an eyelet at each back shoulder.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)


1780s (made)



Materials and Techniques

Wool, linen, silk, baleen; hand-woven, hand-sewn


Length: 56a cm overall approx, Circumference: 85 cm bust under armholes approx, Weight: 0.63 kg

Object history note

Registered File no. 1929/11817.

Historical context note

The stitching and whalebone follow the diagonal shaping of the stays at the side; essential to form the curvilinear torso so desirable in the 1780s. When worn the shaped and boned tabs at the lower edge splayed over the hips and gave added fullness to the petticoat tied at the waist over the stays.

Descriptive line

Woman's stays, 1780s, British; Red wool trimmed with cream silk, boned, back lacing, laced shoulder straps

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Historical Fashion in Detail The 17th and 18th Centuries

Labels and date

A fashionable woman's underwear

Women's underwear had two functions in the 18th century: hygienic and structural.

The shift formed a hygienic barrier between body and clothing. Few women wore drawers.

Stays and hoops were structural garments, designed to create a fashionable silhouette. Stays, the antecedent of the corset, formed a rigid foundation for the gown. The hoop supported the volume of the petticoat, as the skirt was known in the 18th century.

A Miss Davis ordered this hoop, with a gown and petticoat, from a London robe maker.

Reconstruction of a mid 18th century shift
Hand-sewn linen
Made by Susan North

Britain, 1780s
Wool, linen or canvas interlining, whalebone (baleen), glazed linen lining
V&A: T.192-1929
Given by the family of the late Mrs Jane Robinson

Hooped petticoat
Andrew Schabner
Britain, London, 1778
Linen and cane
V&A: T.120-1969
From the family of Mrs Deborah Carter, given by Mr and Mrs R.C. Carter


Broadcloth; Linen (material); Silk (textile); Baleen; Ribbon


Hand sewing; Hand weaving


Underwear; Womenswear

Production Type



Textiles and Fashion Collection

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