Oof, this project was long and drawn out. Not because the stays were particularly difficult to draft or assemble–they were the easiest stays I’ve ever made in that respect (aside from the math required to scale up the pattern). But it took a while to figure out the fit adjustments, make them, “finish” them, try them on and decide they didn’t work (for me), and then decide how best to augment the minimal bust support for my substantial rack so that they would work.
These are my try at the J. S. Bernhardt stays, thanks to the research into early 1800s “short stays” and the generous sharing of said research by Sabine of the blog Kleidung um 1800. If you’ve been looking for Regency/Empire-era stays designs and you follow a lot of costumer blogs or belong to the Facebook group Historical Sew Fortnightly you have probably seen a Bernhardt stay here and there or heard/read mention of the research Sabine conducted. All I can say is: THANK YOU! Thank you for doing the research, reproducing the designs by Bernhardt, and then sharing that invaluable information with all us crazy costumers.
The idea that the adjective “short” applied not to the length of the stays body but to the length/depth of the waistline created by the stays, as described by Bernhardt, was mind blowing. Of course! Naturally! It all makes sense.
The designs Sabine shared, created by Bernhardt circa 1810, are all fascinating in that they still look rather transitional in form. Their basic shape closely resembles the more conical designs of the previous few decades, but in a softer rendition with much less stiffening through the body and with the addition of bust and hip gussets.
These are quite a change from the later design I’ve come to accept as the standard form for the Regency stay–the form that eventually developed a lower, more natural waistline placement and evolved into what we think of as a Victorian corset.
I’m also fascinated by how much the stays in this Costume Parisien fashion plate resemble Bernhardt’s designs:
First, of course, after reading Sabine’s blog post and evaluating all the versions Bernhardt designed, I had to decide which one to use. Based on Sabine’s recreations, I decided Schnürleib Fig. C was the way to go. So I printed out the scaled, gridded pattern she provided and grudgingly set about calculating how much it needed to be scaled up. If you haven’t done much scaling up of patterns by hand, I highly recommend this tutorial by Threads Magazine (and not just because I edited it when I worked for the magazine ;-] ).
So here was my first pattern version based on the scaling I did (and shortened for my short torso):
It looks so crisp and perfect. But it wasn’t. It was, however, a great starting point. I made a quick muslin and pinned it on my dress form to see how much more it needed to be adjusted.
Did it need deeper and wider hip gussets? Was the bust gusset slit in the right place? How could I get rid of all that excess fullness under the bust, where I’m really narrow, while still accommodating my rounder belly? I tucked and used my trusty red Sharpie to mark the changes needed based on my almost-body-duplicate dress form. Then I transferred the changes to the pattern and made another muslin, this one to try on.
It seemed pretty good. Just a few nips and tucks here and there. So I went ahead with the real thing! I made the inner layer from cotton duck/canvas and the outer from a lightweight silk faille.
The whole thing only had four bones: 2 at center front and 2 at center back. I used heavy duty cable ties. I decided to try a solid front busk, too, so I sewed a busk pocket inside. I bound the edges with a bias strip of silk dupioni in a pretty maize color with a damask print.
Not terrible. But not great either. Granted, I didn’t have it laced as tight in the photo above as it should have been to really snug it around my ribcage. But also, the front busk met a lot of … hmmm … resistance. From my rounded belly. It just wasn’t working. I mean … look: left, with busk; right, without busk.
And there was just not enough bust support. My bosom isn’t huge, but it is substantial, and there was not enough stiffness in the original design of these stays to support and lift and shape in the way that will create a nice line under my gowns. Plus, the back was way too high and the straps too wide and set too narrow–they showed above the back neckline and shoulders of my gowns. Also, the binding looked like crap. Too wide, bunched in places. Bleh. Sigh.
But this is a great design, and it COULD work, I was convinced. So I set it aside for several months. Closer to a year, really. I started this project in January 2017, and now here it is December 2017 and I just completed a revamp on them. During those months, I occasionally thought about ways to improve the fit of the stays. I looked around at other versions, but most of them were made straight from the pattern with no (apparent) changes and to fit less voluptuous bodies. But there were a few ideas out there that I thought could work. Cording would be one way to stiffen the area around the bust for a better lift and shape. Or simply installing an extra bone diagonally on the torso, from about the shoulder to center front, sort of like more typical stays. The 1790s transitional stays created by Cynthia of Red Threaded and the short stays created by Nora of the blog The Shadow of My Hand were particularly inspiring.
I let these ideas marinate for a bit. About a month ago, I picked off the binding and cut down the back neckline and the straps. And then last week I reattached the straps and stitched the channels for two additional bones, placed diagonally. (Perhaps I’ll try cording one day, but not today!) Then I rebound the edges in some nice rayon petersham ribbon, much narrower than the first binding. It’s so much more refined and prettier!
I also added drawstrings (ribbons) in the top binding at the front neckline to help with the shaping there, if it turned out to be necessary. And if it wasn’t, well, it’s a pretty addition.
The back lacing, alas, is not period spiral lacing. Stays that lace only in the back are very difficult and uncomfortable for me to lace (very tight shoulders; my arms fatigue quickly when twisted behind me trying to manipulate a corset lacing). So I cheated with criss-cross lacing and “bunny ears,” as would be more common in a later corset. And you know what? It works great. I feel no shame for this inaccuracy.
I really like the new result! It’s comfortable, the bosom is where it should be and a better shape, the stays won’t peak out from my gown necklines. Here’s a bunch of badly lit photos in my hallway (because that’s the only place I have in my current apartment). Tank top clearly non-period 😉
The curve through the belly is fine and won’t show under Regency gowns, since I cut mine a bit fuller through the skirts (I don’t like a flat front and it doesn’t like me, either!).
There’s plenty of lacing gap in back, because I’m certain these stays will stretch with wear, since they’re cut on the bias at center-front.
So to sum up: I love these Bernhardt stays! I’m going to make more! (Eventually) Meanwhile, these are done just in time for the local Regency Society’s Twelfth Night celebration. Woo hoo!
Next project: an evening mantle for Twelfth Night!