Fashion and Function


A corset’s engineered strictness defines the shape of the 18th-century woman. Journeywoman Brooke Welborn explains the trend.

Learn more: 18th-century clothing


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

In the 18th century as well as the 21st, it's the outermost layers of a woman's ensemble that get the most notice. For a colonial woman, however, the intimate engineering of stays and corsets was as important to her appearance as any fine fabric or lace.

Joining me now to talk about fashions both seen and unseen is Brooke Welborn, who is a journeywoman milliner and mantua maker, which is the first time I've ever heard the term "journeywoman."

Brooke Welborn: The term "journeywoman" is something that gets used only in the trades usually dominated by women, like millinery and mantua making. Any other trade, you'd hear "journeyman." Also in those trades, you hear mistress of the trade, or shopwoman. They're very gender-specific, because they're done almost always by women. If a man was going to practice the trade, he'd have to be a man-milliner, or a man-mantua maker.

Things like stays and corsets were actually historically made by men, for centuries and centuries. The stay-making trade comes out of the tailoring trade in the 17th century. It’s not until the late 18th century that you actually find women making stays for themselves, for other women.

Part of the thought of that is, stays are a very rigid bodice that women are wearing. They have to be boned with wood or baleen. The channels are very small. You have to cut the baleen to a certain size to insert it into the channel. It's hard work. I've done it a couple times. I'd prefer to have someone else do it for me, because it is. And then you have to bind the garment in leather. It's a very difficult process, and very labor-intensive. So it is mostly done by men for women.

Lloyd: Clearly I do not understand stays and corsets, because I always thought stays were softer and cloth, and corsets were boned and quite rigid and laced up and not comfortable to wear.

Brooke: The real difference between those two garments is actually the time that they were used. The word "stays" usually refers to a boned bodice that was used in the 17th and 18th centuries, then replaced in the 19th century with a corset. The garments are shaped differently. The stays gave more of a conical shape, broader at the chest and narrower at the waist. The corsets give more of an hourglass shape, with actual curves to them. They just reflect the look of what the people wanted on the outside. If you want a very smooth bodice to the gown, you need a very smooth undergarment. If you want a naturally curved shape, you need a garment that gives that to the person.

Lloyd: OK, so the term "wasp-waist" refers to a corset, and not a stay.

Brooke: Generally. But you do sometimes see that term showing up in the 18th century. In both the 18th and the 19th century, there was an extreme fashion for lacing the stays or the corsets tight. Most people are not following those extreme fashions. They're still wearing stays or corsets, but most women work, whether it's in a shop or around their home. It's really hard to work, day in and day out, in extreme dress -- in something that's really tight and binding. Stays would still be worn by working women, because it is the only support garment at the time, supporting not only their chest, but their back.

Certainly in the 18th century you do see the term wasp-waist once in a while showing up. They make fun of the ladies. There are some very famous satirical prints showing women holding onto bedposts, being laced in tight by three people with a monkey pointing to a piece of paper that says "Fashion Victim: A Satire." Certainly that's not the normal thing that most women are doing, but it did exist. 

Lloyd: Working in your shop, for instance, stays would be what you would wear on a day-to-day basis?

Brooke: Yes. I have a pair on right now. And there were different kinds of stays. Some of them were fully boned, where every single inch of the bodice had boning, edge to edge. There are some that are half boned, like mine, where the front is fully boned, but when you get to the sides, there are some spaces. Some were so lightly boned that they might only have six strips in them. Those would be much easier for someone to work in, but they'd still have something on. They wouldn't go without stays altogether.

The term "a loose woman" in the 18th century refers more to someone who's not wearing stays, because she's completely loose with no support.

Lloyd: That's something else I didn't know. A loose woman was actually just a woman who was not properly undergarmented.

Brooke: In the 18th century, yes.

Lloyd: When you're in the shop working, guest comes in, what normally do they ask you about female dress from the 18th century?

Brooke: I think one of the most common questions we get is, "What would a typical 18th-century woman have in her wardrobe? How much clothing would she have?" That's a really hard question to answer, because we really don't know. Most 18th-century women didn't sit down and write in their journal, "I have this many dresses with this many pairs of shoes." It would be great. Some of them did, a few of them. But most of them didn't. Sadly, most inventories for women that take it at their death don't list every piece of clothing. They sometimes will just give a lump sum of what the clothing was worth. We have a little bit here and there.

But we can tell people that clothing, the clothing trades, made up a large business in the city. Fabric was imported from England – incredible amounts. There were about eight or nine different styles of dress available that women could chose from. It would be up to the woman to decide, depending on where she lived and what she did, and how much she wanted to spend. Certainly people were spending more than they perhaps should have in the 18th century, just like today.

Lloyd: Wouldn't that depend to a degree at least, on where in society you were?

Brooke: Certainly not in every degree. The mistress of a plantation is probably going to have some really formal eveningwear – some fancy ball gowns. The farmer's wife doesn't really need that. What the women wore to church on Sunday, or when they go shopping in the city, those fashionable everyday clothes, they might be a little bit closer in wardrobe to each other at those times.

Lloyd: What would determine what sort of wardrobe a woman had?

Brooke: I think some of it depends on where she lives. People in the city tend to many times have a much more fashion-conscious wardrobe than people living in the middle of nowhere on a farm.

Lloyd: Much the same as today.

Brooke: Yeah, there's certain styles that they're just not going to need. You're more likely to find a farmer's wife having plain, fitted gowns that are appropriate for working and probably in linens and wools and cottons. She's not really going to need a lot of silk. She's probably not going to need the newest fashionable hat or cloak of the season. Someone who's a little bit more socially active might find the need to have those kinds of things.

Lloyd: So your wardrobe is kind of dependent not necessarily on who you are, but on what you do.

Brooke: Exactly. You sometimes find that someone who's doing a lot of traveling might have specific clothing for traveling. Someone who's going riding has a riding habit. Someone else might want one of those, but decide, "That's not a good way to spend my money, because I'm not actually going to do those activities. I'll spend my money on clothing that makes more sense for what I'm actually doing on a daily basis." It might mean that someone could buy a lot more clothing at a lower price, because they're buying simpler styles and less fabric. They don't have to budget for more complicated pieces of clothing, which cost more.

Lloyd: You are a journeywoman in the millenary shop. Would you have to dress better in your shop than a young woman your age outside, just as sort of an advertisement?

Brooke: Certainly, certainly you do see that happening. There's many images of milliners and mantua makers, and if the title on the print didn't say, "The Pretty Mantua Maker," you wouldn't know. She looks just like her fashionable customers. But you don’t want to dress too nice, or the customers are going to think that you're perhaps charging too much for the goods.

Lloyd: (Laughs.) Over-advertising, as it were.

Brooke: Yeah. But there was an expectation that you would probably be well dressed if you were working in a shop like that.

Lloyd: How long before, as a journeywoman, you would have the possibility of having your own shop?

Brooke: Well, it really depends on if you have any of your own money, because you would need a certain amount of money. A small amount if you just wanted to go open a shop where you made things for people out of fabric they brought to you from somewhere else. But if you wanted to be a shop milliner and have imported fashionable goods, you need a couple hundred pounds, which you're not going to save up in just a couple years of working for someone else. You'd have to have some kind of dowry that can be used to invest in that business. A lot of journeywomen are just going to work for someone else for many years.

Lloyd: Two hundred pounds, in the 18th century, was a ton of money, wasn't it?

Brooke: People in the trades, though, were making a little bit more. A journeywoman milliner mantua maker, her first year, might be making 25 to 30 pounds a year, and getting room and board. She doesn't have to worry about her housing, her food, or even maybe her laundry.

So, one reason to go into the trades is you're going to make more money than doing unskilled labor. The millinery and mantua making trades are newer trades in the 18th century. They're not established under any guilds, really, in England. You don't have the apprenticeship length having to be seven years, like a lot of the other trades. You do find women apprenticing to those trades for shorter periods of time. Their parents might have to pay more money, but they're able to get into being a journeywoman a lot faster.

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