As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I primarily write historical fiction. This means researching not only social mores, foods, and events, but also fashion. When you are looking at the various women’s silhouettes that were en vogue throughout history, you have to also look at the underpinnings that created them.
I’m not going to lie; women essentially wore two full sets of clothing throughout most of history. The underthings were almost as heavy as the outer garments. Corsetry and petticoats were made to fit a given woman’s shape into the styles of the day. Let’s go back to the earliest period in which I’ve written: the Regency, which is when Clytie’s Caller is set. Clytie’s stays (like the ones at the right) would have kept her figure pretty straight, in line with the Empire-waisted dresses that were in fashion at the time.
Moving forward in time, we come to the Romantic era, as written about in Bayou Fire. Some of you may recall my early post about idiot sleeves. Well, the underpinnings at the left are part of how those sleeves kept their shape. The “plumpers” on the chemise, and the heavily corded petticoats, gave shape to the dresses of the time.
Then we come to the late Victorian era, in which the majority of the Seen Through the Phantom’s Eyes series is set. The silhouette has changed yet again, becoming more wasp-waisted and constrained. In In The Eye of The Beholder, I describe Claire’s best corset as being covered in blue china silk. This image is pretty much how I imagined it looking.
It is worth noting that bloomers were not really worn until the late Regency/early Romantic era; it was all about the stays and petticoats throughout most of history.
I have also been a historical reenactor so yes, I have worn stays and petticoats. I own three corsets, one of them custom-made, all from Dark Garden. If you are interested in corsetry or period attire like this, my plea is that you have a fitting and get a piece that is right for your body. When I first started reenacting, I borrowed a Victorian corset from a woman much more long-waisted than I am, and the resulting bruises on my hips and overall discomfort were off-putting. If your corset fits right, it is just as comfortable as any modern-day underpinnings — once you’ve gotten used to wearing it. Remember, in the periods I write about, young women would have been corseted since puberty, so they were accustomed to it. They even corseted during pregnancy; stays were the primary foundation garment in daily life. We are no longer in the habit of corseting, since the modern bra (the original patent for a brassiere was in 1889) came into widespread use during World War I so that corset metal could go to the war effort. Thus, some care and training is required, wearing your corset only for an hour or two each day at first and gradually increasing the time you do so.