Like a lot of other aspects of fashion I've had to work out, the issue's complicated by museum dates that seem overly broad or just plain wrong. And for stays, there are considerably fewer artistic representations than there are for gowns, caps, etc.!
I think I've been able to identify the differences between early-century and 1775-1795 stays - which was tricky, because a lot of earlier stays were dated later. Which is understandable, because they share some characteristics!
|Stays, ca. 1730-140?; LACMA M.57.24.1|
|Stays, 1780-1795; Museum of London 49.91/1|
- The point on the earlier stays stands out, with tabs placed on the sides, while the later stays have a plain, smooth point.
- The later stays' decorative lacing is narrow and placed only on the upper half of the center front; the earlier stays are trimmed like a stomacher.
- The earlier stays' boning is densely packed together, while the later stays make use of splayed boning channels in front.
- The tabs of the earlier stays are essentially cut into the body and bound, where the later stays' tabs have more shaping.
In very early cases, the neckline of the stays can be quite high and the straps angled out to the sides - in the 1680s-1700s, the neckline of the gown was wide and not very deep.
Of course, there are some stays that challenge categorization - for instance, these stays in the Boston MFA have the very long and narrow profile, parallel bones, and point-tabs of the earlier period, but the upper-center-front lacing of the 1780s. And what's happening with the thread eyes and eyelets near the bottom of the front? Mysterious.
|Detail from Plate 3 of A Rake's Progress, William Hogarth, 1732-1735; Sir John Soames Museum|
|Linen stays, 1730-1750; National Museum of Scotland A.1905.983|
|Stays, 1725-1750; Philadelphia Museum of Art 1903-136|
I suppose it's not too loosey-goosey to date both types to 1740-1770, considering how broadly the early and late ones are dated, but it feels wrong. There are enough that conform to one type or the other that sequencing makes more sense to me than simply the wearer's/maker's preference.
Does anyone else have more information on the subject? Or on interpreting the high number of "working" strapless stays vs. other "ordinary clothing?
Reminder - especially if you live in the east or midwest US, please take the Midwest Historic Costume Conference survey! You can keep up with us on Facebook or Tumblr at this time.