What is this?
Man’s Corset or “Stays” belonging to Thomas Chew
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
This set of stays belonged to Thomas John Chew, Constitution‘s purser during the War of 1812. Portraits of Chew suggest that he was fashion-conscious. He certainly possessed the wealth that would allow him to follow the latest trends, so it is not all that surprising to find this piece among his effects.
The man’s corset was designed to allow the man of fashion to achieve the narrow-waisted look so popular in the late 1820s and 1830s. According to the Workingwoman’s Guide of 1838, men’s stays were used in the army, for hunting, and for strenuous exercise. Valerie Steele, in The Corset: A Cultural History argues that the advent of the male corset in the 1820s was directly related to the shift in the ideal male body type. The “aristocratic” body was no longer bluff and prosperous, but had become feminized. After 1815, dandies incresingly adopted fashions that emphasized feminie characteristics including padded chests, tight, narrow sleeves and shoulders, and narrow waists. Besides skillful and scientific cutting and tailoring, the only way to achieve this ideal look was through body altering foundation garments. This emphasis on the cinched waist continued throughout the 1830s. One Frenchman of the era insisted that “the secret … of the dress lies in the thinness and narrowness of the waist. Catechize your tailor about this … Insist, order, menace … Shoulders large, the skirts of the coat ample and flowing, the waist strangled – that’s my rule.” (Fig.1)
Despite the compelling reasons for wearing the corset, the practice was not without controversy. Many considered the very idea ridiculous, but others looked with uneasiness on a practice that they feared contributed to the effeminacy of men and a concomitant loss of national strength and military might.
That Thomas Chew owned such a garment suggests that he was not simply aware of the latest in European fashion trends, but was willing to participate in a mildly controversial display of sartorial splendor.
This sort of garment is exceedingly rare, and the wonderful condition of this one suggests that that it was rarely worn. It is made of brown polished cotton and lined with white linen or cotton. The overall length, including two 7-inch cinching tabs is 45 inches (This means Chew’s waist was probably about 31 to 35 inches). The height at center front is 7.5 inches. Whalebone (baleen) battens, inserted into hand-sewn casings, provide stiffening and support to the center front. The points of the battens are reinforced with black cotton. An elastic-like structure composed of narrow coils of fine wire encased in fabric forms the corset’s sides. The resulting supportasse is firm, yet flexible. The corset closes with three, three-pronged buckles and tabs to cinch in the waist at the rear.