The earliest item of underwear in York Castle Museum’s collections is made of iron. It’s an iron corset – called bodies or stays – and it dates from the seventeenth century.
When we see an object like this we often jump to conclusions – we wonder if it’s a torture device, or if women were forced to use them by men – but when we start to explore the history we find it’s far more interesting and complex, and nowhere near as sinister!
Documents survive from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that talk about women wearing iron stays. They weren’t cheap, so they were only for the wealthy, and famous ladies such as Eleanora of Toledo and Margeurite of Navarre are recorded as having them.
Eleanora commissioned hers from her armourer, and records show that some women bought them from blacksmiths. But why did some women wear a garment made only of iron?
In 1575, French surgeon Ambroise Paré wrote that iron stays were used to correct the ‘curvature of the spine’ in some young women. This tells us that some iron stays made have been made to correct problems with posture. However, we have to be careful about thinking of these as a medical device. For people in the 16th century wearing any kind of stays was meant to give an upright posture with a stiff, conical torso. This was the ideal for women, and going against the social norm could make life very difficult. Iron stays were the most hardcore option for gaining a socially acceptable bodyshape.
Ambroise Paré also tells us that stays were pierced with holes ‘so as not to weigh so much.’ This is true of ours. They are made of iron that was hammered flat, and the dimples from the hammers can still be seen in the surface. The holes were made at this stage, using a chisel, and then the stays were shaped. They have hinges at the sides of the same type used in some 17th century armour. It is likely that the busk – the flat vertical segment of metal at the front – and the band at the top of the bust were added after the stays had been completed, probably to strengthen them. Although this garment looks formidable, metal can be very flexible and the stays aren’t quite as strong as they look.
Although we don’t know who made, owned or wore our stays, we do know a few things about them. They were almost certainly made by an armourer rather than a blacksmith. The woman who wore them was most likely in her teens – the waist is 21 1/2” (55cm) – and certainly wealthy. She may have had a problem with her posture, and she would have wanted to be comfortable. She would not have worn the stays against her skin, but over a lightly padded or soft leather garment. The additions of a busk and breast band indicate she tried them out and then decided they needed stiffening.
Although they’re made of metal, very few iron stays survive in museum collections around the world. We are very lucky that this remarkable garment has passed down to us, so we can care for it and share it with you.