Vic: You mentioned choosing a neutral color for under the muslin dress, since the fabric was thin and rather see-through. Didn’t the stays feel a bit bulky? How do the busks feel when you wear the stays? Do they restrict your movement in bending over? Why did you choose this pattern?Marjorie: The stays don’t feel bulky at all, especially when they’re tightly laced. There’s only one busk that is made up of two Sherwin William paint stirrers wrapped tightly in muslin. This is because though the paint stirrers had the necessary 14 inches in length, they didn’t have the thickness or stiffness I needed. We saw a busk that Herman Melville brought back from his time spent on the whaling ship while visiting the Maine Maritime Museum. His was made of whalebone and was scrimshawed. Mine is more modest and cost $0.00. Because the busk is padded by the muslin and the busk pocket, it doesn’t feel bad at all. If anything, it encourages a more upright posture. It is a little more difficult to bend over.
I chose the pattern for the stays because Deb Salisbury, the Mantua Maker, recommended it. Because the gown I chose to make spanned the Empire and Directoire period, the stays that would have been worn with it would have been Regency rather than Georgian. Apparently, as Deb informed me, Georgian stays made one flatter, while the Regency stays encourage more north and south action, if you know what I mean.Vic: An actress once said in an interview that when you put on an authentic costume with all the undergarments and accessories, you become a different person and that your actions become informed by the garment itself. Do you take on a different persona as well when you don your outfit?
Marjorie: I find that I walk more slowly and stand straighter when wearing the gown and the stays. I don’t necessarily feel like a different person because I wear the gown mainly to book signings where I am focused more on engaging all and sundry in conversation and trying to sell them in my book.
Vic: Delicately speaking, how difficult is it to, er, relieve oneself when one is so trussed up and when one has to deal with a train and all that fabric?
Marjorie: As to the necessities: I always empty my bladder before getting dressed in the stays and the gown. So far, I haven’t needed to use the necessities while wearing them.
Vic: Who acts as your ladies maid in tying up the laces and how long does it take you to get into the outfit?
Marjorie: My husband has that office.
Putting on the stays took a while because I had tried to use grommets for the eyelets instead of hand finishing them. While my husband tried to thread the lacing through the holes, grommets fell like rain, and we discovered that the length of lacing was too short. We had to start all over with another piece of string. (My lacing is a roll of cotton [?] string that was here when we moved into the house). Now that I hand finished all the eyelets and we know what length the lacing should be, the whole process should be far easier. The other portion that takes a while is craning my neck down so that I can pin up the bodice piece in such a way that the pins themselves aren’t visible. Very tricky. The day I wore the stays with a gown (for a book signing in Penn Yan New York) it took about twenty minutes to get ready, not including putting my hair in a bun. When I wore the gown without the stays, it took 15 minutes in all, including putting up my hair in a bun.Vic: We know that the upper crust had help. How did the ordinary woman get in and out of her stays? Or was the wearing of stays and busks an aristocratic affectation? Did the lower classes simply contend themselves with wearing chemises?
Marjorie: I think that the lower classes had help also. Maids would help each other, a mother would help her daughter, and vise versa. The fashion rather required something like stays beneath it to help give the gown its shape. I found this google book resource that might help answer the question. There were some front lacing stays, but for the most part, the stays laced in the back. While it’s possible to put them on by yourself, it’s tricky.
Vic: Thank you, Marjorie, for your insightful interviews. You’ve given us much to think about.
Inquiring readers who would like to learn more about Marjorie’s gown and stays, and how the gown is put together can click on Marjorie’s sites below.
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