Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Dressing Girls Sew-Along: Supportive Measures

DressingGirlsIn the midst of kitting up with chemises, drawers, petticoats, dresses, and all the other pretty things of a functional living history wardrobe, one element often overlooked or skipped “in the interests of time” is a stay or corset for a dress-wearing child.

That category of person-to-be-clothed includes tiny toddlers, through middle childhood, through the tween years, and into the teens, so it’s a significant population, and there are some good reasons to add stays or corsets to a child’s wardrobe.

First, though: definitions and functions.

A child’s corset (or stays; the two terms are used quite interchangeably in primary sources, and there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation as to one being stabilized with cording, the other with steel, etc) is designed for support, light control, and a platform. By that, I mean this: children are quite often “Eggs on Legs” (to borrow from Karen Crocker), and a child’s stay or corset provides some firming up to the squidgy torso, a way to move support of garments to the shoulder (through the use of straps) rather than trying to find a waist point, and also gives a spot upon which to button skirt supports and fullness.

Beyond those aspects, a stay also provides bust support for developing figures, and functions in the same way as an adult corset, distributing the wearing stress and weight of increasingly-full skirts around the entire body, rather than hanging from pinchy points on the back hip.

For my own two girls, stays do this:

1: For the younger one, age 8, who is build like a very thin noodle, and has some very mild sensory challenges: we’ll get a place to tack clothing onto her body, and prevent her skirts always sliding down to her knees in front, without having a narrow band of pressure from waistbands that will drive her to tears. She does very well with all-over pressure, so the stays not only function well from a historic-dressing standpoint, they ameliorate some modern challenges in a period-appropriate way! She also likes complex dress-up, so it’s satisfying all the way around.

2: For the older one, who is getting her early-teen curves at 11, the stays will simply firm up her torso for a tidy look in period clothing that matches what she’s seeing in original images. It doesn’t take much to notice that those 40s and 50s images of girls are showing some well-stabilized torsos, and she has a deep desire to present an identical look. Her stays will also accommodate her bust development, while giving her another layer between her own self and the world (which helps the very body-modest girl a great deal.)

What About Growth?

I’m not actually too worried about growth measures in either stay, and here’s why:

1: Noodly-girl has, at 8, a waist that is more slender than her own waist at age 2. Her waist has been a constant 21″ since she was about 4 years old. She’s healthy, but very reedy, and tends to do quick jumps up in height, without getting much wider at all. I need her to get the summer out of these stays—I anticipate two interpretive seasons at the very most before she’s 3″ taller and needs a new shape—, and then I can pass them along to other families. So, I’m fitting them to her needs now, with a slight bit of overlap for her buttons in the back, and about 1″ extra length in the straps for some growth room. She won’t be happy if they’re not comfortably snug.

2: My older girl is on the petite end of things, but is hitting her growth, and for her, that tends to be very little upward, and we’ve been seeing a refinement of curves in the last year. Her waist is lengthening a bit, and narrowing a lot; her hips are getting a little width, and her bust is developing. I can accommodate all of her needs by adding a lacing placket at the back, and keeping buttons in the front to aid self-dressing. Having dressed girls through their teens before, I’m comfortable with the idea that new stays are going to be an item every single year from now to about 18 or 19, when her figure starts to stabilize. Because she already has a good hip-to-waist ratio, I can make her stays without straps; she has enough hip to move to adult-style support without a problem.


As for adult supportive undergarments, I need 100% natural fabrics that are firmly woven, with good body and stability, but without being heavy or bulky. I’ll be using a combination of cotton twill and cotton sateen (a satin-weave cotton) for the corded stays my youngest will use. It’s a light-weight, low-bulk combination that does very well stabilized with close cording, and because she will not have a lacing adjustment, there’s no problem with the corded areas trying to squash to the waist.

My older daughter gets a more stabilized garment, suited to her support needs. I’ll be using a layer of coutil with some steel stays and German artificial whalebone (a high-grade product harvested from artificial whales of the inland lakes in Germany) in casings, to keep the garment as light and breathable as possible for a child who turns pink in the heat like her Mother. She’ll still have a buttoning front, but we’ll have a lacing placket in back, with metal grommets (not eyelets–size 00 two-piece metal grommets for durability).


I’m using the stays pattern from our Girl’s Linens pattern for each; it’s a simple one to cut for different lengths and circumferences, and I’ll be customizing the fit at the side seams for the younger one, and by creating some curving seamlines at the bust as well, for the older one.  As she gets a bit older, I’ll switch to doing custom-draped corsets for her, following the methods in The Dressmaker’s Guide. Since the pattern accommodates her largest body measurement (bust), I can simply adjust things for now.


Remember, we’re doing the sewing sessions in 20-minute increments, to show how progress can be made even when time is tight for a modern family.

My first work session is actually just pre-washing my fabrics; there’s about 20 minutes of labor involved, with tossing it into the wash and hanging on the line later. We don’t have to stare at the cloth while it dries.

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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