Think Eighteenth Century female undergarments and usually the first article to come to mind is the corset, or stays. Worn over the chemise to cover the breasts and upper torso, stays were made from a variety of materials, cotton to silk, depending on the occasion and most often had a square neckline. The enduring image of a pair of stays is the caricatures of women being laced too tightly; the stays being laced together at the back, and thus requiring an attendant to help dress and undress the wearer. To ensure the requisite conical shape, stays were stiffened with all manner of materials, from buckram (hardened linen or cotton) to whalebone, which also ensured the wearer kept an upright posture. Contrary to popular myth, stays, if worn and laced correctly (it was almost impossible to lace too tightly because eyelets were reinforced with stitching not metal – metal eyelets being a nineteenth century invention) were not uncomfortable and the wearer was able to carry out most everyday duties without hindrance.
A type of stays worn for at-home occasions and often by pregnant and nursing mothers were “jumps”. Jumps were an under bodice similar in shape to stays but without the bones. According to Valerie Steele, author of The Corset, the term comes from the French word jupe – short jacket. Made of silk, cotton or linen and often embroidered, jumps fastened over the breasts with ties such as silk ribbons, buttons and, sometimes, metal hooks.
Jumps were looser fitting than stays and padded with cotton yet still provided support for the breasts while not being restrictive. While mostly worn at home they were sometimes worn out on social occasions as part of an ensemble.
Antonia Dowager Duchess of Roxton in AUTUMN DUCHESS wears jumps every day as a matter of course, and not only for at-home occasions. Then again she can do as she pleases, she is a duchess and thus is a leader not a follower of fashion. But it is not fashion that drives her but comfort. She is a voracious reader and spends a good deal of her time curled up in her favorite wingchair with a good book. Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading (right) reveals by her relaxed posture that she too is wearing jumps Antonia’s husband, the all-powerful Duke of Roxton, Monseigneur, preferred her in jumps. And what man wouldn’t? Removal of stays required considerable effort and two people, with lacings to unravel at the back, when with a tug of a few silk ribbons jumps gaped open to expose as much cleavage as was warranted; the female wearer rendered bare breasted within seconds. Just this thought sends our hero Jonathon’s mind reeling when the widowed Antonia explains to him in a matter-of-fact way the construction of jumps without a thought to the effect her words might have on her rapt male audience of one.
In 1770, Jacques Bonnaud wrote a treatise on the wearing of whalebone corsets arguing that not only was a woman submitting to a form of torture but that such an undergarment went against the laws of nature because stays prevented a woman from breast feeding her newborn infant. So it is not surprising that pregnant women wore jumps that not only had front lacings but side lacings to allow for the expanding bust and waistline of the mother-to-be and allowed nursing mothers to breast feed, something that could not be accommodated if wearing stays.
And it was not until the 1770s when French fashion was leaning toward a simpler style of dress that there was less stiffening in a pair of stays. Women began to eschew whalebone and buckram, preferring quilted linen, and for ease of wear, stays began to be often fastened in the front with strings or ribbons and worn for deshabille, jumps had finally come into their own!
A Glossary of Eighteenth Century Terminology
Steele, V. The Corset: A Cultural History, 2001, Yale
Willett, C. & Cunnington, P.A. The History of Underclothes, 1992, Dover publications
(This article first appeared at History Undressed Reproduced by kind permission)
You can read more about Antonia, Dowager Duchess of Roxton and her preference for wearing jumps and the effect this sexy undergarment has on her suitor, East India Merchant Jonathon Strang in Lucinda Brant’s latest novel, AUTUMN DUCHESS: A Georgian Historical Romance. (Roxton Series Book 3).
Out now in e-book. Print publication due mid-March 2012.
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