06 October 2017

Continental stays 1: Diderot à la Waugh

Waugh's Diderot stays pattern
Waugh's pattern in
Corsets and Crinolines, page 40.
Norah Waugh's classic book Corsets and Crinolines (1954, reprinted 1987) includes her "Pattern of stays from Diderot's L'Encyclopédie".

Comparing Diderot's plates to Waugh's pattern, I found that she'd not just resized it for real bodies, but also taken some liberties in redesigning the stays. Here, I'll describe some changes she made, and how they can be reversed for a more period accurate cut.

Diderot's pattern vs Waugh's pattern

Diderot has five plates on stays construction and styles (mostly for special uses, like riding or pregnancy). Waugh's book includes one of these plates on page 152. There are two main styles—English and French stays. Both come with or without front lacing; all of them are also back lacing.

comparison of Diderot stays styles
English (left) and French stays (right).

Denis Diderot et al., L'Encyclopédie
planches volume 9 (1771), plate 21
(detail). Source: Bibliothèque Mazarine,
licensed under CC-by-nc-nd.
Comparing Diderot's English style stays with his French style stays, the main difference is the shape of their side seam. The English style has a curved side seam which creates a tighter fit around the rib cage, mainly below the bust (this improves bust support). The French style has a straight side seam from the waist up, and so does Waugh's pattern.

The tabs are also different, with the French stays' tabs pointing straight down by the side seam while the English stays' tabs curve out to the side, in the style we recognize from Waugh's pattern. So Waugh merged both styles into one, combined the French style side seam with the English style tabs.

Waugh also introduced center front shaping. It's the same shaping as in the effigy stays of Queen Elisabeth I—which, at that time, were believed to date from 1760, when the effigy was redressed (Waugh p. 52). Similar shaping can be documented to Diderot's time, but Diderot doesn't mention it.

Finally, I think she did one major alteration to the back. Waugh's illustration next to the pattern shows that her stays are supposed to be laced closed—there is no lacing gap.

back view of stays, showing lacing gap
M. de Garsault, Art du Tailleur
(1769), plate 3 (detail).
Source: / BnF.
Now, Diderot doesn't have any indication of whether there should be a lacing gap or not, but one of Garsault's plates includes a back view of a woman in stays. She has a lacing gap, fairly narrow at the waist and about twice as wide at the top. I'd guesstimate the width to about 1 pouce (27 mm or 1 1/16") at the bottom, and 2 pouce at the top. Note how narrow the back pieces of her stays are at the top, much like extant stays. So Garsault's stays should have a lacing gap, and as the top back of Diderot's and Garsault's stays have nearly identical proportions, I think Diderot's stays would've had a similar lacing gap too.

Reversing the alterations

determining the side curve on Diderot stays
Comparing curve and bust width

Denis Diderot et al., L'Encyclopédie
planches volume 9 (1771), plate 21
(detail). Source: Bibliothèque Mazarine,
licensed under CC-by-nc-nd.
I chose to alter the pattern to match Diderot's English style stays.

First I measured the largest distance between Diderot's curved side seam and the dotted line, and compared that to the bust measurement of the front piece (see pic). At its extreme point, the curve shaves off an amount equal to about 1/18th of the front piece's bust measurement.

Using the same ratio on Waugh's pattern, the extreme of the curve should be roughly half-way up the side seam, and about 1.5 cm (5/8") from the straight line. Connect this point to the top of the side seam, and the base of the tabs, with a curved line. The back pieces should have the same curve (no calculations, just transfer the line from the front). As a side note, this means that the straight boning channel on either side of the seam will now be curved instead (curved boning channels are also seen in a number of extant 18th century stays in Jill Salen's book Corsets (2008)).

If you've already made a pair of stays from Waugh's pattern, and feel they don't give enough bust support, it may be possible to alter the side seam in this manner (you'd need to move the side seam boning channels, though).

Waugh's Diderot stays front, altered to match Diderot image
Waugh's front piece modified
at side seam and center front
At the center front, connect the top and bottom point with a straight line, eliminating the shaping. This adds back a little width, but not nearly as much as we removed at the side seams, so the resulting stays will be about 5 cm (2") smaller below the bust compared to Waugh's conical pattern. (That equals one bra band size, which can make a big difference in terms of fit and support.)

To recreate the missing center back lacing gap, measure e.g. 1.5 cm (5/8") in from the center back at waist (where the lowest lacing hole is), and 3 cm (1 1/4") in at the top. Connect these points with a straight line to form the new back edge (pic below). This alteration means you also need to remove or rearrange some of the boning lines, as well as moving lacing holes and tweaking the tab widths.

If you want to fine-tune the style further based on Diderot's plates, you could also straighten the back neck edge (see below), and make the shoulder straps a little narrower than in Waugh's pattern. Also, Diderot's plates show straps that have a fixed length, while Waugh's are adjustable.

18th century stays pattern, Diderot vs Waugh Diderot stays back
Waugh's stays revised (red lines).

Compare the new shape and proportions
of the back pice to Diderot's (right)!
Denis Diderot et al., L'Encyclopédie,
planches volume 9 (1771), plate 21
(detail). Source: Bibliothèque Mazarine,
licensed under CC-by-nc-nd.

The dating of Diderot's stays

The plates of Diderot's Encyclopédie were printed in separate volumes. Tailleur d'habits & Tailleur de corps is included in plates volume 9, which was printed in 1771 (it's volume 28 or 30 in the entire set depending on if Panckoucke's supplementary volumes are counted or not). That is two years after Garsault's Art du Tailleur was printed. A number of Diderot's illustrations are identical to Garsault's, and the printing dates shows that Diderot must've copied Garsault.

Then why did Waugh date the pattern 1776? Well, Worldcat shows that this very volume was reprinted in 1776. She must've used a copy from the later edition—18th century book reprints typically just say when they were printed, not when they were first printed. This slight misdating would've been very hard to avoid before the internet gave us easy access to major library catalogues!

BTW, in the caption of Diderot's plate on page 152, it says 1751. That is the year the first volume of the Encyclopédie was printed, and has no bearing on the dating of the stays pattern. Diderot's stays pattern wasn't published until 1771.


Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines contains a large set of patterns from extant garments, period quotes and period images. Dress research has come a long way since it was written 60+ years ago, but Waugh's book is still an important reference, and I think it should continue to be. As a whole, Waugh did a great job, and I don't think her treatment of Diderot's stays should reflect badly on her.

The fact that she included 20th century sewing instructions for Diderot's stays (page 153) suggests that her Diderot stays pattern was used to make stays for plays when she was in charge of costume at the London Theatre Studio. In that case, her pattern may have changed over time as different iterations of it were fitted to different actors, and eventually it was used in her book without confirming whether it still was true to Diderot's original pattern.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I love how the digitizing of sources is making such research doable for anyone who's interested.

  2. Thank you for your thorough analysis! I've also found several datings to these stays in literature - basically anything between 1770 - 1776, and always wondered where Waugh get's her dating - and now I know!

    1. I'm glad you liked it! I love literature with footnotes of references, so I can check the sources and see if I agree with the author's interpretation. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't...

  3. This is further back in history than I've ventured so far... but I love posts that delve into such details! And am currently very much interested in the development of corset styles and patetrns (beyond the generic descriptions). Very illuminating.

    1. Thank you, Hana! I very much enjoyed your in-depth analysis of the c. 1840 corset, and look forward to your future posts.