Restrictive Fashion

Whalebone corset detail

This corset is from the mid 18th century (c 1740-60). Corsets were used as underwear to shape a woman's body into the fashionable shape of the era. Although commonly called a corset, early examples are in fact 'stays', a solid piece of underwear that shapes the whole torso.

Stays have their origins in the boned bodices of the 17th century. Their design was to give the body a long conical shape, making the waist look slender against a large volume of skirts.

These stays are fully boned and are very rigid. The thickness of the bones depended on where they were place within the stays. The diagonal direction of the bones helped to slenderise the body and prevent any movement.

These stays are made from heavy white cotton with a canvas backing, stiffened with paste or glue. There are no shoulder straps on these stays anymore, but it is highly likely that they did have straps originally.

The Art of the Stay-Maker


The stay-maker has to be admired since all stays are hand-made. Every piece of whalebone is placed and stitched either side to hold it in place.

There are 180 bones in these stays. Larger pieces of whalebone are at the seams to maintain roundness at the front and straight pieces on the shoulder blades to hold the back straight.

Stays were a very individual garment since every woman had different requirements to achieve the fashionable shape.
These stays are from a similar date and have much lighter boning but the same basic construction and benefits to the wearer.

Fashion and the Whale


Hull's whaling industry was big business in the 19th century. Parts of whales were used for many different purposes, and corsetry was one of them.

Whalebone stays are not actually made from the whale's bones. The 'bones' are made of baleen which is a horn-like substance that comes from a whale's mouth. Inside a whale's mouth there are approximately 300 triangular fibrous blades which sieve the small fish and crustaceans from the sea water.

When the blades arrive at the factory, the hairs are removed and then they are soaked in warm water for two-three weeks. When this is over, the blades are steamed for an hour before being cut into strips. The number of blades that can be extracted from whale's mouth varies depending on the species and size of the whale.

Baleen is used in corsetry for its flexible qualities. It can be softened by hot water or steam and will retain its shape if secured until it has cooled.

Near Extinction


During the 18th century most baleen came from the Greenland Fisheries which were fished to almost extinction.

Later in the 19th century the American Arctic Fisheries dominated the market and the bones came from Bowhead whales which were also fished to near extinction.

It was only advances in processing steel, and the eventual decline of corset wearing in the 20th century that saved the Bowhead whale in the Arctic Ocean.