Lady Delacour Would [Probably] Not Wear This Stay: On the Changing Position of Women as Exhibited by Pieces of Clothing from 18th Century Europe, By: Julie Avancena

“Has she sensibility for her husband-for her daughter-for anyone useful purpose on earth?”

   -Mrs. Delacour on Lady Delacour, Belinda 


From the Collection at Colonial Williamsburg
Object: Stays, altered for nursing
Origin: Europe, France or Italy
Date: 1765
Acc. No 1986-111

The socially acceptable position of women was in the domestic sphere. But women’s position in society transformed in the 18th century causing anxieties over the idea of separate spheres, especially in the context of revolutions. At this time, women began to take part in politics as exhibited by The Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Delacour of Belinda. This stay represents the conventional garment solely made for women. Only women can breast feed and the alteration at the breasts is the main feature of this stay. While women began to challenge the idea of separate spheres by becoming more part of the political experience, this stay represents the expectation that women breast-feed, raise good children, and contribute to national strength by portraying the role of a good mother.

This stay exhibits an aura of a conservative society that promoted maternal duties. At the same time, it displays societal gaps since perhaps only wealthy women could afford this type of stay. Lady Delacour, one of the main characters of Belinda would probably not have worn this stay, even if she could afford it. The stay was made of silk. According to Richard DuPlessis, “The well-to-do mainly owned clothing fashioned from cotton and silk, it appears, because they were merchants, administrators…” (DuPlessis, 150). This fabric represents socio-economic differences and consumer behavior. Even if DuPlessis spoke of consumer behavior in New France it is related to the European experience because of the desire to own exotic items. Lady Delacour was wealthy, but would probably not wear this stay because she did not portray a motherly role. This stay represents the theme of gender roles but also shows socio-economic differences. The person who would wear this stay is someone like Lady Anne Percival of Belinda, who was wealthy and satisfied the image of a good mother.

This specific stay is part of the collection in Colonial Williamsburg and one identifying feature is the alteration at the breasts for nursing purposes. This detail is appealing to women because of the feminine design of the garment and the easy access to breast-feeding making motherly duties a bit more bearable. While the stay demonstrates the accepted position of women in the private sphere, there is evidence of women breaking some of the boundaries of the home. Lady Delacour was not an ideal wife nor mother since she did not take care of her child. Instead, Lady Delacour took part in duel and politics, both of which were not acceptable activities for women (Edgeworth, 60). The Duchess of Devonshire represented a different kind of woman. She was a participant in politics by giving support to the Whig party (La Belle Assemblee, 124). She demonstrated a change in the world of fashion, exemplifying a type of woman who participated in public affairs without losing the ideal image of femininity mirroring grace and morality. Both women exhibited a challenge to the gender roles by blurring the boundaries of what women could do.

The riding coat depicts a different image from the stay on the position of women. This looks appropriate for public action and not just staying at home. The original nursing stay presented conformity to the maternal ideal through the breast access and the details on the garment.


From the Victoria and Albert Museum
Object: Riding Coat
Origin: England, Great Britain
Date: 1750-1759
Artist: Unknown
Museum Number: T.197-1984

Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist English writer, spoke in defense of women’s rights as. As this was being written, the French Revolution was under way (1788-1799). In A Vindication of Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft linked the rights of women to their expected duty to protect the moral interests of society while applying the argument men made for equal rights, “…the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty.” She used the context of moral duty that women preserved to argue for the rights of women. Through this context, women can have similar rights that men demanded for themselves. The stay illustrates the maternal role and femininity of women, but Wollstonecraft explained the need for women to have an education and obtain the same rights as men.

The image portrays the objectification of the female body. The male stay maker is creating a stay for the woman and is measuring her waist. This relates to the argument that only the wealthy could afford to such luxury. This shows a female dependency to have her clothing made and perhaps shows a vulnerability of women as these stays were made. The man and woman of the painting even look affectionate, hinting at some sexual tension that could be present. While this accentuated the female body, it is probably not practical for political activities. The stay looks tight and uncomfortable.


From the Collection at Colonial Willamsburg
Painting: The Stay-Maker taking a Pleasing Circumference
Origin: England, London
Publisher: Carington Bowles
Date: 1784
Acc. No 1971-475

While the stay promoted the maternal duties of women, the alteration for easy access to breast-feeding could be used as an argument that this allowed women to do other work. The stay, the riding coat, and the painting display variations in the position of women in society. The stay is a display of a feminine ideal of being a good mother and taking care of the home. The easy access to breast feeding illustrates this idea. But, it is also possible that in this context of a transformed women’s position, the stay could also serve to allow women to perform other work. They could breast-feed and participate in the public sphere.

In the context of revolutions, women were expected to preserve national strength. Their transformed position in society reflected anxieties during the revolution. So while women became part of the public sphere, this was also used as an argument for weakness in the nation. At the same time, as men demanded equality amongst each other, women used this model to demand rights for themselves.


1. “The Duchess of Devonshire,” Belle Assemblee; or, Court and Fashionable

          Magazine. April 1806. pp. 122-129.

2. Maria Edgeworth. Belinda. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.,1994. Ebook.

3. Richard DuPlessis. “Was There a Consumer Revolution in Eighteenth-Century

New France?” French Colonial History. (2002): 143-159. Web. 02 Feb


Primary Source:

1. Mary Wollstonecraft. (Excerpt) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Taken

From, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Web.



1. Object: Stays, altered for nursing

2. Painting: The Stay-Maker taking a Pleasing Circumference

3. Object: Riding Coat



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