“. . . if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother . . . ”
That’s Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse talking about Jane Fairfax. Garters we still understand, but what’s a stomacher?
While Madame de Pompadour in Boucher’s portrait above appears to be wearing an elaborate overdress with an underskirt, the overdress was actually two pieces – a robe and a stomacher. The robe, like today’s bathrobe, was a long, sleeved dress that was open down the entire front. Unlike a bathrobe, it had no sash to close it and it only extended about halfway across the breasts from either side. That allowed the petticoat (underskirt) to be seen, but it also left the front of your ensemble gaping open.
To solve this problem, your lady’s maid would pin a stomacher to either side of the robe opening, closing it and creating a front for your dress. The stomacher was a triangular piece of fabric, usually made from something stiff like brocade and sometimes reinforced with whalebone. It extended from decolletage to waist (or lower) on either side of the robe opening, and was often decorated with embroidery or ribbons, complementing your robe and making the whole effect even more elaborate.
This explains why aristocratic women needed a lady’s maid or three. When your dress is being pinned together down the front with straight pins (the safety pin wasn’t invented until 1849), you have no choice but to stand quietly and let someone else do it. Middle class and peasant woman, who had to dress themselves, tended to wear bodices that met in the middle of the chest and were closed with either laces or hooks and eyes.
Stomachers were part of European women’s clothing from the 15th until the late 18th century. So why is Emma Woodhouse talking about them in 1816? By then, the combination of robe, stomacher and petticoat had long been replaced by the round gown and then by the chemise dress (think of all those little, white muslin dresses in every version of a Jane Austen novel ever filmed). Here’s a few theories.
First, Janet Arnold describes one of the dresses in her “Patterns of Fashion 1” as a “high stomacher-front opening.” It has a bib type construction for the empire-waist bodice (which ends just below the bust) and top of the front skirt. This section closes the dress by buttoning to the sides of the front neckline. So apparently “stomacher” might still have been used as a fashion term in the early 19th century.
Second, it could be that either Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s aunt, or Mrs. Bates, her grandmother, still dresses in the old style of stomacher pinned to an open robe. Mrs. Bates, who is likely in her seventies, would have been a young woman in the 1760’s and 1770’s, when this was the fashion. But the Bates women live in genteel poverty and likely have no more servants than a maid-of-all-work, who wouldn’t have the time to help Mrs. Bates in and out of a complicated dress.
Which brings us to my third, and favorite, theory. In the speech quoted at the start of this post, Emma is complaining about the fact that Jane Fairfax receives attention for any and every little thing that she does. Here’s the full quote: “Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again; and if she does but send her aunt the pattern for a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month.”
I like to think that the stomacher pattern is referenced for its ridiculousness. After all, praise for sending a pattern for something which no one has worn in at least twenty-five years is the functional equivalent of praise for blowing one’s nose – something that Emma, for all her annoyance that she is not herself the center of everyone’s attention, is far too polite to say.