The What and Why of Waist Stays

Substitute Assistant Professor Ann is in the house! And class is in session!!! So, listen up! (double claps) Eyes forward. Put your electronic devices away, unless you’re reading this post on one (oh, wait…) and give me your undivided attention! We’re about to talk about waist stays.

What is a waist stay? Anyone? Anyone? I’ll tell you. It’s a cool little device used to make sure that your garment “stays” (get it?) in the proper place. Show of hands here. Who has been to a prom, semi-formal, gala, wedding or other occasion and seen women on the dance floor waving their hands over their heads and then reaching down and hoisting their bodices up? Maybe it would be easier if I asked who hasn’t seen that.

Well, I can guarantee – them that spend the night hoisting? Their dresses do not have waist stays. A waist stay is a very simple thing to add to any garment, whether said dress is a custom made beauty or a store bought stunner. A waist stay is a piece of fabric that is cut to fit the waist (with no ease), and attached to the garment.

The best waist stays are made from petersham. Petersham is a type of ribbon. It looks like grosgrain ribbon, which you can find in most craft stores for making belts. The big difference, and this is important, is that petersham does not have the bound edge that grosgrain does. This lack of binding allows it to curve around you and hug your waistline comfortably. Also, petersham is made from rayon, which shrinks and stretches, making it ideal for shaping.

So how do you make a waist stay? Easy! Measure your waist, and cut a piece of petersham that is the length of your waist measurement plus 2 inches. Fold over each end 1 inch (double it to finish it nicely). Sew a waistband hook and eye to the ends. Tack the stay to your garment lining at the openings, and vertical seam lines, so it floats a wee bit away from the lining. Here’s a picture of a waist stay for a bustier:

Note that it's tacked at the side seams and the openings, and otherwise hangs free.

And here’s a waist stay in a gown:

It's an easy add-on to any garment.

Now, you’ll notice that it isn’t actually sewn into the waistline seam. Think about it, there’s wearing ease in the garment at the waist. There isn’t any in the stay. In fact, there’s slightly negative ease in the stay. You don’t want the stay to be the same measurement as the garment. You want to let the garment have its ease, giving the garment and the wearer freedom of movement, while anchoring the garment to the wearer’s body. And there is the key. That anchor eliminates the need to constantly pull up the bodice. It keeps the waistline in place, and it gives the wearer a smooth, comfortable experience. It’s a critical addition to a strapless garment, but you can also use it to anchor garments with shoulders. It’s a regular feature in couture dresses and gowns. So try adding one to your next project, or even to a favorite dress when you plan to do the pogo at your friend’s wedding. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy sewing!

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28 thoughts on “The What and Why of Waist Stays”

  1. Thanks Ann. I recently finished my youngest DD’s prom gown, and although it has a neck strap, and multiple fittings, she still tugged a bit at the bodice. I’d planned to do a final final fitting, to make sure that everything was as perfect as I could get it, and although I did add boning, along with the neck strap, I didn’t put in the waist stay. I’ll do that now. Thanks again.

  2. Oh Ann, this is one of my all favorite techniques of keeping from that dreaded “bodice hoisting”. I have had a hatred for bodice-hoisters from way back when! Not only does it prevent that dreaded yanking, but it also makes the dress way more comfy and secure for the girls!!! What a great post!

  3. Well done, Assistant Professor! I think we should call you an Adjunct Professor (can you tell I’m married to an academic?)

  4. Amen. Just to add, I just worked on a very expensive strapless wedding gown recently with one of those gigantic cupcake chiffon skirts with layers and layers of chiffon flounces (complete with 3 layers of attached petticoat) and it had two stays. The dress *looked* light, but it certainly wasn’t. Both stays were made of wide – 1 1/2 to 2″ wide – elastic that were sewn into the side seams. One was placed in line with the waist and the other right where a bra band would be, and had carriers to make sure they stayed at the right level on the body. Both were shorter than the body circumference so that when fastened with the hooks the dress was very secure. This dress also had cups, underwires and boning. One other cool feature that I had not seen in strapless gowns, was a narrow band of gripper elastic around the top edge, probably 1/4″ to 3/8″ wide. That really made a big difference in the tug factor. Once the bodice was fitted properly, the bride felt very secure in the dress, with no tugging or slipping.

    1. Absolutely! You’ll notice that neither of the examples I used (the bustier and the gown) have waistline seams. Tack the stay to the vertical seams at the waist. Now, depending on the style of your dress (formfitting princess style vs A-line) you will want to make your tacks longer or shorter, so the garment still has the freedom of movement. But adding the waist stay will keep that kind of dress from creeping up, so it’s definitely worth it.

  5. Thank you so much for explaining this so clearly and concisely! I’m a busty girl, so this is very useful information to have for more snug fitting dresses, and I can quit having to excuse myself to do the old “hoist and realign” maneuver.

  6. How fabulous are you “Anne” explaining waist stays. I could listen to you all day. You add that missing element to the mundane. I hate following instructions , but I will listen to you . I do alterations and the girls always want the dresses tighter at the top to keep them from slipping. No, no – a dress stays up from the waist. Thanks for explaining it so clearly.

  7. Oh, Professor Ann, I have an apple for you. 😉 Thank you for explaining the difference between the two approaches of staying the waistline. I’ve always sewn the ribbon to the bottom on the inner foundation. Floating the stay makes sense. I have two prom dresses to make and I will surely float the stay.

    Thanks again teacher. Great tip.

  8. You are singing to the choir here – but I totally agree with a waist stay making almost any dress more secure. Even if you don’t plan on doing the pogo! (a couple of dry sherries might just change your mind…..)

  9. I’m so glad to find this just now! I’m working on a v n eck sheath dress right now in cotton voile. I have underlined the dress in batiste and even interfaced the waistband with muslin for stability, but the waist seems a little saggy. It’s due to the softness of the fabric, I’m sure. It isn’t the best choice for this dress but I loved it and I loved the dress. I’m wondering if a waist stay would help stabilize the waist?

    1. It would definitely help, Melanie. Waist stays are the bomb for keeping garment waistlines from sagging. The key is to fit it to your waistline, so there isn’t any ease, and then attach the dress to it. If you just sew a strip of petersham into the waistline seam, without anchoring it to the wearer’s waistline, all it does is add weight to that seam and maybe even increase the droop.


  10. Does this also work for dropped-waistlines that are at the hip that tend to slide down? I find that when I’m wearing shapewear with my dance costumes, things have a tendancy to shift downwards the move I move around. Thanks!

  11. I’m making a SuperGirl cosplay costume for my daughter in the style of the Supergirl TV show currently staring Melissa Benoist. I’m trying to determine how to make the shirt which appears to have a princess cut waistline. Would a waist stay be an option for the skirt to hold it’s shape at the waistline?

    1. I’m not familiar with the show/costume, but I do know that you can put waist stays in Princess line garments without any problem. In fact, the do a nice job of keeping the garment in place, since there isn’t any “natural” stay as you might get with a waistline seam.

  12. Britex fabrics has a lovely selection of petersham grosgrain ribbon. It’s nice if you also want to use it for trim or to match a specific color.

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