The stomacher was an essential part of women's gowns, from about 1570 to 1770. In its most basic form it was a long V-or U-shaped panel that decorated the front of a woman's bodice, extending from her neckline down to her waist. (Men sometimes also wore a stomacher with their doublets, though this was less common.) The stomacher could either be part of the bodice or a separate garment that fastened to the bodice with ties. The stomacher had two main purposes: to add decoration and to provide structure. Both decoration and structure changed with passing fashions over the long history of this garment.
During the late sixteenth century stomachers were stiffened with wooden slats or whalebone supports to create the stiff, flat-chested profile preferred at the time. The stiffness of the stomacher matched well with the structure provided by the rigid farthingales holding out women's skirts. By the early seventeenth century the rigidity had been removed from women's gowns, and both stomachers and skirts were softer and more flowing. When fashion shifted again in the late seventeenth century the stiffness returned, though the stomacher now was shaped so as to push the breasts upward in the revealing ways preferred in that age. The rigid shaping effects of the stomacher were later accomplished by the corset used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Stomachers also provided an important decorative element to women's gowns. They were often covered in a fabric that contrasted with the rest of the bodice, or complemented one of the skirts. Stomachers were often adorned with ribbons, bows, lace, or, in the sixteenth century especially, jewels. Heavily decorated stomachers became especially popular in the eighteenth century. One of the most popular styles of that century was the échelle or eschelle, a series of bows tied down the front of the stomacher, decreasing in size from the neck to the waist. This style was introduced by French trendsetter Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), the mistress of French King Louis XV (1710–1774), and was quickly copied throughout Europe as part of a gown style called robe à la française.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.