“Stay”ing the Armhole: Tip From the Haute Couture

Balenciaga’s way:   In the book Couture Sewing, there’s a section on “stays”, with details on under-bust stays, pleat stays, waistline stays, and even crotch stays (yes, there is such a thing in haute couture).

claire's book
Image from “Couture Sewing” by Claire Shaeffer, Taunton Press. 

This particular Balenciaga dress, circa 1965 actually uses a stay on each back armhole area in a capped sleeve to control pleats on the back of the shoulder. The stay, that strip of fabric you see in the image above on the wrong side of the dress, is sewn from the lower armhole facing to the shoulder seam at the neckline.  Balenciaga’s purpose was to control the back pleat (a design feature), and this little strappy, fabric stay seems to have worked beautifully.  I wasn’t successful in finding the back view of this dress which shows the back pleat at the shoulder.  Our imaginations will have to suffice.

I used Cristobal Balenciaga’s genius:  in a mundane sort of way, but it worked!  Have you noticed that sleeves cut in one with the bodice, whether long or just dropped from the shoulder, can form a poufy, weird looking area at the side-front underarm level? If one is blessed with a large bust, one has absolutely noticed this phenomenon. It’s not a great look in my opinion.

front 2
The dummy’s right shoulder is “stay-ed”. Working on the left. Can you spot the difference? It’s obvious to me. 

I decided to use our man Cristobal’s secret in my own way after wearing this tunic for three or more years, with the same bunchy and billowy effect at the armhole at the bust level. It was time I controlled it. I used a 4 inch length of ¼ inch elastic and attached it by sewing one end to the side seam just below the armhole, and the other end to the shoulder seam at the neck edge.


Important note: the shoulder seam in the tunic does not sit on my shoulder, but extends to the back – this is a design detail.   Your elastic length may be longer due to the fact that your shoulder seam probably sits on your actual shoulder.

More important notes: The length and angle of the elastic stay is subjective. It’s at an angle, of course, but how long and how angled is a matter of trial.  I first pinned the two ends of the elastic where I thought it would work, then adjusted the length and angle of the stay. The goal was to pull in the extra fabric at the side bust/underarm area a bit to the back, and thus remove the billow factor on the front. Billowy effects are good when there’s a design reason for it, such as the above Balenciaga dress. Because of the pleats on each back shoulder, and the unique high-low hem, Cristobal’s dress is supposed to billow out as the wearer walks.   Pure drama!  That factoid is in Claire’s book.

wearing it
Here’s me wearing the dropped sleeve tunic. My right shoulder looks much better than my left. 

So look at the images, and tell me what you think. I certainly see a difference between my right shoulder (with stay) and my left shoulder (without stay).  The look of the back wasn’t affected.

Please excuse me while I go “stay” the other shoulder.



10 thoughts on ““Stay”ing the Armhole: Tip From the Haute Couture

  1. Wow! Genius! I never would have thought- Haute Couture!!! Would do/have this? I always imagine its “my” error if mine looks different. Thank You! I will be using this and bookmarking this post! :o)


    1. Glad you fiund it useful! I am always learning from those who know more — such as Claire Shaeffer. Some things in the couture sewing world are revelations!


    1. Thank you, Ellen! Today was what they call a “karma” day. I was watching your podcast interview with Threads on YouTube when the alert for your reblog and comment came through. Congratulations on the book; I am on my way to buy it!


  2. Damn. I have that book. I read that book. I clearly did not really read that book.
    I do not have any bust at all, but cut on sleeves do the same meh thing on me. You may have saved a total wadder with this piece of advice.
    Which makes you a superhero!


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