About medieval bra(shirt)s and other underwear

Friday, August 03, 2012

15th century bra found at Schloss Lengberg, Tirol, Austria

Although it has been some time ago (2008) that medieval underwear has been discovered underneath the floor of the Castle of Lengberg in Austria, it is only now that the internet is completely going mad over them. One newspaper article is even worse than the other, but lucky for us, BBC History published an article, written by Beatrix Nutz herself, the archaeologist doing the analysis of the textiles and on the information available on the website of the university of Innsbrück.  For more extensive background information on these finds, please click the links above.
The first time I read about these amazing textile finds, my mind instantly thought of something I had seen before...

Münster zum Heiligen Kreuz, Schwäbisch Gmünd, c. 1360

Back in 2005 I first saw this little figure when visiting the Münster zum Heiligen Kreuz in Schwäbisch Gmünd while being on vacation in Southern Germany.
I was never able to really place this shirt costume historically, as it didn't seem to fit in with what I knew at that point at all. Although there are clear differences between the Tiroler bras and this shift with an empire waist (avant-la-lettre), they probably had the same function: to give support to the breasts. From what is known at this point there is no reason to suspect that the Austrian brassieres at some point had a skirt attached to them. However, in the example from Schwäbisch Gmünd we can suspect that the upper part of the dress must have been fitted and very tight, as was the brassiere in the first image, since we can see no pleats around the waist. Only the skirt has been pleated at the top as it was attached to the fitted upper part.

Das Braunschweiger Skizzenbuch,
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum,
Braunschweig. C.

One afternoon of combing out the internet yielded quite a few more examples of sleeveless shirts with a high waist. Most examples seem to stem from the Southern-German and Austrian region. One example is almost exactly the same as the one from Schwäbisch Gmünd. It comes from Bohemia and can be found in an artist's sketchbook dated 1380-1420. The only visible difference can be found in the shoulder straps. In the Bohemian example they are clearly separate straps sewn onto the upper part, and not an integral part of the pattern.

The birth of John the Baptist,
Giusto de Menabuoi, Baptistry
to the Duomo, Padua, 1376-7

Slightly different is a sleeveless shirt depicted on the frescos in the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Padua, Italy. Here we can see pleats on the upper part of the dress as well. Possibly this dress is an unfitted shirt that is worn with a belt right under the breasts, or perhaps pulled tight with a drawstring? However, it seems to me that this solution also gives more support than a simple shirt.

Jason and Medea put their
clothes on, Vienna,
Nationalbibliothek, cod.
fol. 18v, c. 1445-1450

As we go into the 15th century, the bodice of the shirts more and more starts to resemble the shape of the Tiroler brassiere. This is in line with the changes of fashion. In the course of the fifteenth century the waist becomes more accentuated. This can be seen in the construction of the upper clothes as well, that often have a horizontal seam around the waist. In the 14th century the panels of the upper dresses of women consisted of one piece lengthwise.
Vienna, Österreichische
Nationalbibliothek, cod.
2774, fol. 133v, 1448-1448

To me, there a a lot of advantages of wearing fitted underwear under your 14th century dress (I have no experience of wearing 15th century dress, but I guess it will be pretty much the same). In order to give sufficient support to the breasts when not wearing fitted underwear, the upper dress has to be very very tight. Firstly, this makes the tailoring process of a dress much more labour intensive and quite uncomfortable too. Second, you also always need a person to help you fit it. Thirdly, the tighter the upper dress is, it will also be more tight around the waist and your tummy. This result is inevitable when you want to avoid any strange "blobs" in your pattern at waist level. Also, with a very tight dress it is really really difficult to attach the sleeves in such a manner that you still have 100% freedom of movement.

Hofämterspiel, Kunsthistorisches
Museum, Vienna, second half
15th century

Another problem is that as soon as you loose weight, your breast support will be gone. As soon as you gain a little waist, you no longer fit into your super tight fancy garments. Loosing and gaining weight I suppose was something very much present in the late middle ages. Periods of affluence were often alternated by periods of relative food shortage, in winter people living in more primitive conditions as we do now often gain weight during fall/winter to isolate themselves from the cold. And women of course also got pregnant every now and then. 

Der Renner, Pierpont Morgan
Library, M.763, fol. 141r, last
quarter of the 15th century

All of the above problems can be solved by wearing fitted underwear. With a medieval "bra" as you gain or loose weight instead of having to make an entirely new dress or refit the old one, you can just pull the lacing of your bra tighter or give in a bit. Your upper dress will still be nicely fitted to follow the shape of your body, but it will not have to be so tight that you turn into a living pork roast! This way there will be room for breathing, for small weight fluctuations, and for putting on extra underwear on cold days.
It is known that extra underwear in wool or fustian was worn in Flanders, at least by men. In the Bouc vanden ambochten / Livre des mestiers, Flanders, c. 1370 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, néerl. 16) the author describes what a man should put on when he dresses himself in the morning. This includes a "witten roc", which is probably a simple white tunic in wool, or one could choose to wear a fustian tunic instead.

"Ende s’nuchtens, als ghi wilt upstaen, eerst cleet u hemde, doet an uwe brouc, cleet uwen witten roc of u fustaen."

Friedrich von Schwaben,
origin: Stuttgart(?),
Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ.
345, f 247r, c. 1470

So, although evidence is still a bit sketchy (but isn't that always the case with underwear?) I will be making a bra-shirt this week. Next weekend we are going to an event in Eindhoven, and I want to wear it there! No more breast-discomfort will be tolerated! I'll post some pictures of  the progress and finished project later this week or early next week.

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