Bras & Bust Support
SUPPORT FOR BUST SUPPORT - EXISTING FINDS - WRITTEN
RECORDS - SUPPORTIVE CHEMISES - OTHER FORMS OF SUPPORT
medieval bust support
During the Middle Ages, noble women wore linen under their expensive
outer clothes to both protect their expensive clothes from the
sweat and odor of their bodies and to provide an extra layer of
warmth. Underdresses were exceedingly fitted in cut and were tightly
laced to provide support even for a large breast.
Garments such as these would
render further bust support in the form of another item of clothing
completely unnecessary for small-breasted women or women of average
size, but the larger lady may still have felt the need for more
support. Many contemporary images show women with busts unnaturally
high, hinting at bust support and/or enhancement.
2008, no garment which may have fallen into the category of medieval
bust support had been found. In July 2008 investigations for reconstruction
were carried out at the Castle Lengberg in Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol,
Austria. A vaulted spandrel was discovered in the south wing which
was filled with backfill- possibly to level the floor when a further
level was added. The fill was stored for subsequent sorting at
a later date.
Astonishingly, clothing fragments
were found which dated to around 1480. The image at right is one
of the medieval bra findings. Photo ©Institute of Archaeologies,
University of Innsbruck
Beatrix Nutz was part of
the archaeological team who investigated the textile fragments,
and wrote an astonishing account of her findings:
..The textile finds
consist of some hundred fragments as well as of few almost completely
preserved pieces. Amid them were several nearly complete linen
bras and fragments of corselettes, some rather coarsely made
others more elaborately decorated with plaited borders and sprang
worked parts. One of the bras even has a rather modern look.
As there seems to be
no clear evidence on the existence of bras in the 15th century
other explanations of them being among the finds were sought
for. But none of them proofed completely satisfying.
On the contrary
a closer examination of the pieces in question showed that no
textile techniques were used in their construction that would
not fit to the time period. All applied techniques were common
during the 15th century and none of them developed later. Besides
- all other textiles from this find, like fragments of dresses,
shirts, trousers, laces etc., fit well to the 15th century...
The use of the words bra
and corselette are, of course, our modern words. The garments
would most likely have been known under different names at the
time of use, although to the best of my knowledge, I have no real
idea what they might be. Another bra which was found in the vault
is similar to our modern bikini top with similar straps.
In Umberto Eco's book, Art & Beauty in the Middle Ages,
he wrote that Gilbert of Hoyt defined the correct dimensions of
the female breasts if they are to be truly pleasing.
In the Sermons in Continuum
Salomonis, he reminds us of the ladies of medieval miniaturists,
their tight 'corsets' binding and raising the bosom. When the
word corset is used in this sense, it is unclear whether
this is the modern translation for the word he used originally.
The breasts are most
pleasing when they are of moderate size and eminence...they
should be bound but not flattened, restrained with gentleness
but not given too much licence.
In the Romance de la Rose,
a lengthy thirteenth century French poem by two French authors,
the Old Women character offers advice on the question of support
for the bust if a lady has an ample bosom:
And if her breasts are
too full, let her take a kerchief or scarf and wrap it round
her ribs to bind her bosom, and then fasten it with a stitch
or knot; she will then be able to disport herself.
In is book Love Locked
Out by James Cleugh, the author stated in his chapter on Priveledge,
'the breasts were accentuated,
as in modern times, by well stuffed leathern pouches',
although he fails to state
his source for this. I have not seen any other reference to breast
stuffing to support this claim, although tight lacing to enhance
the figure seems to be not unlikely. It is also unclear whether
this was a widespread phenomenon or whether it was restricted
to ladies of ill repute. In any instance, it does seem that support
for enhancement or suppression of the bust was given in material
form of some kind.
smocks with built in bust support
In the 15th century,
we see garments which show side lacing and what looks like pouches
for seperated beasts. These are often German manuscripts, but
it gives the medieval lady a close fitting silhouette and a tighter
fit which would offer far more support than a chemise or smoch
which hand A-frame style from a yoke around the neck or cut loose
like a modern nightie.
Seen at right, is an image which shows side-lacing. The lacing
would be able to provide a snug fit around the rib case, and in
this particular image, the gathered fabric around the top would
offer a place to sit the breasts.
forms of support
According to Steele, during the fifteenth century, women whose
means permitted them to do so began wearing stiff linen under
their bodice called a cotte, a French word meaning rib,
which was designed to flattened the breast. He writes:
...woman used paste
as stiffener between the two layers of linen to create a stiffer,
harder bodice, creating the earliest form of the corset.
This is the only singular
reference I have seen at this time and no further information
has been forthcoming to support this. Generally, it is acknowledged
by clothing historians that a linen chemise is worn, some having
round pockets, like the Lengberg find, for breasts.
A garment listed as a corset
does appear in some early household accounts of Edward the Black
Prince but owing to the vast amounts of fabric and fur required
to make them, coupled with some of the descriptions, it seems
to be an entirely different type of garment to the one we call
a corset today. This is discussed on the corsets
The corset or any other undergarment
as we know it today, should it have existed in the medieval period,
was certainly known under another name, which is still not known.
The renaissance brings us the garment known as a pair of bodies,
well before the Victorian "stays" which are a laced
undergarment similar to our corset today.
© Rosalie Gilbert
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