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Medieval Bras & Bust Support

Support for 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.

Existing finds
Until 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.

Written records
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. He writes:

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, that

'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.

Supporting 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.

Other 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 page.

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.

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