Coverings & Medieval Bras
SUPPORT FOR BUST SUPPORT - EXISTING FINDS
- WRITTEN RECORDS - OTHER FORMS OF 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.
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. 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,
'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.
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 CORSET
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.