This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Men wore shirts and braies (medieval underpants resembling modern-day shorts), and women a smock or chemise and no pants. That’s all we have known about medieval underwear, but now, because of archaeological finds in East Tyrol, Austria, we have a better idea of what some women wore underneath their dresses.
Lengberg Castle, first documented in 1190, was rebuilt into a representative palais in the 15th century by adding a second floor. During extensive reconstruction in July 2008, a vault filled with waste was found beneath the floorboards of a room on the second storey of the castle, where it was dumped during the 15th-century reconstruction.
Due to dry conditions in the vault the organic waste, mainly consisting of worked wood, leather (shoes) and textiles had been extremely well preserved, and four of the linen fragments resemble modern bras. The criterion is the presence of distinct cut cups – in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands, simple strips of cloth or leather wound around the breasts and designed to flatten rather than enhance.
‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden, c1460. From the collection of the National Gallery, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
There are some written medieval sources on possible female breast support, but they are rather vague on the topic. Henri de Mondeville, surgeon to Philip the Fair of France and his successor Louis X, wrote in his Cyrurgia in 1312–20: “Some women… insert two bags in their dresses, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and fasten them when possible with a matching band.”
These ‘bags’ served the same purpose as antique breast bands – that is to contain two large breasts. However, the “shirts with bags in which they put their breasts” that Konrad Stolle complained about in his chronicle of Thuringia and Erfurt in 1480 seem to have obtained the opposite effect, as he concludes his description with the words “all indecent”.
An unknown 15th-century author of southern Germany was definitely referring to breast-enhancement in his satirical poem as he wrote: “Many [a woman] makes two breastbags [bags for the breasts], with them she roams the streets, so that all the young men that look at her, can see her beautiful breasts; But whose breasts are too large, makes tight pouches, so there is no gossip in the city about her big breasts.” As we can see, medieval bras worked both ways.
Cup runneth over
Two of the ‘bras’ from Lengberg Castle seem to be ‘shirts with bags’. Unfortunately they are fragmented with only one cup preserved each but appear to have had additional cloth above the cups to cover the cleavage, thus being a combination of a short shirt, ending right below the breasts, and a bra.
The third ‘bra’ looks a lot more like a modern bra and is possibly what the unknown German author called “tuttenseck” or “breastbags”. It has two broad shoulder straps and the partially torn edges at the cups indicate a back strap. This ‘bra’ is elaborately decorated with needle-lace on the shoulder straps. All ‘bags’ are decorated at the lower end with finger-loop-braided laces and needle-lace.
The fourth ‘bra’ can best be described with the modern term ‘longline bra’, a type of bra popular in the 1950s but still fashioned today. The cups are each made from two pieces of linen sewn together and the surrounding fabric extends down to the bottom of the ribcage with a row of six eyelets on the side of the body for fastening with a lace. There are narrow shoulder straps, and needle-lace decorates the cleavage. Two of the bras have been radiocarbon-dated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the dates ranging from the end of the 14th to the second half of the 15th century.
We don’t know if all women in the Middle Ages wore ‘breastbags’ – but some definitely did. But while it might have been socially acceptable to do so in order to flatten the bosom, the complaints and satirical comments on breast-enhancement suggest that it was not generally approved of.
It is believed that women did not wear underpants or drawers until as late as the very end of the 18th century. The find of a pair of completely preserved linen underpants in Lengberg arouses anew the question: male or female?
The underpants from Lengberg are of a type that developed during the late 14th and 15th century, when men started to wear joined (full) hose or trousers instead of single legged (split) hose. Then long-legged braies were no longer needed to fill the gap between the two trouser legs. Spread out, the underpants have a slightly hourglass-shaped cut with narrow straps at the corners. They were repaired three times with linen patches, now overlaying one another.
Paintings, woodcuts and book illustrations both of sacral and secular themes show only men wearing this type of underpants: a small piece of cloth covering buttocks and pubic area fastened with narrow straps tied in a bow at the hips. When women are shown wearing pants it’s always in the context of ‘a world turned upside down’. Trousers and underpants were considered a symbol of male power and women wearing them were pugnacious wives trying to usurp the authority of their husbands, or women of low morality.
A book illustration from a German translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Famous Women, published in 1474, displays Semiramis, Queen of the Assyrians, and two of her ladies-in-waiting wearing underpants. But of her it is said “Semiramis, a woman once Ninus’ wife, masqueraded as a boy, his son” and “it is believed that she gave herself to many men. Among her lovers was her own son Ninyas.”
Wearing the pants
The same thing can be said of underpants as bras: just because it was thought women should not wear them, doesn’t mean they didn’t – especially as they come in handy during certain days of the month. So what did women do during their menstruation?
According to some stories, told mostly by men, they did nothing, evoking disgusting images of women leaving behind a trail of blood-drops wherever they go. Yet two translations of the Bible, the Douay–Rheims Bible from 1609–10 and the King James Bible from 1611, mention “rags of a menstruous woman” (Isaiah 64/6) and “menstruous cloth” (Isaiah 30/22). To have it translated that way means the translator must have known about the possible use of a strip of cloth for this purpose – and underpants would have kept those ‘rags’ in place.
In the 16th century some Italian women wore drawers. Eleanor of Toledo (1522–62) owned a pair in 1561, and 50 years later many pairs were made for Maria de Medici (1573–1642), the new Queen of France. But women wearing drawers was still frowned upon by some. In his Costumes of Different Nations of 1594 Pietro Bertelli only shows the Venetian courtesan wearing drawers.
On the other hand the Englishman Fynes Moryson, who travelled continental Europe between 1591 and 1595, wrote about the Italian ladies “The city virgins, and especially gentlewomen… in many places wear silk or linen breeches under their gowns”. But he also writes “I have seen courtesans… apparelled like men, in carnation or light coloured doublets and breeches.” And it seems that some women in the Netherlands also wore drawers because Moryson tells us “some of the chief women not able to abide the extreme cold… do use to wear breeches of linen or silk”.
What about women in England? Did Elizabeth I wear drawers? Her funeral effigy, made in 1603, wears a corset and drawers. While some claim that the narrow drawers nailed on to it have only been added as late as 1760, the ‘Accounts of the Great Wardrobe’ (1558–1603) note that John Colte was paid £10 to provide “the Image representing her late Majestie… with one paire of straite bodies, a paire of drawers”.
In addition there is a reference as to her having owned “six pairs of double linen hose of fine hollande cloth” made in 1587. Are these drawers or rather stockings? But why would the Queen of England not have claimed for herself the same right to wear drawers as did the Queen of France? And who would have dared question her choice of underwear?
And England in the 17th century? In his diary Samuel Pepys, suspecting his wife of having an affair, wrote on 15 May 1663: “But I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying to see whether my wife did wear drawers today as she used to, and other things to raise my suspicion of her; but I found no true cause of doing it,” and on 4 June 1663: “…and I did so watch to see my wife put on drawers, which poor soul she did.”
Of course this does not mean all women in the Middle Ages or early modern times owned bras or drawers, but some did. Considering the Lengberg ‘breastbags’ were found in a castle, they were likely most common among members of the upper class or women who were, for whatever reason, not overly concerned with social standards.
Beatrix Nutz is a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Innsbruck. She is writing her thesis on the textiles from Lengberg supervised by Harald Stadler, funded by the Tyrolean Science Fund.