Um, you guys? Look at what has been blowing up all over my newsfeeds this week:
These are the remains of a linen longline-style bra. It and several other undergarments were found in a pile of discarded rubbish preserved in the foundations of some 15th century renovations to a 12th century castle. A medieval lady was wearing this 600 years ago. The original BBC History Magazine article is here.
I . . . I’m having a moment over this.
I need to get off my rear and actually write a well-researched post about the invention of the bra, because it’s interestingly hazy, but in a nutshell, EVERYONE agreed that the bra is a 20th century phenomenon. There were some early developments towards the end of the 19th century, and conflicting patents were filed in the first decades of the 20th, but almost all costume historians agree that it was really the abandoning of the corset that spurred the bra’s ascendence. Cup sizes as we know them today are less than 100 years old, which makes it all the more bizarre that we get fixated on breasts only being allowed to be certain cup sizes. Y’all, those letters are arbitrary. Use the ones you need! The alphabet is your friend! Focus on fit, not the size on the tag! Etc. etc.
AHEM. The point is, apart from linen bindings à la Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, no one ever imagined that undergarments like this existed before modern times. Women wore chemises, stays, and/or corsets of varying styles, if they wore anything. Done. The end. This discovery . . . I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it changes everything. Well, everything, if you happen to find historical underwear fantastically interesting.
Now, I am the sort of weird person who gets really distracted by intimate details. I watch Lord of the Rings and wonder about how they went to the bathroom when running for days without rest. I read about Jane Eyre taking 19 hour journeys by coach and wonder what she does if she’s menstruating. I watch Henry VIII go to town on the Tudors and get distracted by his conquests’ smooth-shaven limbs and underarms. I was an actor there for a while, and period plays are my jam, so I’ve worn me some authentically-constructed old-fashioned underwear. When I took history classes and looked at medieval and Renaissance iconography, paintings, and manuscripts and saw the long, close-cut, flowing gowns, I got distracted by thinking about what women wore under those dresses that didn’t completely abuse their boobs.
Thanks to the This Important Discovery, I know that if I were a very wealthy Austrian lady in the 15th century who lived in a castle, I might have had what appears to be an exceptionally well-designed bra! With actual cups and straps and things! Which is so, so, so much more comfortable than trying to smoosh them or flatten them. Furthermore, it appears to be, well, kind of pretty: there are remains of some lace and embroidery, the neckline is flattering, the vertical seams on the “cups” would have provided great uplift, shape, and support, and in some of the photos you can just see the holes where it was laced up the sides. Nicely done, Austrian Lady! It is SUCH a relief to know that if the TARDIS comes to visit me one day and I go on a medieval Austrian adventure, I’ll be supported in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed.
The article also provides an interesting, albeit kind of gross, read on the gender politics of medieval underwear (seriously). Obviously, you know, patriarchy, etc., but an undergarment that looks seriously like a string bikini brief was discovered at the site, and the likelihood is that it was worn by a man, not a woman. Apparently men of the time thought it was immoral or something for a woman to wear knickers, which has all sorts of hygienic implications that I’m seriously not on board with. Also, “Medieval drawings often show a man and a woman fighting for a pair of underpants in a symbolic battle to see who “wears the trousers” in the family.”
Go get em, medieval ladies. Own your bras and seize your panties!