Really, Really Old Underwear

July 17th, 2012

My fascinating friend, and 19th-century warrioress extraordinaire, Rachel posted a link to this article about a recent discovery by the archaeology department of the University of Innsbruck. They seem to have found evidence of hitherto unknown forms of fifteenth-century undergarments in an Austrian castle. If you’ve read any of my previous postings, you know I’m a sucker for a good historical underwear discovery.

The article is a little misleading however, as it doesn’t point out that this brassiere look-a-like is actually missing a large chunk of material that would have covered the stomach from breasts to waist, and likely a back portion that laced on at the sides and anchored the other end of the shoulder straps. See the piece with lacing eyelets hanging down the left side? It probably survived because it was reinforced.

Illustration from article on recent discovery of fifteenth century underwear

Here’s my hastily drawn rendering of what it might look like with the missing material.

Rendering of fifteenth century bra

I’m undecided about what’s going on between the breast cups at the top. Is it purposefully left open because fifteenth-century German underdresses (worn over underwear, but under the overdress) often had deep V necks? Or was there a different, finer, or even decorative fabric inserted there? The top edge looks like it was meant to end where it does, but it may also just be impossible to see in the picture that it’s also ripped and the same material once ran all the way across.

I also wonder how much of a revelation this actually is. I’m incredibly ignorant about fifteenth-century Germanic fashion, so I looked it up in “A History of Costume” by Carl K√∂hler, a 19th-century costume historian. In the section on fifteenth-century German women’s dress, he tells us:

“A chronicler of the day describes this fashion [a new form of dress in the late 1400s) thus: ‘Girls and women wore beautiful wimples, with a broad hem in front, embroidered with silk, pearls, or tinsel, and their underclothing had pouches into which they put their breasts. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.’ “

Hmmmm. But, as I said, I know next to nothing about this period. So I am happy to take the word of those who do that this is a remarkable discovery. There’s another garment featured in the article, and I also have a few ideas about that. But I’ll save them for another post.

In the meantime, if you run across a more scholarly treatment of this topic, please let me know. I’d be anxious to hear some of the finer points describing the findings and why they are so surprising.

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