That Medieval Bra Business…

Lengberg Castle, East-Tyrol: 15th century linen “bra” in comparison to a longline-bra from the 1950´s

I don’t know how many of you read the CSA “Communities for the Study of Dress and Fashion Forum” Listserve, but there was quite a lively discussion last week about the now well-known 15th century ‘lingerie’ found in an Austrian castle. The most commonly cited article being from the Daily Mail, By Dalya Alberge. Much of the discussion on the forum was about the vocabulary being used: “bra,” “lingerie,” and other phrases normally used to describe twentieth and twenty-first century undergarments (not to mention hyperbole and sensationalistic writing). Listserve writers complained about the loss of educational opportunity, as well as the lack of contextualization for these pieces.

This University of Innsbruk article on the find, provides a little more of the cut-and-dry information of what was found, but here again also only uses modern-day terms to describe the objects (aside from a passing reference to a “Mieder” (German for corselette).

A woman hits her husband and puts on his underpants while he winds yarn in an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, late 15th century.

The most informative article however, published a few days ago in the BBC History magazine, goes into considerable depth and provides a lot more context. That might be because it is written by Beatrix Nutz, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Innsbruck (She is writing her thesis on the textiles from Lengberg). For example, Nutz explains:

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.”

Nutz’s long, in-depth article is full of citations, quotes, and references – proving much more educational and satisfactory to this historian. She even provides the more accurate term, “breast bags” to describe the bra-like undergarments, and helps to fill in a lot of the gaps left by the more sensationalized articles. Hopefully, her work will seep into the general consciousness, despite its lack of sensationalism.

Feel free to leave your comments below.

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  1. You got a wrong description of that 15th century illustration. It´s not from Boccaccio but an allegory from Israhel van Meckenem called `the world turned upside down`.

    1. Many thanks for the correction Beatrix! I’m honored that you found the blog and happy for your research. I only wish the BBC Magazine had captioned their article so that I could get the correct citation! Thanks for the assist. – Heather

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