Discovering Fifteenth-Century Undergarments

Sometimes, stories of the past come from the most unlikely places. Take, for instance, a garment rarely seen but often worn: the bra. During the reconstruction of the Lengberg Castle in Nikosldorf, East Tyrol, Austria, in 2008, workers discovered a vault in the south wing containing 2,722 textile fragments and other items. Most notably among them were 4 bras. Laura Ricketts gave a detailed account of the discovery in PieceWork November/December 2014, but here’s the gist:

This was an important discovery; before it, many had contested who invented the bra. Early versions included Henry Lesher’s device with “breast pads and armpit shields,” patented in the United States in 1859. After that was a British prototype in 1887 made of mesh and wire (sounds remarkably uncomfortable). In 1889, came the French “Bien-étre,” which translates to “well-being.” It was a 2-piece corset-type garment that provided breast support and had a top similar to what we now know as a modern bra. But the Lengberg discovery shows us that bras were around long before Lesher’s 1859 patent. The castle itself has been around since at least 1190 A.D., but the items found in the vault were dated to the fifteenth century. Coins in the vault discovered alongside the textiles dated to 1477 before the renovation of the castle, other garments in the vault fit the typical fashion of the fifteenth century, and 2 of the bras sent in for carbon dating are from 1390-1450 and 1410-1520.

HenryLesher: Caption: The goal of Henry Lesher’s 1859 patent was “symmetrical rotundity.” Illustration courtesy of the United States Patent Office.

The goal of Henry Lesher’s 1859 patent was “symmetrical rotundity.” Illustration courtesy of the United States Patent Office.

So the discovery of the bras told us that they were around much earlier than originally thought, but it also raised many other questions. Very little was known about fifteenth-century undergarments before this discovery as no other textile examples exist. It was previously thought that women of the time did not typically wear undergarments other than a chemise, which was used as a layer of protection between expensive clothing and oils and dirt of the body. Women who wore underwear were thought to be associated with less-than-satisfactory societal standards. Also discovered in the vault, however, were linen breeches that resemble a modern-day string bikini bottom. It was unclear by which gender these were worn.

One especially interesting thing about the bras discovered were the lacework and impressive handcraft involved in creating them. One contained sprang, an ancient technique. The sprang lace and needle lace tell us that the ladies who wore them would have been members of the castle or at least otherwise upper-class individuals. Handmade lace was an expensive design element. It also shows us that the makers of these undergarments were rather smart about their creations: woven linen is a strong fiber that allows air flow, and the elastic qualities of sprang work were used eloquently.

While I never before imagined that the discovery of 4 old bras could spark so much curiosity, reading about it in PieceWork November/December 2014 gave me more questions than I had when I started reading. That’s the great thing about history: It leaves us questioning and always wanting to know more. Any PieceWork issue is like a lesson in history, so if you need a place to dive in, PieceWork’s (nonscandalous) underwear-themed November/December 2014 issue is a great place to start. You can also find a pattern there to knit a linen lace trim based on the needle work of one of the Lengberg bras.

Happy discovering,
Jenna

Featured Image: Lengberg Castle: A 2008 discovery in the Lengberg Castle of Austria gave insight to fifteenth-century undergarments. Photo by Johann Jaritz/Wikimedia Commons.


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