Wednesday, August 22

15th century sprang



Just two photographs with details of the sprang inserts found on one of the 'breast-bags' at Lengberg castle. Found here and here.

Thursday, August 16

Supportive underwear in written sources

Das Braunschweiger Skizzenbuch, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Kupferstichkabinett, Braunschweig. c. 1380-1420.

The past week I've been working on making a fourteenth century supportive shirt. You can see the progress here. Once it is finished I'll do a more detailed post on the construction on this blog as well.

For now, I'm giving you a line-up of the written sources that mention breast-bags in shirts, which have come to light so far. Most of these have also been briefly mentioned in the BBC History article by Beatrix Nutz and in this blogpost.

The earliest text I know referring to restraining the breasts, is cited in Umberto Eco's book Art & Beauty in the Middle Ages quotes Gilbert of Hoyland's (a twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot) Sermones in Canticum Salomonis, on ideals of feminine beauty:
The breasts are most pleasing when they are of moderate size and eminence… they should be bound but not flattened, restrained with gentleness but not given too much licence.
Christine Frieder Waugh (Well-cut through the body: fitted clothing in twelfth-century Europe, Dress, 1999 volume 26) quotes him advising his monks to practise restraint in their speach, much as women restrained their breasts.
I refer you to the devices of women, who cultivate and develop physical beauty and have mastered this art. For what are they more anxious to avoid in embellishing the bosom, than that the breasts be overgrown and shapeless and flabby? … Therefore they constrain overgrown and flabby breasts with breast-bands, artfully remedying the shortcomings of nature.
And in the Roman de la Rose, a thirteenth-century poem begun by Guillaume de Lorris and finished by an anonymus poet, the Old Woman character offers advice:
And if her breasts are too full, let her take a kerchief or scarf and wrap it round her ribs to bind her bosom, and then fasten it with a stitch or knot; she will then be able to disport herself.
The earliest text referring to something more advanced than a simple piece of cloth to bind the breasts, dates to the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was written by Henri de Mondeville, surgeon to Philip the Fair of France and his successor Louis X, in his medical work Cyrurgia (1306-1320). The original text was in Latin (full text and translation found here and here):
Et aliquae mulieres non potentes aut non audentes habere cyrurgicum aut nolentes suam indeoentiam revelare faciunt in camisiis suis duos saccules proportionales mammillis tamen breves et eos imponunt omni mane, postmodum quantum possunt, eos stringunt cum fascia competenti. Et aliae, sicut illае de Montepessulano, cum strictis tunicis et laqueis ipsas stringunt, non stringentes muliebria, quamvis sit ibi majas periculum, attendentes propter casus fatuitos et diurnos, quod non faciunt anni quod facit una dies, et ideo faciunt suas tunicas inferios laxiores.

Some women unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, insert two bags in their chemises, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and compress them as much as possible with a matching band. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces...
Eustache Deschamps in the late fourteenth - early fifteenth century wrote a ballad entirely on the subject of female breasts: Balade sur Les Femmes Qui Troussent Leur Tetins / Ballad about Women Who Truss Their Breasts. What follows is an excerpt from the ballad, translated into English by Katherine Knudsen Barichand posted to the Medieval Textiles and Clothing discussion list.
Car ce qui en ce point mis l'a
Est par juenesse seulement;
Rons, petiz, durs, lors se cela,
Sanz moustrer si publiquement;
Puis s'abandonna folement.
Et pour ce, a esté mis en deux
Sacs cousus par my la poitrine,
Estrains de cordes et de neux:
Dame aiez pité de tettine!

Because those who in this point take it
Is for youth only;
Round, petite, firm, then being that,
Without display so publicly;
Then will abandon folly,
Many become, though, ungracious,
And for that, have taken and put in two
sewn sacks upon the chest,
Squeezing with cords and knots:
Lady, have pity of breast!
In an extract of a satirical poem written by an unknown fifteenth-century author from southern Germany, also called "Meister Reuauß”, we can read the following (Vienna, Austrian National Library Cod. 2880, fol. 130v to 141r) (translation: Beatrix Nutz):
Ir manche macht zwen tuttenseck
Damit so snurt sie umb die eck,
Das sie anschau ein ieder knab,
Wie sie hübsche tütlein hab;
Aber welcher sie zu groß sein,
Die macht enge secklein,
Das man icht sag in der stat,
Das sie so groß tutten hab.


Many [a woman] makes two bags for the breast
With them she roams the streets,
So that all the guys look at her,
And see what beautiful breasts she has got;
But whose breasts are too large,
Makes tight pouches,
So there is no gossip in the city,
About her big breasts.
Another German writer of the fifteenth century, Konrad Stolle,  complained about “shirts with bags in which they put their breasts” in his chronicle of Thuringia and Erfurt in 1480, because to him they were “all indecent”. Possible because they, in contradiction to all the quotes above were used to make the bosom fuller, instead of restraining it.

In other, but strongly related news: Beatrix Nutz will be in London to speak at the Medieval Dress and Textile Society (Medats) Autumn meeting on Linens Next to the Skin on 27 October at the British Museum. For more info: www.medats.org.uk/events.

A c. 1400 variety of the Birgitta cap

One of the best things about studying clothing is the feeling you get when you finally understand something that has been a mystery to you for years.

When I was studying the Birgitta cap back in 2006-2007 (Dahl, C.L. & I. Sturtewagen, 2008, The Cap of St. Birgitta, Medieval Clothing and Textiles vol. IV, pp. 99-129.) I came accross several pieces of artwork from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century that showed something that looked like a cap worn underneath other types of veils or alone that seemed very similar to the Birgitta cap. At the time I couldn't make sense of them though.

Effigy of Lodewijk van Lichtervelde and wife, c. 1380, Koolskamp, Belgium. Photo by the author.
The caps in these works of art were worn on top of buns which were placed high on the head or just above the temples. They were covered by fabric and showed two crossed ribbons seperating the two buns in the middle. I've always wondered how exactly this look was achieved, but never got to actually trying to recreate the style. This fashion is slightly out of my period of reenactment, so there were always things higher up on my to-do list.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo: kikirpa.be
In the altarpiece of Hakendover, dated to the first decade of the fifteenth century we can see this type of headwear as well. On some of the figures however, we can just see the crossed ribbons and it seems the fabric of the cap is missing. It appears as if only the curly hair of the figure is shown. However, it is possible that these caps were made of translucent fabric or netting. This would allow the hair underneath to be clearly visible.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo: kikirpa.be
Interestingly in the same altarpiece you can also spot one depiction of the 'old fashioned' style of Birgitta cap. The girl to the right is wearing her cap in exactly the same way. The only difference is that she is wearing fashionable buns underneath it.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo: kikirpa.be
Last week at a small event in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, my friend and fellow reenactor Margje Wessels, however, was wearing this exact style of headwear. I was so excited to see how she did it, and it's actually so simple and ingenious I had to share.











As you can see, what she is wearing is simply a bigger version of the Birgitta cap, with enough space to accomodate the buns. She made two buns filled with flax and fixed to a headband that is pinned tight at the back of the neck. When you have long thick hair, of course you could make two buns using your natural hair. As with the traditional Birgitta cap, the ribbon of the cap is pulled to the front and crossed on the forehead. With the traditional style the loop/ribbon would just be pulled over the back of the head. With the 'modern style' however, the ribbon is pulled around the buns and back to the front. (You can find a diagram with instructions on how to achieve the traditional style here).

Like I said: ingeniously simple.

Tuesday, August 7

Medieval supportive underwear

15th century bra found at Schloss Lengberg, Tirol, Austria

Although it has been some time ago (2008) that medieval underwear has been discovered underneath the floor of the Castle of Lengberg in Austria, it is only now that the internet is completely going mad over them. One newspaper article is even worse than the other, but lucky for us, BBC History published an article, written by Beatrix Nutz herself, the archaeologist doing the analysis of the textiles and on the information available on the website of the university of Innsbrück.  For more extensive background information on these finds, please click the links above.
The first time I read about these amazing textile finds, my mind instantly thought of something I had seen before...

Münster zum Heiligen Kreuz, Schwäbisch Gmünd, c. 1360

Back in 2005 I first saw this little figure when visiting the Münster zum Heiligen Kreuz in Schwäbisch Gmünd while being on vacation in Southern Germany.
I was never able to really place this shirt costume historically, as it didn't seem to fit in with what I knew at that point at all. Although there are clear differences between the Tiroler bras and this shift with an empire waist (avant-la-lettre), they probably had the same function: to give support to the breasts. From what is known at this point there is no reason to suspect that the Austrian brassieres at some point had a skirt attached to them. However, in the example from Schwäbisch Gmünd we can suspect that the upper part of the dress must have been fitted and very tight, as was the brassiere in the first image, since we can see no pleats around the waist. Only the skirt has been pleated at the top as it was attached to the fitted upper part.

Das Braunschweiger Skizzenbuch, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Kupferstichkabinett, Braunschweig. c. 1380-1420.

One afternoon of combing out the internet yielded quite a few more examples of sleeveless shirts with a high waist. Most examples seem to stem from the Southern-German and Austrian region. One example is almost exactly the same as the one from Schwäbisch Gmünd. It comes from Bohemia and can be found in an artist's sketchbook dated 1380-1420. The only visible difference can be found in the shoulder straps. In the Bohemian example they are clearly separate straps sewn onto the upper part, and not an integral part of the pattern.

The birth of John the Baptist, Giusto de Menabuoi, Baptistryto the Duomo, Padua, 1376-7.

Slightly different is a sleeveless shirt depicted on the frescos in the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Padua, Italy. Here we can see pleats on the upper part of the dress as well. Possibly this dress is an unfitted shirt that is worn with a belt right under the breasts, or perhaps pulled tight with a drawstring? However, it seems to me that this solution also gives more support than a simple shirt.

Jason and Medea put theirclothes on, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.2773, fol. 18v, c. 1445-1450

As we go into the 15th century, the bodice of the shirts more and more starts to resemble the shape of the Tiroler brassiere. This is in line with the changes of fashion. In the course of the fifteenth century the waist becomes more accentuated. This can be seen in the construction of the upper clothes as well, that often have a horizontal seam around the waist. In the 14th century the panels of the upper dresses of women consisted of one piece lengthwise.

Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 2774, fol. 133v, 1448-1448

To me, there are a lot of advantages of wearing fitted underwear under your 14th century dress (I have no experience of wearing 15th century dress, but I guess it will be pretty much the same). In order to give sufficient support to the breasts when not wearing fitted underwear, the upper dress has to be very very tight. Firstly, this makes the tailoring process of a dress much more labour intensive and quite uncomfortable too. Second, you also always need a person to help you fit it. Thirdly, the tighter the upper dress is, it will also be more tight around the waist and your tummy. This result is inevitable when you want to avoid any strange "blobs" in your pattern at waist level. Also, with a very tight dress it is really really difficult to attach the sleeves in such a manner that you still have 100% freedom of movement.

Hofämterspiel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, second half 15th century

Another problem is that as soon as you lose weight, your breast support will be gone. As soon as you gain a little waist, you no longer fit into your super tight fancy garments. Loosing and gaining weight I suppose was something very much present in the late middle ages. Periods of affluence were often alternated by periods of relative food shortage, in winter people living in more primitive conditions as we do now often gain weight during fall/winter to isolate themselves from the cold. And women of course also got pregnant every now and then. 

Der Renner, Pierpont Morgan Library, M.763, fol. 141r, last quarter of the 15th century

All of the above problems can be solved by wearing fitted underwear. With a medieval "bra" as you gain or loose weight instead of having to make an entirely new dress or refit the old one, you can just pull the lacing of your bra tighter or give in a bit. Your upper dress will still be nicely fitted to follow the shape of your body, but it will not have to be so tight that you turn into a living pork roast! This way there will be room for breathing, for small weight fluctuations, and for putting on extra underwear on cold days.
It is known that extra underwear in wool or fustian was worn in Flanders, at least by men. In the Bouc vanden ambochten / Livre des mestiers, Flanders, c. 1370 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, néerl. 16) the author describes what a man should put on when he dresses himself in the morning. This includes a "witten roc", which is probably a simple white tunic in wool, or one could choose to wear a fustian tunic instead.

"Ende s’nuchtens, als ghi wilt upstaen, eerst cleet u hemde, doet an uwe brouc, cleet uwen witten roc of u fustaen."

Friedrich von Schwaben, origin: Stuttgart(?), Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ. 345, f 247r, c. 1470

So, although evidence is still a bit sketchy (but isn't that always the case with underwear?) I will be making a bra-shirt this week. Next weekend we are going to an event in Eindhoven, and I want to wear it there! No more breast-discomfort will be tolerated! I'll post some pictures of  the progress and finished project later this week or early next week.