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Ye olde breastbags
July 24, 2012 6:30 PM   Subscribe

A team of Austrian archaeologists has discovered four bras from the 1400s. It reveals that women wore the garment some 500 years before fashion historians thought it was invented.
posted by Egg Shen (45 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
before fashion historians thought it was invented

Now they have supporting evidence.
posted by stbalbach at 6:34 PM on July 24, 2012 [46 favorites]


It's astonishing how modern the bra depicted in both links looks. I was expecting something quite different.
posted by orange swan at 6:35 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those panties in the first link are in better shape than some of my underwear.
posted by dobbs at 6:37 PM on July 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


TMI, dobbs.
posted by orange swan at 6:37 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands, simple strips of cloth or leather wound around the breasts and designed to flatten rather than enhance.

Just like the Greeks to invent the sports bra first.
posted by 2bucksplus at 6:39 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh my, I was wondering when this would make it to the Blue. This has caused considerable controversy in the historical romance community. Here's author Isobel Carr contesting the conclusions about what these items of clothing are on the History Hoydens blog.

Over the past few weeks, arguments have raged back and forth between authors. I'm not quite sure who to believe at this point.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 6:40 PM on July 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Only a German could come up with the phrase "breastbags".

I'm German, but now I hate to admit it.
posted by HuronBob at 6:41 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bras are the Devil's work.
posted by MikeMc at 7:03 PM on July 24, 2012


"Beatrix Nutz"?
posted by scratch at 7:03 PM on July 24, 2012


So the brassiere wasn't invented in the 19th century by a German civil engineer named Otto Titzling to support his mistress' bountiful assets?
posted by acb at 7:06 PM on July 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


I was first surprised at how modern they looked, but when you think about it, how many ways really can you design such functional garments? I mean, bridges mostly look like bridges wherever you go.

I also don't quite understand the scholarly surprise, since surely at least a few ancient women wanted some bounce control once in a while.
posted by Forktine at 7:12 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is this where I complain they don't make them in my size even if I lived in the 1400s?
posted by kanata at 7:27 PM on July 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


The family of Otto Titsling lied to me!
posted by ShawnStruck at 7:44 PM on July 24, 2012


An example of the classical "sports bra" found in Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily.
posted by Pantalaimon at 8:08 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


What stuck out for me is that Medieval German apparently had the same love of compound words as Modern German.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:08 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Looks like the technology was lost by 1676
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:08 PM on July 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I saw this the other day, and now am intensely curious about the exact structure, etc. Also, if they found 4 bras, where are the other three?
posted by annsunny at 8:20 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dreamed I survived the black plague in my Maidenform Bra.
posted by ColdChef at 8:25 PM on July 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


I also don't quite understand the scholarly surprise, since surely at least a few ancient women wanted some bounce control once in a while.

Seriously. Like if there wasn't something providing support, we would have lots more poems and plays with female characters discussing their sore backs.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:41 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have to agree with the link suburbanbeatnik posted, even though I have far, far less credentials* than Isobel Carr. My first thought when I saw the "bra": That's not a bra. Thats the top of a dress or something.

*i.e none.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2012


suburbanbeatnik, thanks for linking to Carr's post. I'm with her on this one, though I really need to read the German paper...
posted by litlnemo at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2012


Wow, that's crazy. Compare the structure of the bra from the 1400's with bras from the 1950's. The 1400's bra seems way more modern.
posted by marimeko at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2012


I'm suspicious of scholarship like that which suburbanbeatnik posted, that assumes that because there was little to no mention of women's undergarments, that they didn't exist. There's been a long tradition of ignoring major aspects of women's lives in history, and the fact that these scholars can't even answer what women wore during their periods is an indication of the limits of their knowledge.
posted by happyroach at 8:55 PM on July 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


suburbanbeatnik: "Over the past few weeks, arguments have raged back and forth between authors. I'm not quite sure who to believe at this point."

It might be my pro-archaeologist bias showing, but when you're looking at a debate between a historical fiction writer and a woman who "is a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Innsbruck[,] writing her thesis on the textiles from Lengberg supervised by Harald Stadler, funded by the Tyrolean Science Fund." you might want to bet on the archaeologist.

Mind you, Isobel Carr minored in history, so she's got some basis with the literature, but methinks Beatrix (English translation), who's been working in one manner or another as a medieval archaeologist since 1987, probably ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.
posted by barnacles at 9:28 PM on July 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


happyroach: "I'm suspicious of scholarship like that which suburbanbeatnik posted, that assumes that because there was little to no mention of women's undergarments, that they didn't exist. There's been a long tradition of ignoring major aspects of women's lives in history, and the fact that these scholars can't even answer what women wore during their periods is an indication of the limits of their knowledge"

And happyroach, you're exactly right. This is one of the major critiques that feminist archaeologists have levelled at much historical research. When you favor the document, you're also favoring the points of view of the people who wrote those documents. The archaeological record, when investigated well, can allow a much richer view of the quotidian lives of underrepresented and subaltern groups. I'll stop now. Maybe I can go into this in a FPP sometime ...
posted by barnacles at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Barnacles, as I know Isobel personally, I feel honestly more biased to believe her, especially since my first hunch (when reading the newspapers) was to think what she is suggesting (i.e. the bra is really part of a fitted kirtle). However, this is not my period, and I'd rather hold off judgment until I study it more, in addition to asking my medievalist friends what they think of the whole issue.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 9:36 PM on July 24, 2012


I am delighted that the archeologist's name is Beatrix Nutz.
posted by apricot at 10:06 PM on July 24, 2012


I also don't quite understand the scholarly surprise, since surely at least a few ancient women wanted some bounce control once in a while.

Seriously. If bras didn't exist I think most women would rig something similar, just out of practicality. A bandeau type top or a simple wrap would be easiest but a person with any kind of sewing skill would quickly think of adding shoulder straps.
posted by fshgrl at 12:14 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


So now we have to start the search for the first male who could open those breastbags with one hand. Never thought he was German. History is full of surprises.
posted by ouke at 12:32 AM on July 25, 2012


Or is it possible -- as ancient alien theorists believe -- that these artifacts were provided to the human race by mysterious, unknown outside forces that desire to help and hurt the human race for mysterious, unknown reasons? Ahhh, I love History.
posted by mean square error at 3:54 AM on July 25, 2012


A brief, and not entirely accurate chronology of the brassiere:

Stone Age>Over the Shoulder Boulder Holder Age>Iron Age>Madonna Blond Ambition Tour
posted by MuffinMan at 4:18 AM on July 25, 2012


“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.”

I laughed so hard at this. So now when I put my bra on in the morning I will be thinking, "I'm putting on my breast bags."

I'm guessing Victoria's Secret won't be running with this. Introducing our newest, most comfortable bras ever: The all linen Breast Bag!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:54 AM on July 25, 2012


I have to agree with the link suburbanbeatnik posted, even though I have far, far less credentials* than Isobel Carr. My first thought when I saw the "bra": That's not a bra. Thats the top of a dress or something.

I guess I don't really see the difference. Right now, women mostly wear stand-alone bras, though sometimes they wear them built into tank-tops and the like. But you could easily combine a bra and a slip by sewing the slip to the bottom band of the bra -- it would look a little odd to our modern eyes, maybe (actually I think it would look like particularly ugly 1970s lingerie), but would function in terms of breast movement and chafing control exactly the same.

And I often see sundresses, meant to be worn without a bra, but with the top part (bodice?) constructed similarly to a 1960s bra. Again, different form, exactly the same function. So I don't really see the question of whether or not fabric was sewn to the bottom of the supposed "bra" as really being all that definitional.
posted by Forktine at 5:57 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I imagine these would be useful if you had great big tracts of land.
posted by Kabanos at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2012


Nevermind the breast bags. What's up with women not wearing underpants? I mean with the emphasis on chastity, why would the netherregions be uncovered?

Not to mention mestrual time. I have read that there are women in parts of the world that mange to walk around with a wad of rags between their legs and no pants like apparel. It just seems so at odds with the european morality of that time.
posted by Librarygeek at 7:17 AM on July 25, 2012


the ‘Accounts of the Great Wardrobe’ (1558–1603) note that John Colte was paid £10 to provide “the Image representing her late Majestie… [Elisabeth] with one paire of straite bodies, a paire of drawers”.

John Colte apparently was the Topshop of the Elisabethan era.
posted by ersatz at 7:58 AM on July 25, 2012


I also don't quite understand the scholarly surprise...

Scholars too often seem to forget that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
posted by General Tonic at 8:09 AM on July 25, 2012


Librarygeek: Ideas about modesty and chastity are often counter-intuitive across historical contexts. This was also an era when entire families often lived in a handful of rooms, people bathed in communal areas, and sleeping two or three to a bed was an expected courtesy.

My rather uptight grandmother had a thing about undergarments that were a color other than white or beige. They were, in her mind, obvious evidence that the woman in question was promiscuously loose. Why else would she wear a different color if not to show it to someone? Perhaps a similar attitude existed about women's underpants that they wouldn't be necessary except to catch the eyes of someone with the opportunity to look up a long dress.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:15 AM on July 25, 2012


I had a chance to view the remains of the Spirit Cave Man (oldest remains found in North America, approx. 9000 years old) some time back before the Smithsonian and the native tribes whisked it away. I couldn't find a proper description anywhere but what is seldom mentioned is that the SCM was fully dressed in amazingly well crafted clothing of cured skins. He even had rabbit fur stuffed footware and I believe he had something like rudimentary underwear.

Paleolithic man (and women presumably) did not always run around naked and they certainly had the technology to make clothing. These folks were not like Hollywood cave men. I don't have any evidence of course, but I'd be quite surprised if a bra-like article of clothing existed since man (and women) first started wearing clothes, most notably for nursing mothers. Pure speculation of course.
posted by elendil71 at 8:49 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Err, if a bra-like article of clothing DID NOT exist...
posted by elendil71 at 8:50 AM on July 25, 2012


Here's author Isobel Carr contesting the conclusions about what these items of clothing are on the History Hoydens blog.

Author Isobel Carr is jumping the gun by responding to a newspaper write up without bothering to look at the actual research. When someone sends her the Nutz piece she basically climbs down and says, "O.K., sure, maybe there were bras, but I still don't think those pants belonged to a woman"--which, after all, Nutz firmly acknowledges might be the case. Although Nutz also makes some very strong arguments to show that it was highly probable that *some* women, at least, did were underpants of some description much earlier than has commonly been believed.

Frankly, I find the textual evidence that Nutz cites (the references to "breast bags" that are designed to draw attention to a woman's breasts) virtually dispositive--and Isobel Carr's apparent ignorance of those references rather undermines her claims to authority.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on July 25, 2012


There's been a long tradition of ignoring major aspects of women's lives in history,

There’s a long tradition of not knowing about all kinds of day to day aspects of people’s lives in history because no one thought they were interesting enough to write about, or that writing didn’t survive, etc.
posted by bongo_x at 12:18 PM on July 25, 2012


This has always been one of those statements of historical fact that I found very hard to believe. Women didn’t wear bras? For thousands of years they just "flapped in the breeze" (as my wife says) waiting for some man to invent a simple garment for support? Seems unlikely.

I agree with Forktine, a bra is a bra, I know one when I see it. It holds boobs. Getting all picky about the definition because it doesn’t have a Maidenform tag is silly.
posted by bongo_x at 12:22 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It just seems so at odds with the european morality of that time.


Imagine how immodest having to guddle around under your ankle length skirts every time you needed to excrete in some fashion would be. Up until recently even bloomers were split crotch, much for the same reason men's undies have a little tuck window and union suits have a back flap.
posted by Phalene at 12:35 PM on July 25, 2012


guddle

New favorite word!
posted by Forktine at 1:09 PM on July 25, 2012


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