Scientists in Austria recently revealed a secret bigger than Victoria’s.
While excavating Lengberg Castle in 2008, a group of archaeologists led by the University of Innsbruck’s Dr. Harald Stadler unearthed a sack from a recess in the floor. Inside, they found underwear, shoes and four linen pieces that looked like bras. The castle was first documented in 1190, but archaeologists suspect the sack and its contents were left there during a renovation in the 15th century.
Many people believe the modern bra was invented after corsets, and was a revolutionary result of late 19th and early 20th century style and engineering. But the "treasure chest" of chest wear suggests that the bra as we know it is just the most recent overhaul in a long line of similarly shaped breast supports.
"(The find) reminds people not to assume we already know everything, and to keep an open mind to possible new discoveries about our history," said Beatrix Nutz, a member of Stadler's team who he commissioned to research the textiles in 2009.
“I don’t think they quite revolutionize the history of underwear, but this find certainly will modify it,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research. “I think it means people should go back and look a bit more carefully at other garments and images in antiquities collections, to focus on something that may be more ignored."
The four newly discovered bras include two that resemble crop tops with bag-like cups, a decorated piece with thick shoulder straps and bags, and one that surprised Nutz with its similarity to lingerie in the 20th century.
“The one that I myself like to compare to a modern ‘long-line bra’ does look as if it could have been fashioned not 100 years ago,” Nutz said of the bra, which has thin straps and minimal cups. “The radiocarbon dates proved otherwise.”
Two of bras – in addition to a pair of underpants, a girls dress and a shirt fragment – have been carbon dated to the 15th century, Nutz said. This coincides with the idea that the garments were disposed of during the recorded renovation of Lengberg Castle.
Similarities between the medieval bras and our current collection of demis, push-ups and racer backs end pretty quickly in the realm of construction.
The medieval bras are linen while modern bras take advantage of synthetic fibers. Additionally, Nutz’s "long-line" bra fastens at the side instead of the back, cup sizes didn’t exist in the 15th century, and, of course, the Lengberg bras are all hand-sewn.
Curious to see how these bras fit into medieval chronology, Nutz began a personal inquiry into the history of underwear in general. She also contacted peers in Germany and France for help finding mentions of undergarments in medieval texts. What she found out was that, apart from differences in form, these bras also served functions different from those desired today.
Where most bras today are worn to highlight contents of all sizes, breasts deemed too large found their ways into "breast bags" in order to minimize their appearance.
“These ‘bags’ would have been utilitarian,” Nutz said.
Bras meant to highlight were used in private.
“Only the wearer herself and her husband would have seen them,” Nutz said. “As all ‘bras’ are decorated in some way it must be suspected that the wife would have at least wanted to look nice for her husband.”
Because the recently discovered bras are decorative, they would belong to members of the elite, Steele said.
“Linen was fairly widely used, but to have linen as underclothing helps protect your outerwear from your dirty body,” Steele said. “You can wash linen, you can’t easily wash silk or velvet or fur.”
Women were also discouraged from wearing underpants if they weren’t wealthy (those who did were assumed to discard them frequently in the company of men), but it is not yet known if the underpants found in the sack were men’s or women’s garments.
Despite differences, Nutz said that the medieval finds meet criteria for bras. The newly found bras have cups, where ancient Mediterranean "bras" were “simple strips of cloth or leather wound around the breasts and designed to flatten rather than enhance,” she wrote.
Even so, the presence of enhancing bras could represent the growing European fascination with empires of old, Steele said.
“In the 1500s, you certainly had people becoming increasingly aware of antiquity and ancient Rome, so I think that’s possible,” Steele said.
Steele said that bras called strophiums were common in ancient Rome, and indicative of class and style.
“Only the lowest class prostitute would take it off during sex. It has erotic significance as well as ‘breast support,’” Steele said. Mosaics do, however, depict Roman women wearing bandeau-like bikini tops while engaging in athletics.
Even so, bra-wearing wasn’t well received in the middle ages. Could wearing bras, then, have been a statement about standards for women?
“I don’t think it was a protest,” said Nutz, noting that progressive fashions have been worn throughout history without necessarily having social agendas. “Some people don’t like them because they’re too skimpy, and most things are met with skepticism at first.”