Newly Discovered: The Oldest Known Bra

How cool is this?

The Daily Mail reports on a discovery of lingerie 600 years old. Check out the bra:

This bra is from the 15th century!

The bra is clearly a bra. I have long been skeptical of the claim that women had no kind of breast support before the 20th-ish century.  People find ways to ease their discomfort, and breasts without support are uncomfortable. In the Early Modern period, noble women wore tight, stiff bodices over their chemises  or smocks; you have probably seen this in paintings. What most people don’t know is that bodices were basically “public wear”; when noble women were enclosed in their rooms, with only other women and children to see, they removed their bodices (or “bodies”, as they were then called) and wore only their smocks. It was just more comfortable. The bodies pressed the breasts flat against the chest, but I think we know that isn’t very supportive, and without the bodies, they would have no support at all. This undergarment was a solution. It even has shaped cups! This garment was made to fit the breasts of a specific person.

Now for the pants:

I don’t think these are actually underpants in the way we wear them today. I think it is more likely that this garment was used during menstruation, to hold wadded or folded cloth in place to soak up menstrual fluid. Historians, finding no evidence of anything for menstrual fluid, have variously guessed that women in the Early Modern period either used wadded up cloth tied to themselves somehow, or that the women just walked around bleeding on everything, or just stayed in bed. I think staying in bed is unlikely: women had things to do, they couldn’t actually just lie around. Noble women actually did a lot of the work of running a household; sewing, planning meals, paying bills, and childcare were all some responsibilities of noble women in the 1400s.  I also think just bleeding down their legs was unlikely; hygiene was already a challenge, and no one wants dried menstrual fluid sticking on your skin and staining your clothes. The thing is, menstruation and personal hygiene were considered very private subjects. It wasn’t something a woman would talk about with a man, and most of what we know about history is what men have written.

I think it is likely that this garment was used to hold wadded or folded cloth or fiber in place, to soak up menstrual fluid. The folded cloth was probably burned when it was soaked; a woman could toss it in the fireplace in her room and no man would then ever see or know about it. The fabric used depended on a woman’s social class; poor women may have used a combination of coarse fabric and straw, whereas wealthy women probably used scraps of finer fabrics (linen, wool, cotton.)

I think these finds are interesting, because the finer details of women’s lives are so often lost to history.

You can read the preliminary report of Beatrix Nutz, one of the researchers involved in this discovery, here.

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