Have you heard the one about the 600-year old bra? (Some of my bras only seem that old, but when I find a bra that works, I’m likely to wear it to shreds. Can any of you relate, or am I just about the laziest lingerie shopper in the universe?) This is a seriously cool discovery, one that I’m particularly interested in because I’ve developed something of a fascination with historical underwear. (I just gave a talk last month about the significance of stays in seventeenth and eighteenth-century North America.)
This discovery by Beatrix Nutz of the University of Innsbruck is important because historians of clothing have assumed that the brassiere was invented little more than a century ago, when aggressive corseting went out of style, and middle-class and elite American and European women were being encouraged (for the health of “the race”) to engage in sports and become more active. Corsets, which by the end of the nineteenth century severely limited one’s lung capacity, were not helpful when engaging in late Victorian and Edwardian-era fashionable sports, like tennis, bicycling, and croquet.
Some news organizations are also publishing photos of what looks like a 600-year old thong that was also part of the same cache of clothing. I’d love to read what you medievalists and/or fashion experts think about this, because I doubt that this article was worn in the way modern women wear underwear. My theory is that it served to hold cloth or pads that would have absorbed menstrual flow–but I’m just thinking out loud here. What do you think? There isn’t a great deal of scholarship on the technology of menstruation-especially for anything before 1900.
While we’re on the subject of historical underwear and how women of the past dealt with menstruation, I’d like to direct your attention to a really rich and fascinating new blog, Nursing Clio, which describes itself as
a collaborative blog project that ties historical scholarship to present-day political, social, and cultural issues surrounding gender and medicine. Men’s and women’s bodies, their reproductive rights, and their healthcare are often at the center of political debate and have also become a large part of the social and cultural discussions in popular media. Whether the topic is abortion, birth control, sex, or the pregnant body, each and every one of these issues is embedded with historical dynamics of race, class, and gender. Our tagline – The Personal is Historical – is meant to convey that the medical debates that dominate today’s headlines are, in fact, ongoing dialogues that reach far back into our country’s past.
I wonder what they might have to say about this discovery, historical undergarments, and/or technologies of menstruation in the past?