History of the body archaeological bonanza: 600 year old bras and thongs?

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?

27 thoughts on “History of the body archaeological bonanza: 600 year old bras and thongs?

  1. Slightly sidebar here (at best), but yesterday morning while munching my coffee and donut at the food court of a downtown Philadelphia galleria, I saw a two year old boy hop out of his stroller and march determinedly into the “Love Pink” side-store of the mall’s standard-issue “Victoria’s Secret” shop, with his seemingly mortified mid-20s something mom trailing behind trying to divert him to the conveniently adjacent gadget shop. He finally came out under his own volition and they headed off, I guess to apply for college or something. Above ground archaeology is all the rage around here these days.


  2. It is a cool discovery, and despite being a (former) medievalist, I don’t know enough about historical fashion (or underwear) to really put it in context. A (medievalist) friend of mine pointed out that dating the fabric tells you only when the fabric was made, not when the garment was constructed, and cloth was certainly a valuable commodity that people hung on to and reused. (For instance, wills pass on dresses/robes/etc. all the time, even across genders IIRC, and it’s pretty clear that they’d get pulled apart and the cloth reused as much as the item being reworn.) Of course, that works better for sturdy fabrics like wool (although actually, linen is a really strong fiber, so might last longer than you’d expect underthings to last).

    I’m with you on your interpretation of the panty, though – totally looks like menstruation technology to me. Again, nothing to back that up.


  3. Hm, according to today’s report over at The History Blog, the thongs are actually believed to have been menswear. And, speaking as a medievalist, I must say this assumption does indeed make sense considering that visual sources from the late medieval era often depict men sporting this kind of underwear (see here for a fine example).


  4. I wonder whether the bra might also be a more occasional kind of garment — specifically, for support while engorged for nursing. Medieval aesthetics really privilege smaller, higher breasts, and we know that there was a fair amount of concern about nursing. Upper-class women often sent their children to wetnurses, but there was a large genre of critique of this practice, which accused mothers of abandoning their infants in order to preserve the shapeliness of their own breasts (AND also of a bunch of other immoral motivations, but this is the relevant one for my point). So, I wonder whether bras might have been introduced as a way to maintain shapeliness for mothers? Just a thought….


  5. You know, I wondered myself if the bras in question might have been nursing bras, or as you say Squadrato, garments worn only temporarily at particular moments in time (like my menstrual belt theory on that thong.)

    New Kid, you are so right about the value of cloth and clothing, which persists well into my period (and beyond, actually). That’s a great point that the scholars who made this discovery must consider. Here’s where historians of clothing might come in handy as analysts of design and construction.

    I have to say that that bra looks quite wearable today–pretty impressive design and construction! And to tell you the truth, when I saw the photo in the newspaper of the bra on the mannequin, I thought it was an article about a contemporary fashion show, and how the Jean Paul Gaultier look is back, or something. (Wasn’t he the one who had Madonna wearing those leather bras back in the 1980s?)


  6. historienerrant–I’m sorry that your comment got caught in my spam filter, and so I didn’t see it until just now. Thanks so much for the intel on the thong–it looks like you are onto something. I’ve seen images like the one you linked to–it looks like some kind of thing that people (or just men?) might have worn to the baths.

    What other function might that garment have had? Maybe a kind of medieval jock strap? (If the Austrians were no longer going to the baths in ca. 1400-1500, they would have been mighty nasty, and perhaps not worth the trouble.)

    Thanks too for that very informative link to The History Blog. Great stuff–I should have just linked to that and shut up.


  7. Apparently the AP and other news sources have gotten this story from here: http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie There is more detail there about the evidence for bras in the Middle Ages.

    I was surprised that they used radiocarbon dating, actually, because back in the Dark Ages when I studied archeology, radiocarbon wasn’t accurate enough to use for historical dating. (Plus or minus 200 years may be useful if you’re talking about the Palaeolithic, but not so much the Middle Ages.) But I did some checking and, unsurprisingly, there have been technical advances. Of course, it doesn’t tell you when the garment was made, as New Kid says; it doesn’t even tell you when the fabric was made, rather when the flax was harvested.

    Nutz, the researcher, discusses the possibility that the underpants are to hold menstrual rags, but also that they may have been men’s garments. As for the idea that because the bra has lace on it, it was supposed to titillate men (that’s the AP’s interpretation; Nutz just describes the lace), I am dubious. A sign of wealth, yes.


  8. I love the poem that The History Blog includes of the 15th C poem about how women wear bras to show off their breasts, and maybe make them look smaller.


  9. Wow! Thanks for the shout out, Historiann! As long time fans of your blog, we are especially excited and humbled by your compliment. We posted a link to this underwear story on our Facebook page the other day because it is just so fascinating. It will definitely inspire a future post…


  10. I love this discovery precisely because it runs counter to all those easy assumptions that scholars perpetuate. (Like the one where everyone in medieval Europe wore wool everything until they started importing cotton. Did they never see how much flax was cultivated and traded?)

    The Whiggish ideas that dress became more rational the more recent you get always get my goat. Having lived through the polyester hell of the 1970s, no one is ever going to convince me that newer is necessarily better!


  11. “Having lived through the polyester hell of the 1970s, no one is ever going to convince me that newer is necessarily better!”

    HA-ha, Janice! Good one.

    Acceptable daywear for women has gotten more comfortable, but high style fashions and footwear perpetuate the discomfort and contortions of 19th century, only now with the possibility of accidental nudity, too! Fun.

    And thanks to Ruth on the links and further intel.


  12. Looks more like a string bikini than a thong. Just sayin.

    Also, I bet it would be easy to test it for blood, though presence (or absence) would be inconclusive, since it may never have been worn, or repurposed, or … whatever. Actually, I can imagine a whole bunch of neat applications of DNA sequencing for old textiles.


  13. TOTALLY a tangent, but about this:

    “(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?) ”

    As a woman with an ample bosom, I must interject that not only is it necessary to replace bras regularly (like running shoes, they can be “worn out” even when they look perfectly fine – it’s all about the band around your torso, not about the cup) but also to get yourself sized with any sort of major changes in your body (weight loss, weight gain, pregnancy, etc.). And also, you need to try on every single bra that you might buy – you can’t just go by the size on the label. I promise you: you CAN find a “bra that works” with regularity, and that replacing them regularly will mean more comfort and also that you’ll look better in clothes. I maybe buy one or two bras a year now in replacement (expensive bras which I only buy for 15 bucks or less, on sale at the semi-annual sales of such things at department stores), and I get rid of the ones that are “comfortable” seeming. I can only say that since I’ve done this, I’ve only been more comfortable and looked better. Seriously: don’t skimp on bra maintenance!


  14. I’ve been kind of surprised by the coverage (no pun intended) this intriguing find has received in the mainstream media, and also by the immediate assumption made in some places that because the items were found together, they form a set. As a medievalist, my first thought on seeing the pants was that it was a male garment, although your theory on menstruation also makes sense. To my knowledge (and I’m certainly no expert on clothing history), medieval women didn’t generally wear anything under their skirts, unless it was necessary (e.g. they were bleeding).


  15. I think that given what we know of medieval costume that these bras were likely fashion items, but it reminded me of an 18thC letter I once read about a woman with breast cancer and how they treated it through tying poultices to her breast. And presumably women would have used similar treatments for ailments like mastitis, where a device like this would have been handy for keeping things in place.


  16. I’ve been totally wondering how people dealt with menstruation in earlier times! All I know to go on is the story from Genesis where Rachel steals the household gods and then sits on them, claiming she can’t stand up to be searched because she is menstruating. THat always had me worried that the solution was to just have women sit down on something for a week — talk about no fun!

    I’m also surprised how — I don’t know if it’s new or behind the times — fashion history is. Have you read _Emily Dickinson and the Labor of CLothing_? The amount of stuff we don’t know about earlier time periods’ clothing is kind of shocking.


  17. @ Historiann: Yes, there are plenty of images showing bathing men (and for all I know: only men) wearing that kind of thing. But you also find them in domestic scenes, e.g. men getting ready for bed and suchlike, so in the late 15th/early 16th century this really would have been just regular men’s underwear.

    However, as the article linked to by Ruth makes clear, the fact that the garment found in Lengberg fits into a well-known category of menswear doesn’t exclude the possibility that it could also have belonged into a different category, a category we simple haven’t been aware of so far. I mean, until two days ago, we had no idea there was such a thing as medieval bras, and as has been mentioned here, we only have very vague ideas regarding what women wore during menstruation.

    On this note, I just checked if the encyclopedia on Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (ed. Margaret Schaus, New York : Routledge 2006) had anything to say on the subject, but the entry on ‘Menstruation’ mostly deals with medical and moral attitudes towards menstruations and has little information on the, shall we say, practical aspects. However, it contains this little gem (which is totally unrelated to the question of underwear but simply too hilarious not to share it):

    “(T)he view that menstruation was a sign of Eve’s curse prompted debates as to whether the Virgin Mary herself (who was otherwise thought by many to be free of all taint of original sin) shared this female trait” (p. 558).

    Ah, medieval theological debate, gotta love it 😉


  18. @ New Kid: The story on the History Blog has a link to the official statement of the research team on the Innsbruck University website. From the information provided there, the architectural context of the find makes it unlikely that the garments could have been deposited in the place they were found in any later than c. 1500. This is, of course, quite literally circumstantial evidence, but in combination with the radiocarbon dating it does make a 15th century dating of the garments highly plausible.


  19. Stop the presses! Off-topic, but I want to make sure you see it, H’ann…just listened to Prof. Goodall on the BBC world service overnight and was blown away by her (very bold, in a business school context) research into how professional managers are less effective than subject-matter expert managers.


    Maybe I’m the last of you lot to learn about her book on higher ed, but just in case…


  20. Thanks, everyone, for your informed commentary. And thanks too, anonymous, for the link about the importance of expertise in a field to successful leadership in that field.

    Sisyphus: interesting biblical evidence on ancient menstruation practices. I’ve been thinking about how the different women (English, African, Native, and French) in my book would have dealt with menstruation, since communities of women are really what I’m writing about. I hear what you’re saying, but OTOH, I’m thinking that women in the ancient world, like women in Native American communities who practiced menstrual exclusion, might have welcomed a week’s vacation every month! Cherokee and Wabanaki women would go to menstrual huts when their time came, and other people (women or girls, presumably) would bring them food. They weren’t expected to work or look after their children, as far as I know. We know perhaps even less about the practices of European and Euro-American women. (In most cases, the scholarship focuses on attitudes/beliefs rather than the material culture & practical aspects of menstruation.)

    Here’s a brief bibliography of articles I found to be the most helpful:

    Marla N. Powers, “Menstruation and Reproduction: An Oglala Case,” Signs 6:1 (1980), 54-65

    Amelia Rector Bell, “Separate People: Speaking of Creek Men and Women,” American Anthropologist, New Series 92:2 (1990), 332-345

    Patricia Crawford, “Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 91:1 (1981), 47-73.

    Susan E. Klepp, “Lost, Hidden, Obstructed, and Repressed: Contraceptive and Abortive Technology in the Early Delaware Valley,” in Early American Technology: Making & Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 68-113.

    Sadly, I’m processing yet another awful mass murder here in gun-loving Colorado. I’m sure the rest of you have heard about this too. Not sure if I’ll be on-blog today. I guess what I find utterly and completely appalling is the complete impossibility of any of our political leaders suggesting a political solution to these outrages. I guess our politicians see mass murder like wildfire or drought: natural phenomena that we must endure the best we can, rather than a political problem with potential political solutions.


  21. This find is also interesting in another context. Builders of houses often hid clothing and shoes in the floor boards or walls. We/scholars assume this is “for good luck,” but so far no explanation has come to light. This is a practice that goes way back and way forward. In my 200-year old house, I found shoes in the walls next to fireplaces. My brother’s 50-year old house also had concealed shoes. Some archaeologists connect this to African practices brought to the new world in the slave trade, but the Romans also hid stuff when building houses. So this might not have been just trash thrown away, but intentionally placed.


  22. Medieval rules for female religious orders might be helpful, as they specify other types of clothing that a nun had to have and wear. Presumably nuns would be even more in need of menstrual supplies than a married woman who would spend much of her life pregnant or lactating.


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