Sunday, December 14, 2014

More on the Lengberg Bras

NESAT XI also contains yet another article by Beatrix Nutz about the Lengberg "bras."
Nutz, Beatrix.  Bras in the 15th Century?  A Preliminary Report.  NESAT XI, pp. 221-225.
As my regular readers likely will recall from some of my previous posts, Professor Nutz has previously published a number of short articles in non-scholarly publications about the Lengberg finds.  For that reason, much of what appears in her NESAT XI article is unlikely to be surprising to an avid historical costumer who has been following the news coverage of those finds.  There are some tidbits of interest, however.

1.  Virtually all of the fabric finds at Lengberg are linen (a switch from the usual situation in northern Europe, where most pre-modern archaeological finds are of wool).  There are only small surviving scraps of wool and silk among the Lengberg garment fragments, and they come in virtually all colors of the rainbow.  Professor Nutz mentions fragments of wool in "various shades of blue, red and green but also purple and very dark, almost black, blue or brown."  She also mentions "fragments of silk containing the colors yellow, purple and green."  (p. 222)

2.  Most of the Lengberg finds are of upper body garments, or of the upper body portions of garments that tend to cover both the upper and lower body.  No "clearly identifiable parts of skirts" have been found.  Professor Nutz theorizes that this is because skirts tend to consist of larger pieces of fabric which are interrupted by few seams, making them easier to re-purpose.  Bodices, on the other hand, are much smaller and have many seams.  (p. 222)  Having tried to rip apart my husband's worn shirts for rags, I agree that it's much more difficult to rip, and thus re-use, sleeves and collars.

3.  Of the Lengberg linen garment finds, Professor Nutz identifies four as resembling modern bras. For purposes of her article, a garment "resembles" a modern bra if it has a separate cup for each breast.  (p. 223)  Two of these are more like very short, sleeveless blouses with breast cups, and one is very like a modern long-line bra, except that it has lacing holes at the side.  These styles make sense in light of the fact that 15th century fashion feature snugly fitting undergowns; but their existence may require re-evaluation of the modern theory that the undergowns themselves were constructed to support the breasts without the need for a supportive undergarment.

4.  Professor Nutz concludes her article by discussing the question of dating the fragments; are we sure that they belong to the 15th century?  She concludes that we can be sure that they do, for four reasons:  a)  All of the "bras" use textile construction techniques that were commonly used during the 15th century; b) other garments and articles found with them (such as coinage and shoes) are clearly 15th century; c) the needle lace decorating the bras resembles lace made by a technique called punto in aria, which was developed during approximately the same time period in nearby Italy; and d) fiber samples from two of the bras were carbon-14 dated to the 15th century.

So it appears that garments substantially identical to the bra were in use during the 15th century, at least in Germany.  That fact suggests an interesting question--why did they go out of fashion? Possibly the change in fashion from a controlled, but essentially natural silhouette to the more rigid, conical silhouette possible with the 16th century corset drove it from favor.  Whatever else they may be, the Lengberg bras are a reminder that clothing does not progress in leaps, but in zigzags, and apparently rational garments can go out of fashion for so long that they need to be reinvented.


  1. Let's try this again; my comment vanished when I logged in.

    I am working on a novel where there was a historical diversion over a thousand years ago. In one segment two women in a region made up largely of what we would call France (one of two chunks of what was the Holy Roman Empire) are buying underwear, and refer to breast supports as "little slings" (translated, of course, from their language). Can folks make suggestions for additional terms?

    Also, on a related topic, the October, 2014 issue of _Natural History_ (the one with a bison on the cover) had an article on the origin of trousers:

    They were probably developed for horse riding.

  2. Hi, Rod! Thanks for visiting.

    It seems likely that trousers were invented for horseback riding, since it seems to have been the Central Asian nomads who first wore them.

    What kind of term you want for the dialogue you're writing for your novel may depend on how historical you want to be. 1000 years ago is the Viking era, and there is no evidence what women wore to support their breasts during that period in northern Europe. My personal bet is that they still wore what Roman women had worn, which is a long strip of cloth wrapped around the breasts and upper torso. The Romans called this mammillare; it's often described in English as "breast band" . Don't know if that helps. Good luck with the novel!

  3. The setting is contemporary, but a different contemporary. Mainly I'm just being lazy. :-)

    Well, actually, I'm admitting I'm good with technical terminology but not with slang. I'm just trying to get ideas from different sources in an attempt to provide verisimilitude.

    I was originally going to use "little hammocks" until I learned the word "hammock" was taken from natives of the West Indies. I might still use that as an alternative term.

    This is not a big deal in the story. The sequence is a couple of women talking about one of them needing some new underwear. The resulting shopping trip sets up an encounter. I saw your post about bras and wondered if you or one of your readers might have suggestions. Don't feel obligated to make a special effort.

    1. It's hard to come up with good slang for underwear without knowing what the underwear in question is meant to look like. Granted, you're not obligated to describe it, but knowing what it should look like can help with inventing the right slang.

      If the "contemporaries" wear something that looks like a modern bra, why not go with "slingshot"? Some people use that, (see and it's better than trying to come up with something that may sound too cutesy on the printed page.

  4. You know, reading your summary, it occurred to me that perhaps five hundred years from now, archaeologists will speak of the curious emergence of possibly self-supporting dresses in the late 20th and early 21st century... and speak of how they were obviously high-end garments, because they were handsewn!

    1. That may depend on how much of the fashion press survives to be read in 500 years.... The reason we're doing so much guessing on Lengberg is that hints in the extant literature are sparse. (And the reason we don't know much of anything about Viking ladies' underwear is that references in the literature are virtually non-existent, we don't have any significant finds that are unambiguously underwear, and we don't have any artwork clearly showing underwear.)