Sunday, January 16, 2011

Interesting Underwear

Katrin Kania blogged Thursday about some fascinating archaeological finds at a site in Austria.  During renovations of a historic castle, substantial number of different artifacts, ranging in estimated date from the 12th through 18th centuries, were found in the fillings of one of the spandrels of the building's vaulted ceiling.

Scan of photo by Beatrix Nutz
The finds include, not merely textiles, but actual garments, some nearly intact.  The most interesting garment, to me, is a woman's undergarment, dated to approximately the 15th century.  This article by Beatrix Nutz includes a picture of the undergarment and discusses it and some of the other finds; I have made a scan of a black-and-white printout of just the image of the undergarment, which appears beside this paragraph.

A subligar I made for myself
Why am I so certain that the picture shows a woman's garment?  Because the garment is nearly identical to a woman's garment, known from archaeological finds  as well as artwork, called a subligar.  A subligar is a bikini-style underpant that ties on the sides, and they are known to have been worn by women in ancient Rome.  Beside this paragraph is a picture of a subligar I made for myself from white linen.  I think the resemblance is interesting.

Ms. Nutz's article is in German, which I don't read, but Google Translate allowed me to pick out some interesting details about this undergarment from the article.  The undergarment found in the castle, like mine, is made from linen, but with "three layers" instead of one.  It was dated to sometime after 1440, based upon the age of the castle and the other findings, and confirmed by carbon-14 dating. 

Why do I find this garment so fascinating?  Because it suggests that perhaps the Roman style of underwear--consisting of a subligar for the lower body and a mammillare, or supporting band, for the breasts--not only became used in Northern Europe, but may have continued in use throughout the Middle Ages.  Who knows?  Perhaps Viking women used similar underwear.  As I have mentioned previously in this blog, at least one Birka find includes a small scrap of plain linen beneath what appears to be a pleated linen shift. Perhaps that plain scrap was part of a breastband.

For now, I can only hope that some future find turns up a subligar in a Viking context.


  1. So cool! I love the idea of a medieval bikini!

  2. That's the awesome thing, to me. The Austrian find is a medieval bikini; but its existence suggests that "bikinis" didn't go out of fashion after the Roman Empire fell!

    Yes, that's still just speculation, but it's much less crazy speculation than it would have been before the find.

  3. Have you seen the ~8-9th c. linen pants from the Moschevaya Balka finds?

    True, they're a lot further east than Austria, but they're at least closer to the Viking Age. :)

  4. I had seen a picture of the Moschevaya Balka finds, but I was under the impression that they were found with male garments. Is that incorrect?

  5. This is and interesting image of similar underwear from a contemporary period
    from the 1487 Louvain edition of Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus by Aegidius van der Heerstraten

    And I think if I am reading it right the write up on the linen pants from the Moschevaya Balka finds say that maybe they could be woman's pants since the cut was the same for both and on these ones the belt is tied for a very small waist. But my German is a bit rusty.

  6. That is an interesting image, but I'm more inclined to believe it now that I've seen a photograph of an actual example. (Though now that I think of it, men's wear from the period is pretty brief too, so maybe it's not so odd to find a 15th c "bikini".)

    Re: the Moschevaya Balka finds--I have a copy of an English language article (translation, probably, but not a Google translation) somewhere. I don't know that I find the waist measure that persuasive since it could have been made for a boy, but what do you mean by saying "the cut was the same for both"? Both of what?

  7. Re: the Moschevaya Balka finds: I just took the time to make a better translation of the description with the image posted above and what it is implying more than that this example belongs to a woman, is that they have enough examples to make the following general statement about undergarments: (my translation with some help from google)

    "Belonging to the undergarments of women as well as men were linen pants of various lengths, which were held up with a narrow belt with a button closure. The cut is always the same: rectangular pieces of cloth are sewn obliquely onto each side of a smaller square of fabric, which is folded into a triangle (gusset) ."

    I hope this helps to clarify the confusion in my previous post. Not having other information about this find I don't know: are there other undergarments there?

  8. Sarah: Thanks for the clarification re: the Moschevaya Balka finds.

    By the way, I now remember what I was originally thinking of when I started this discussion. There's an article, called "A Man's Caftan and Leggings from the North Caucasus of the Eighth to Tenth Century: A
    Genealogical Study" by Elfriede R. Knauer. It appeared in the Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 36, (2001), pp. 125-15. Knauer's article contains a picture of a miniature set of clothes, including a tunic, a coat, leggings, and underpants of the type you describe. These articles were found in a male grave, and Knauer treats them as a male costume; hence my original remark. However, the article Sarah references appears to indicate pretty clearly that another find from Moschevaya Balk belonged to a woman and consisted of the same type of underpants. So I stand corrected on that point.

    However, my interest is in what kind of underpants a Scandinavian woman might have worn in the Viking age.
    I can easily see that men and women might well have worn the same design of underwear--in the North Caucasus. But that doesn't necessarily translate into men and women wearing the same design of underwear in Northwestern Europe.

  9. Hmmm, I really disagree with your idea from a relation Roman to 15th century. From what we know from illustrations of this time (late 15th century) and region (Austria and Southern Bavaria; underwear is shown more often than we suppose), only men used to wear this kind of "string tanga". Women usually are painted only in long chemises, sometimes only little longer than the knees, many a time without sleeves. As far as I know there is no evidence that this underwear belonged to a women.
    This is a good research machine for illustrations.

  10. @ Anonymous Thank you for your comment! You have caused me to look back at the University of Innsbruck's webpage on the underwear finds, and to seek other information.

    You're quite right that there is period German artwork showing men wearing such bikini-like garments. Of course, it's hard to say whether 15th century German women wore such garments under their "long chemises" or not. (On the other hand, I know of at least one piece of Roman-era artwork showing such garments on women).

    I may well blog about the issue again in another post.

  11. Discussing roman era clothing with regard to an article 1500 years later is rather tenuous.
    The article of clothing is exceedingly close to that despicted on men by Albrecht Drurer - who also come from the same region and era as the find...
    Im not saying it isnt feminine - what I am saying is there is no evidence.
    What was retrieved was an item of clothing. Nobody knows who it belonged to, what sex they were or what it was used for.
    We must be careful with evidence such as this to not force our desires/theories but to take the evidence at face value...

  12. Since I wrote the above comment, I was advised of the Durer artwork showing men wearing such briefs. Your caution was clearly appropriate; thanks for passing it on.