This piece of clothing is hardly racy by today’s standards but the skimpy bit of lingerie has certainly shocked historians. The lace and linen undergarment dates back hundreds of years before women’s underwear of this sort was thought to exist.
It had lain hidden in a vault beneath the floorboards of an Austrian castle since the 15th century. Despite its state of decay, the bra has the fitted cups and delicate straps of its modern-day counterparts while the accompanying knickers bear more than a passing resemblance to the string bikini briefs popular today.
While it was known that medieval men wore undergarments like modern-day shorts, it was thought that women wore simple smocks or chemises. It was also thought that knickers didn’t make an appearance until the late 18th century. Bras were believed to be an even more modern invention, not appearing until around 100 years ago.
While tis believed that women didn’t wear underpants or knickers until as late as the end of the 1700s; the discovery of a pair of preserved linen underpants in Lengberg begs the question: did they belong to a man or a woman?
The underpants from Lengberg were of a type developed during the late 14th and 15th century, when men began wearing joined (full) hose (think leggings or tights) or trousers. Period illustrations of sacral or secular themes only show men wearing this type of garment. Trousers and underpants were considered symbols of male power; women wearing any kind of pants were thought to be trying to usurp male authority, or were of low morality. When women are shown wearing pants tis always in the context of “a world turned upside down”. However, just because it was thought women should not wear any form of pants doesn’t mean they didn’t.
Hilary Davidson, fashion curator at the Museum of London, said the discovery “totally rewrites” fashion history, adding: “Nothing like this has ever come up before.” She believes it is “entirely probable” that similar garments were worn by Britain’s medieval women. “These finds are a very exciting insight into the way people dressed in the Middle Ages,” she continued. “It’s rare that everyday garments of any kind survive from this period, let alone underwear.”
The undergarments were among almost 3,000 fragments of clothing and other detritus found in Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol during recent renovations. It is thought that they were buried when the building was extended in 1480 and that the exceptionally dry conditions stopped the fragile garments from disintegrating over the centuries.
Beatrix Nutz of Innsbruck University, who made the find, initially faced scepticism but radiocarbon-dating tests confirmed her suspicions. The haul included four bras and two pairs of pants. Two of the bras resemble modern counterparts but the others are described rather bluntly as “shirts with bags”, the August issue of the BBC History Magazine reports.
Sources: BBC History Magazine August 2012, The Daily Mail, Innsbruck University