15th Century Underwear Discovered

Posted By on July 17, 2012

Thanks to Bess Chilver, Tudor costume expert, for pointing this out to me. If it was April 1st I wouldn’t believe what I was seeing or reading, but an article in yesterday’s Daily Mail claimed that sets of lace and linen lingerie (four bras and two pairs of knickers) has been discovered in a vault at Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol, Austria.

What is important about this find is that the garments have been radiocarbon-dated to the 15th century, yet, as The Daily Mail points out, it has always been thought that women did not wear knickers until the 18th century and that bras were not worn until around a hundred years ago.

You can see pictures of one of the sets of lingerie, which looks exactly like a string bikini, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2174568/Found-castle-vault-scraps-lace-lingerie-rage-500-years-ago.html, where you can also read full details of the discovery.

This has also been reported in BBC History Magazine’s August Issue.

Interesting!

Bess’s thoughts from Facebook:
I don’t think it will change our thoughts about 16th century underwear – simply because the silhouette from the 1520s (at least) is VERY different to that of the 15th century. As we can’t wear a modern bra under an over bust corset, neither could the Tudors wear this garment (which, incidentally, is more likely to be similar to a “long line” bra) underneath a closely fitted kirtle which behaves a bit like a “corset” as we know it (as in reshaping the body – though in the 16th century into a “cone” shape rather than an “hour glass” with cinched in waist).”

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"15th Century Underwear Discovered"

17 Responses to “15th Century Underwear Discovered”

  1. Maggyann says:

    I read this story last night. Personally I do not believe these date from the time mentioned. It is quite possible they were formed from garments from the period so that the materials themselves are really really old but I can’t see (the bra especially) being from such an early date. Perhaps at a later date someone came up with the idea of making a bra and used old stuff they found in a chest to make the try outs with. The knickers (I so love that word) look more like something devised for monthy needs rather than everyday, if you see what I mean, or possibly incontinence pants of the time. Though the time would be more 19th century I would imagine.
    If you think about it wearing a pair of such knickers under layers of petticoats and what have you would have made penny spending etc damned difficult so honestly I dont think women of the time would even have wanted such things never mind gone to the troube of making them.
    It would have been very difficult to wear a bra as such under corsets or the stiff front panels of the 15th century.
    It is interesting but I am very dubious about the claims.

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    Claire Reply:

    From Bess on Facebook:
    “There is evidence of “bra” type garments in the Roman period – though the images we have are more of a bandeaux tightly bound around the breast AND the context is sport and exercise. These ones are different to the Roman ones.
    In my research on medieval dress (having made 4 medieval gowns now – 2 for me and one each for two others), I have been coming more to the conclusion that though it is quite possible to be entirely self supported with just the garments themselves, there is a missing garment we can’t find in the visual evidence. This find, particularly as it was probably a “long line” version, reminds me of the Bohemian Bath Baebes (http://rautakyy.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/kylvettc3a4jc3a4t1.jpg) who have incredibly closely fitted “smocks” which support and shape the bust. Are these images and the finds the missing link?”

    I think you’re right about the knickers being used to hold a rag in place for a woman’s monthly needs. I’ve always thought that they must have had something like the old-fashioned sanitary belts that I used to see sold in our local pharmacy. There must have been something to hold the rags/moss in place.

    Yes, I agree with you and Bess that the bra would not have worked with Tudor costume, but may well have worked with earlier costumes.

    [Reply]

    Jillian Reply:

    I think that it is very likely that the bra-type garments were worn in the fifteenth century, although the ‘knickers’ may have been used solely to keep sanitary wear in place, as other posters have said.

    There are contemporary references to ladies wearing ‘breast-bags’ which are quoted in the original article. These seem to have two purposes: control and uplift. If you look at fifteenth century paintings, the Burgundian houppelandes and Italian Renaissance gowns in particular are often quite low-necked, designed to show off a lady’s ‘assets’ – some form of bra would certainly have helped to do this. Dresses of this period are very different to the later Tudor gowns – they are high-waisted, often secured under the bust by a belt and corsets were not worn then. As a re-enactor specialising in the fifteenth century, I have a number of such gowns and being far from flat-chested, always wear a modern bra underneath!

    As Bess Chilvers said in the original post, these bras would not have worked with Tudor gowns due to the difference in shape and the corsets used, so they could well have died out only to re-emerge in the eighteenth century.

    Here is the original article:
    http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie

    [Reply]

  2. Elliemarianna says:

    Since the bra is padded, is it possible its an early version of a maternity bra? After birth breast are swollen and sore and have a tendency to leak lol, so perhaps the bra offers some much needed support, and protects the clothing from the breast milk? The pants could be for menstruation, since there would need to be something to keep the rags/moss in place as you say.

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Elliemarianna,Ihave to agree with youTudor undergarments,upper class women bore booned corsetsmany layers of petticoats and slips.Also one peice dresses/gowns that laced up the back. Also dresses that laced up the sleeves, as upper class women there dreess and gowns were low cut that is were the corset came about,the panties are called drawers,and were optional Item.So I do think that the drawers, were wore at ones time of the month,the string on one side was so that they would not go down the privy when a lady was in use.The so called bra I think was woren by a wet nurse as the upper class used a wet nurse.Women also wore chemmises, suir coats because the castles were very cold and to kirtles.Lower class also wore kirtles aswell and a over dress that laced up the front and a under chemmise,there dresses were ankle length so they would not trip. So I hope you liked the info. Kind Regards Baroness.

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  3. yanice says:

    well, i must admit i dont know too much about dresses etc, but what i see on the picture is not a bra, but part of a corset, like it was ripped off. That longer part on the left side (right side of the picture) which is hanging down has too many small holes in it, like it was ment for laces, which would hardly be tied up horizontally.

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  4. yanice says:

    and regarding those panties i absolutely agree with both of you :)

    [Reply]

    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Yanice,The panties were called drawers and were optional,also men wore drawers aswell mostly when ridding to keep the privates in place.Men also wore hose and they were knee lenght ,ankle and a hose that went to the trunk down to the feet,much like we wear today.They also wore jerkins cloaks hats long shirts and breeches.It was also fashion to sport a beard and a mustach,or one or the other not just a mustach.Much of everything laced up the sides or at the back.I donot think that the so called bra was ripped clothing that old would deteriorate. THX Baroness

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  5. miladyblue says:

    I will defer to your expertise in costume, and what was possible… BUT, could it be that this bra and knicker set (I’m with you, Maggyann, knicker IS a great word!) could have been just for looks purposes? I mean, I have read about Anne Boleyn introducing lingerie to the Tudor court, as she did with other French fashions – could this just have been something for the boudoir, for the lady to light the desires of her husband or lover?

    [Reply]

  6. avuw says:

    Hey claire!

    This is quite a discovery! You know how we should celebtate this? A writing competition!

    Sincerely a very understimulated writer

    [Reply]

  7. Dawn 1st says:

    I agree with those that think the knickers were used for when the ladies were having their monthly cycle, but the ‘bra’ looks to me as though it is a piece left from a bigger item of clothing, like a full length petticoat, and as fashion varied in different countries, maybe these were items that were what Austrian ladies wore, and other parts of Europe, and Britain didn’t, unless they were things re-fashioned out of older garments, it is very intriguing…

    [Reply]

    baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Dawn1 The kinckers were called drawers and the sting on the side, was so that the ladies would not lose them when using the pirvy.The men also wore them aswell to keep there private parts in tack,as men were on horse back from the time they were knee high,well at lest I was.Horse was the moed of travel at that is why alot of men had bood legs If I get another find let you ABFs know. Have a Grat Day.Baroness

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    baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Have a Great Day^ sorry Baroness

    [Reply]

  8. baroness Von Reis says:

    Hi AB Friends,They did not wear bras nor nickekers , I am sure that thre was some type panties,as nikers were very loose.Many women took to bed rest at that time of the month.I just got my gown last night these women wore corsets to push the breast up and keep the waste thin and slender,women of all sizes, woops and many under slip, trust me I put my new gown on ,it took almost 1 hour I wished for my lady in waiting,but only got my husband to help lace my bodice,they must be very tight and it was!! The dresses back in the day were very heavy , I have one thats 50 pounds of dress. They did wear a belt at that time of the month,if I am correct. Have a Great Day ! !! Baroness X

    [Reply]

  9. baroness Von Reis says:

    I went on the sit you have Claire,and the so called bra if youl look very closely there is a long peice of cloth with hole and string of sort,intact I think there was another side to this so called bra,the lace up the back or perhapes lace up both sides like a bodice. As for the so called nickers they seemed to have lace and a tie on one side,so a women could use the privy.kinckers were long with a ruffle about knee lenght,als pantalins were a little later in time.Ifyou look at these Itemes and look very close you will see what I am taking.we are talking 500 yrs ago,but a great find.

    [Reply]

  10. FrEeStyleR says:

    Well if it was April 1st I wouldn’t believe either! : )) Not sure if one find can rewrite the history but yes it is a very interesting find.

    [Reply]

  11. VikingMomSD says:

    Clair,
    I have just found your site and I have fallen in love. Your research is spot on and very detailed. I am working on adding your site to my Honors English when we start on British lit and history.

    Regarding the garments, as anthropologist and fiber geek my first impression is that this is an example of style transition. They would have used “scrap ” material to create a mock up. We may be looking at 500 year old scraps. It was common for a seamstress to create a mock up dress to use as a pattern especially if styles and figures changed. It was also common to pass garmets down due to the expensiveness of the fabrics. Prior to the Industrial Revolution fabric was hand woven on 36 inch floor looms and finer was hand spun. Before the seamstress reworked a piece she /he would have used linen to make the mock up pattern. I also believed that is why it was found in a midden pile and not preserved in a chest. Queen Margaret of Denmark coronation gown was found in a chest in 1935ish. I believe Elizabeth I garments were similarly preserved.
    I have been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth I Scandinavian counter part Queen Margaret I since high school.
    As to the “drawers “. I have seen similar worn by men for extra protection while riding or other activities. We can speculate on the use of them. But, where they were found is also telling of their importance. If they were a valuable garment then it would have been kept in a chest and not discarded.
    Thank you for the awesome site.

    [Reply]

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