Abreast About Bras, Breast
Washers & Victoria’s Knickers
News about ancient female undergarments took our breath away. It’s well established that much of Medieval and Victorian attire had all the makings of portable restrainers, as women were deemed their fathers and husbands’ property. Just like some faiths would still have it.
A set of brassieres, found in a floorboard vault of the 1100s Lengberg Castle, and one of Queen Victoria’s own bottoms, show that such zeal went even deeper. While the bras look sexy, in a poverty-chic kind of way, the huge ‘bloomers’ would make even a clown blush.
Victoria’s secrets, which have been sold in auction, were known to exist, but the elaborate needle-lace design of the bras was a relative surprise. Their format, with distinct cut cups, is unlike that of the antique strips of cloth or leather favored by Greeks and Romans, used mainly to flatten the breasts.
Researchers who are studying the pieces are unsure whether the well preserved linen underpants also found in the vault are female or male. That’s because while men were known for wearing them, women are believed to have acquired the habit much later, around the time when England’s Virgin Queen was crowned, in the early 1800s.
Risking veering off the subject here, but in a loosely related field, it’s interesting how breast washers became relatively popular, just over a century later. Even though they seem inexplicable from the point of view of modern notions of hygiene, vintage ads show that manufacturers went to great lengths to highlight their usefulness.
SUPPORT & PRIDE
Archeologists at the University of Innsbruck determined through carbon dating, that the cotton garments are the oldest in existence, from between 1440 and 1485. That also coincides with the rebuilding of Lengberg, in the 15th century, for the addition of a third floor, under which the trove of clothing and leather footwear laid for ages.
Since their discovery, in 2008, the university team has been patiently cataloging and researching their historical context. It comes as no surprise that there’s some confusion about their exact purpose, other than support, in part because most of the medieval record has been set down by male members of religious or scientific orders.
It’s also unknown whether only the privileged nobility and aristocracy were used wearing underpants. It seems more likely, though, that by that time, women had already achieved relative control over their intimate habits and garments, as the embroidery sewn on the ancient bras seems to suggest.
THE QUEEN’S KNICKERS
As with the ancient bras, what women wore under the heavy garments favored in the 18th century is astonishingly little known. Queen Victoria herself inspired a whole culture of rigid morality and ‘virtue,’ at least in England, which means that most of the fun was driven underground.
She would’ve certainly disapproved the auction of such an intimate piece of her clothing, and probably gone nuts to the sight of them being viewed as widely as they were, before being sold the other week in Essex, U.K., by slightly over $400. Fortunately, the times have, indeed, changed.
We know now, more than ever, that what’s often portrayed as a caste period of ‘proper’ behavior and sexual etiquette verging on obsession, was actually a time of extreme poverty, huge income gaps, and misery for all but members of royalty, aristocracy and newly-minted industry barons.
Even though no one doubts that the British sovereign whose Jubilee has been recently celebrated had her own share of heartbreak and constraints, the England she presided over was ending its centuries-old world domination, and the industrial revolution was quickly changing the course of its future.
As she retreated to the comforts of her palaces, along with a dwindling British elite, it fell to Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, among others, to register to posterity the harsh realities of those times. Perhaps it may not be by chance that only now we get to have a good look at her undergarments.
And boy, do they look ridiculous.