Medieval underwear points to racy history

November 14, 2012

By TORU TAMAKAWA/ Correspondent

INNSBRUCK, Austria--Underwear dating from medieval times that was found under flooring of an Austrian castle is hardly racy by the standards of today.

But the discovery does suggest that women in 15th-century Europe took pride in their appearance, and perhaps not just the privileged classes.

The University of Innsbruck announced this summer that "the world's oldest brassieres" had been found at Longberg Castle in Tyrol, western Austria.

The cotton garments were decorated, much like today, with lace and embroidery. It might not be a stretch to suggest that such underwear was designed for those "special occasions," scholars say.

At the heart of Tyrol, an area lined with precipitous alpine peaks, is the city of Innsbruck. The items were found during renovations of the castle in summer 2008. The castle lies to the south of the city.

Four brassieres were found amid a heap of cotton material, clothing and leather footwear under the third floor.

Carbon dating by the university's archaeological research team dated the garments to between 1440 and 1485, making them the oldest in existence.

* * *

There are many theories for the origins of the brassiere. Some say it was invented in late 18th century France, while others assert it originated from a patent obtained by an American woman in the 1910s.

However, texts from the 14th and 15th centuries refer to "a shirt with pouches to hold the breasts." These writings alone do not offer a clear picture of what medieval undergarments were like. Corsets came into widespread use much later on.

Regina Karner, 56, a member of the Board of Trustees at the Vienna Museum and expert on the history of women's undergarments, says: "I am astounded that they found an actual sample. This may rewrite the history of underwear."

The researchers were stunned by the resemblance of the ancient garments to modern-day lingerie. Two of the four bras had cups sewn into the chest area of a shirt to contain the bosom.

The other two have shoulder straps, and are very similar to today's bikini tops. Their size is equivalent to a modern C cup.

The shoulder straps and cups are painstakingly decorated with lace and embroidery.

The fact that the wearer dressed in outer garments suggests it was not an article of clothing for everyone to see.

Beatrix Nutz, 45, a researcher at the university, says "women of that time may have indulged in for their secret male lovers and for private delight."

There are also knots on the back and braided material on the sides to adjust the size. Although the brassieres presumably were used to emphasize cleavage, it was considered "bad taste" for women in those days to flagrantly show off their attributes.

Writing on contemporary women's bosoms, a 14th-century French poet penned a lamenting ode: "(They put their breasts) in two pouches and press them tight with rope. Ah, what a pity."

Nutz says, "The bras may have been used to make the breasts look small."

So, what sort of women wore brassieres all those centuries ago?

In the 15th century, a clergyman handed a local aristocrat stewardship of the castle. Records from the time document the addition of a third floor. The discovery of brassieres with a pile of cotton material between the second floor ceiling and third-story flooring suggests the clothing had been thrown out to be used as a form of insulation, scholars say.

The dry, sealed conditions helped to preserve the items.

The Tyrol region was under the rule of the Habsburg in those days. The region amassed great wealth from mining silver, copper and salt. And although the local aristocrats likely profited mightily, the bras were not made from expensive silk, but rather easily available linen. This is why Nutz speculates that the underwear may not have belonged to the castle lord's wife.

"The items may have been handmade and worn by a noblewoman of moderate status or a lady-in-waiting," Nutz says.

The discovery of the world's "oldest bra" was an overnight global sensation.

Immediately after making the announcement, the University of Innsbruck was inundated with requests from the United States, Australia, Germany and elsewhere for permission to copy the items.

Most of the requests came from individuals, many of them history buffs who yearn to experience a medieval lifestyle and culture.

The university is considering making replicas of the bras. If it does, the plan is to display them alongside the originals in a museum near the castle.

The inhabitants of Bad Cannstatt, a district in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart, were concerned by all the fuss. Since a corset factory there began turning out the world's first mass-produced brassieres in 1914, the area has touted itself as the "birthplace of the bra." A local museum has been holding a "brassiere exhibition" since February.

And just when Bad Cannstatt was trying to build up interest in the run-up to the 100th anniversary in 2014, the world's "oldest bra" appeared.

Manfred Schmid, the curator of the local museum, is not backing down from the area's claim to fame.

"Occasionally someone finds an unusual old undergarment that hasn't been eaten by bugs, but that's it. There's no way regular people back then wore the same kind of bras."


Along with the brassieres, an item of men's underwear, apparently from the 15th century, was also found under the castle's floor.

The wearer would tie a thin string at the sides, sort of like modern-day bikini briefs.

According to an expert, men who wore underpants in those days tended to emphasize the groin area.

As for ladies' underpants, none were found. It is thought that, with the exception of prostitutes, European women did not wear undergarments in the Middle Ages. Underpants were a "symbol of power" and a privilege bestowed only to the head of the household, who was invariably male.

* * *

History of the Brassiere

The brassiere is thought to have originated in ancient Greece and Rome. A mosaic found in southern Italy depicts a woman with a cloth wrapped tightly across her chest, but the garment lacks both cups and straps.

Corsets that constrict the breasts became popular during the 16th to 18th centuries, mainly in Europe. After World War I, brassieres in their modern form that allow freedom of movement spread across the globe.

By TORU TAMAKAWA/ Correspondent
  • 1
submit to reddit
Beatrix Nutz explains the design of a 15th-century brassiere found in south of Innsbruck, Austria. (Toru Tamakawa)

Beatrix Nutz explains the design of a 15th-century brassiere found in south of Innsbruck, Austria. (Toru Tamakawa)

  • Beatrix Nutz explains the design of a 15th-century brassiere found in south of Innsbruck, Austria. (Toru Tamakawa)
  • Longberg Castle in Austria where the 15th-century underwear was discovered (Courtesy of the University of Innsbruck)

More AJW