When you think about the history of bras and other undergarments, usually the mind imagines a Marie-Antoinette, corset-wearing character (it seems ancient enough). Looking at real ancient history we pretty much thought civilizations like the Egyptians, and later the Romans, ran around in almost nothing but a tunic or a toga, and that the bra didn’t even come into existence until after the corset. Let’s meet in the “middle”, shall we?
Shockingly, the University of Innsbruck has completely shattered this idea (that the bra came after the corset) after revealing the excavation of 15th century linen bras from the Lengberg Castle in Austria. They were unearthed in a sack (along with other undergarments) beneath the floor, trapped from a renovation of the castle in 1190. Apparently people of the Middle Ages had a secret before Victoria did.
These ancient bras, referred to as “breastbags” (imagine if we actually called bras breastbags today), brings to life similar concerns of the modern woman: enhancing or reducing the bust to achieve desired results. So what makes this discovery so amazing? First, there’s no known discoveries like this from the Middles Ages. Second, they’re surprisingly modern in construction. One garment was comparable to the contemporary long-line bra, constructed with thin straps and minimal cups (the real differences between this discovery and the modern long-line bra is that the hooks are positioned on the side, not in the back or front, and its hand-sewn linen, not machine-made synthetic fibers).
What’s also amazing about this discovery is the fact that these artifacts even survived. Most common medieval linen doesn’t survive as a whole because it decays in the damp ground or suffers repeated reuse above ground until there’s nothing but threads. Those items that do survive are usually royal or religious, therefore leading archaeologists to believe that these bras were worn by nobility.
It’s interesting to see that the history of bras and lingerie has ties to an earlier time. We know that at one point or another, maybe after watching the last Masterpiece Theatre mini-series, we’ve tried to imagined what it’s like to squeeze into a corset only then to become flooded with thankfulness that we can breathe a bit freer today. So now, instead of corset fantasies, we can pleasantly think about what it would be like to wear a bra from the elite classes of the Middle Ages (sounds a lot more comfortable, right Marie-Antoinette?). In this way, maybe we weren’t so different from people in history!