The Ancient History of Modern Bras: Fashionable and Functional Female Underwear for Over 600 Years!
Until recently it was thought the bra as we know it evolved in the 1900s as a garment known as a bust improver. But a surprising discovery was made that pushed back the existence of the bra 600 years. In the 1910s the first official brassiere was patented by Mary Phelps Jacob. Since then, bras have been through countless incarnations. From the pointed bullet bras of the 1950s to the risqué push up bras worn by many women today, they have evolved as frequently as the rest of women’s fashion and love them or hate them, they are here to stay.
Exhibiting the History of Bras
They are an item of clothing that many people don’t give a second thought to, but bras have had their own exhibits at major museums like the V&A in London and the Queensland museum, and now there is even a museum called The Underpinnings Museum which is dedicated entirely to underwear.
They support the bust, assist in creating a flattering and fashionable silhouette, and before the advent of both deodorant and the washing machine they helped to delay the need to wash outer garments. But these are all issues women have dealt with for thousands of years. While corsets and stays had been worn for about 300 years prior to the advent of the bra, supporting the bust by pushing it up from below rather than holding it up with straps, it has always been a mystery what women were wearing underneath their garments in the Medieval era.
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Bust improver from 1900 worn over a corset. ( Public Domain )
Pushing Back the Date of the Push-up Bra
Although the bust improver was first popularized in the 1900s, there are some examples of home sewn bust improvers from earlier than that. At that point in time, it was still common practice to make your own clothes or have them made by a professional seamstress. For this reason, it is unsurprising that although some women had been putting padding in their corsets to fill out the bust for decades, others had the idea of enhancing their assets with some extra padding held securely in place with straps and a band. In 2004, the Science Museum in London found one such homemade proto-bra dating from the 1880s which had been hidden in their archives unnoticed for years.
A lacey bra-like undergarment from December 1902 edition of ‘La Mode Illustree’, a women’s fashion magazine. (Public Domain)
To lingerie historians (yes, that is a real job) this was a fascinating discovery and one which pushed back the invention of the bra by two decades. But in 2012 archaeologists announced they had found evidence in a castle in Vienna that indicates women were wearing garments we would recognize as bras as far back as 600 years ago.
The set of four bras were found in 2008, at Lenberg Castle, Austria, but they were so similar in style to modern bras that the archaeologists who found them needed to find hard evidence they were genuine and not an elaborate hoax or prank .
It was eventually confirmed that the bras were indeed from between 1390 and 1485, and they are now evidence that our ancestors were thinking logically about the same issues we face with clothing, and in some cases, they came up with similar solutions.
Lengberg Castle, East-Tyrol: 15th century linen “bra” (large image) in comparison to a longline-bra from the 1950´s (small image below left) ( Institute for Archaeologies )
But it is not only the fact they are shaped like modern bras that makes them interesting – they were not just plain and functional, but lacey and alluring. We tend to think of lingerie as a modern concept, and of people in the past being prudish and uptight. Discoveries such as this help to dispel that notion, and let us remember that our great, great, great (great, great…) grandmother would have wanted to feel sultry, too.
A Missing Link in the History of Women’s Underwear
Surviving examples of underwear from this period have proved elusive, and there are no known depictions in artwork of the era. As a result, fashion and lingerie historians have described the bras as a ‘missing link’ in the history of women’s underwear. It is so unusual for undergarments as old as this to be preserved that they have totally rewritten the history of women’s underwear in this era, and it is hoped that more evidence of underwear from the Medieval period will be found to confirm whether bras such as these were common at the time.
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Bikini Girls Mosaic, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. The history of ‘bras’ goes way back. ( Public Domain )
Are the First Bras Lost to Time?
It is funny to think that women in the 1900s were donning their bras and feeling thoroughly modern when they were wearing something which had been in use hundreds of years ago. It is also interesting to consider when the bra may first have made an appearance in women’s wardrobes, as utilitarian clothing like this which was worn day in and day out would usually have ended up being discarded when it wore out rather than being preserved for future generations to find and admire. Due to the perishable nature of materials used, we may never find evidence of bras from earlier periods, even if similar garments were worn. But some images like the ‘Bikini Girls’ mosaic seem to indicate the presence of a similar garment way back in ancient Rome.
In an age where ideas are easily shared and preserved online, it is particularly hard to imagine such a simple idea being lost to time. There are countless websites dedicated to making faithful replicas of clothing and underwear from past eras. There is even a movement dedicated to reinterpreting garments like corsets and girdles to suit a modern aesthetic and lifestyle - but perhaps one lesson that can be learned from these Medieval bras is that when it comes to fashion, everything has been done before.
A modern corset inspired by medieval architecture. ( Threnody in Velvet / Sarah P Young)
Top Image: ‘I dreamed I went shopping in my maidenform bra.’ The history of bras goes back much further in time. Source: National Museum of American History/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
CBS news. 2016. 600-year-old Linen Bras Found In Austrian Castle. Available At: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/600-year-old-linen-bras-found-in-austrian-castle/
Emke, L. 2018. How to use antique patterns. Available at: https://foundationsrevealed.com/index-of-articles/corsetry/corsetpatterns/924-tracing-antique-patterns
Emke, L. 2019. Our Lady of the Angels. Available at: https://www.waistedcreations.co.uk/our-lady-of-the-angels
Fox News. 2012. World’s oldest bra found in medieval Austrian castle? https://www.foxnews.com/science/worlds-oldest-bra-found-in-medieval-austrian-castle
Hill, C. 2014. Exposed: A History of Lingerie. Yale University Press
La Mode Illustree. 1902. Combinaison, chemise de bal et cache-corset. La Mode Illustree
Laskowska, K and Smith, L . 2018. Lift & Separate: Technology & The Bra. Available at: https://underpinningsmuseum.com/exhibition-lift-separate-technology-and-the-bra/
Lobell, J. 2012. Medieval Fashion Statement. Archaeology 65 (6): 12
Now That’s Lingerie. 2011. The Oldest Bra in the World!. Available at: https://www.nowthatslingerie.com/bradoctor/blog/blog-updates/the-oldest-bra-in-the-world/2011/05/23
QlueMag. 2016. Push Up Bra 1880. http://qluemagazine.com/push-up-bra-1880/
Queensland Museum. 2014. Undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion. Available at: https://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Events+and+Exhibitions/Exhibitions/2014/11/Undressed+350+Years+of+Underwear+in+Fashion#.XHcO9ehKjic
V&A. 2018. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear