Textile Tidbits #2: the Lengberg Bra (Inspiration for worldbuilders, writers, & artists)


The first modern bra was patented in 1914
by Mary Phelps Jacobs. She was a busty woman, and invented it out
of sheer frustration, trying to cope with the new fashions,
which were cut for slim and boyish figures, and furthermore,
were made from light and sheer fabrics, which betrayed her corsets beneath. Who knew her invention would soon toll the
death knell of those very corsets? However, she was certainly not the first woman
in history to seek a solution for this inconvenience. In 2008, during a restoration project in Lengberg
Castle, in Austria, ancient floorboards were pulled
up, revealing a cache of thousands of textile
fragments. Among those fragments,
were the remains of four surprisingly modern lace-decorated linen bras. The bras were dated to between AD 1390 and
1485, hundreds of years before Jacobs filed her
patent. The distinction is the presence of clearly-cut
separated cups, which other early bindings lacked. Medieval written sources contain numerous
references to “breastbags”, or “shirts with bags”, but until the discovery
of the Lengberg bras, we were not sure what those garments looked
like. There are images of women in tightly fitted
underdresses, with a few differences from the common shift. They usually have straps, but not sleeves. And they are fitted under the bust,
either directly, as an empire waist, or the garments will have a fitted bodice,
to which a skirt may be attached. All of this comes together to make a garment
which is much more supportive to bustier women. Many medieval costumers out there have attempted
faithful recreations of the Lengberg bras, and I have to say, they look pretty good. A curious thing to note, if you read the context
surrounding the references to these bags, written by men,
is that it seems that the women who wore them had one of two goals in mind. Either to bind and minimize their size,
or to enhance and display. And as you can imagine, the men had opinions,
either way. The word “indecent” gets thrown around
alot. For some reason this story always makes me
think of Men in Tights. “We’re men! MANLY MEN! We’re men in tights!” On the surface, the idea of a hidden castle
vault containing preserved medieval lacy lingerie
is just so delightfully ridiculous. It sounds fake. But on another note, it proves that there’s
nothing new under the sun. I feel like there’s such an attitude to
discount the past, but humans have faced the same challenges
for millennia. And just because we don’t know all of our
ancestor’s solutions, doesn’t mean the solutions didn’t exist. Every time we dismiss our history,
maybe just remember that women invented bra cups 600 years ago,
and we would never have known about it if not for a flooring project in Austria.

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