The modern bra. What a wonder! I can jump, I can run, I can do anything! But did you ever wonder about the birth of the modern bra? When did two cups first join forces around breasts to keep them supported?
Earlier this year it was announced that four 15th century bras were found in an Austrian medieval castle. The discovery was exciting, not just because it’s always cool to find a bra, but prior to the announcement it was widely believed that bras with visible cups first emerged in the 19th Century.
As physorg.com reports “The bra is commonly thought to be little more than 100 years old as corseted women abandoned rigid fashions and opted for the more natural look.” So, this unearthing pushes up the age of the modern bra rather significantly.
Harald Stadler and colleagues at the University of Innsbruck in Austria were scouring around the south wing of the Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol when they came upon a vault of waste hidden beneath the floor boards. Amongst the rubble of twigs, wood and leather were four ripped linen items that looked remarkably like modern bras. Carbon dating of fibres from the bra revealed the materials were from around the 15th century.
Hilary Davidson, fashion curator for the London Museum, told AP, “These are amazing finds.”
The University of Innsbruck media release describes one of the treasures as a “longline bra”. “The cups are each made from two pieces of linen sewn together vertically. The surrounding fabric of somewhat coarser linen extends down to the bottom of the ribcage with a row of six eyelets on the left side of the body for fastening with a lace.” They go on, but my cup runneth over.
The invention of the modern brassiere is shrouded in mystery. Several people have been nominated as potential inventors of the bra, including an 18th century French corset-maker named Herminie Cadolle and Mary Phelps Jacob, who received an US patent in 1914. However, this recent discovery clearly suggests the bra was invented well before these two ladies hit puberty.
Beatrix Nutz, a researcher at the University of Innsbruck who works with Stadler, wrote in History Extra, the BBC’s History Magazine, that there are some “rather vague” descriptions of female breast support written in medieval sources. For example,
“Henri de Mondeville, surgeon to Philip the Fair of France and his successor Louis X, wrote in his Cyrurgia in 1312–20: “Some women… insert two bags in their dresses, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and fasten them when possible with a matching band.”
Curiously, it seems that in the Middle Ages, as today, bras were a tool for both support and sexual stimulation. In her article Nutz also recalls a 15th-century poem which quipped, “Many [a woman] makes two breastbags [bags for the breasts], with them she roams the streets, so that all the young men that look at her, can see her beautiful breasts…”