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History of Lingerie Part IV: The Middle Ages

The Romance of Alexander, French, 1338.

If Greece and Rome are considered classical periods in western civilization that featured much in the way of art and literature, then the Middle Ages are regarded as a stunted era between the last days of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. The Middle Ages in European history are defined as from around the 5th century to the 15th century A.D. Though they are often considered the low point in the history of western culture, they marked the first time that the western world was no longer surprised by the existence of women, and instead viewed the relationship between men and women as one of the most important, if not problematic, in the civilized world. The Middle Ages were also the period when sexual distinctions and attractiveness played a much larger role in clothing. In spite of the fact that by this time Christianity was entrenched in western culture, humans' fascination with lingerie, love, romance and sex was arguably at a high point.

A fresco depicting "The Foolish Virgins," Castel d'Appiano Italy, 1125.

Up to and including the medieval era, clothing was a symbol of social rank, but the Middle Ages attached additional meanings that had yet to be applied. Unlike previous periods of western civilization, where male and female clothing were very similar, distinctions in apparel developed at this time and have been generally agreed upon ever since. Dress lengths went up and down but then became permanently longer for many centuries. There was particular emphasis on the stomach, to the extent that the curves of the stomach, both convex and concave, were so highly defined that a thin cote would accentuate the outline of the navel, though depending on the fashion of any particular century within the period, emphasis sometimes focused on the breasts.

Late 15th century Flemmish tapestry, "Lady and the Unicorn."

Under garments for women of the Middle Ages generally included the tunic or chemise, and hose, and most of the wardrobe of the time consisted of outerwear. One of the first distinctive articles of clothing to develop during the Middle Ages was the bliaut, recognizable by its floor length sleeves and form fitting waist, the bliaut is perhaps one of the most recognizable garments associated with the early Middle Ages, particularly when combined with the the waist belt or corsage.

Bliaut with demi corsage, or hip belt, 12th century.

The onset of the 11th century saw many changes emanating from France; the chanson, fables, patriotism and the Crusades, trade guilds, Gothic architecture, advances in textiles, and a very important aspect in the development of social norms and fashions - that of courtly love. Learned people set out to explore the psychological differences between men and women, and while literature was setting about putting it down in words, fashion set out to illustrate the physical side of things. The differences between the sexes were being attributed to styles of clothing, and from this time forward would always be incorporated. Romance was embraced, men and women both took to sleeping in the nude and for four hundred years between the 11th and 15th century, the nightshirt virtually disappeared from the bedroom.

Women's fashions during this time became longer and more layered. While dresses made it fairly simple for a man to essentially ravage a woman, her under layers provided ample defense due to the sheer number of garments and volume of fabric involved. Though styles changed throughout the Middle Ages, one constant was the fact that women wore two gowns - an undergarment made of lighter material and an outer garment made of heavier material. The chemise or under layer was often visible to the eye as the dress or cote would feature slashes throughout and in the sleeves to reveal perhaps a tighter-fitting or contrast colored chemise underneath.

Effigy of Maud Foxley, St. Michael's, 1378, wearing cote with house insignia.

By the 13th and 14th centuries the cote had evolved into a garment which closely hugged a woman's curves. Depending on the wealth of a woman, she might be wearing a chemise as a loose fitting smock, a cote on top of that, and a surcoat on top of both layers. The surcoat had extremely deep armholes making it completely open at the sides, causing the Catholic church to threaten excommunication for anyone who wore the garment. They dubbed the surcoat "the gates of hell" because of its accentuated display of the female form.

Woolen hosiery would be held on the body via garters to keep stockings in place above the knees. Most period depictions of hosiery are shown being worn by men, as it would have been scandalous to depict a woman's legs in any type of artwork at the time. Wool was the more common fiber used for stockings since it was breathable, readily available, and the fabric protected the skin from the cold. Transparent materials were also popular during medieval times, especially for chemises, and hosiery and garters took on a new, sexualized connotation. Some women during the late Middle Ages would match their bracelets with their garters, providing added stimulation for male fantasies.

Late 15th century Flemmish tapestry, "Lady and the Unicorn," depicting a decorative stiff bodiced cote.

Though the corset dates back to the ancient Cretan world, it wasn't till about the 12th century that medieval women started wearing corset-like outer garments. Around that time the cote had developed into a wide sleeved linen tunic that was stiffened with paste and laced up for a close fit. It had a general resemblance to the modern corset, and was intended to define and enhance the form of the wearer, creating the slim silhouette of the medieval maiden. Sometime during the 14th century women began wearing shorter stiffened pieces of linen that laced up in either the front or the back. In the 15th century the item was referred to as a bodice in England and a corps or cors in France. The word corset is derived from the French cors.

These corsets were first made of two layers of linen kept in place using thick paste, and it wasn't until the 16th century that whale bones were used to add structure and shape. The Baleen whale produced a type of bone that resembled knitting needles or quills, these were placed vertically between the two layers of fabric. The whale bone corset was much more confining than the paste corset and when worn in combination with other undergarments of the time created a very exaggerated hourglass form.

Flexible baleen whale boning.

The sexualization of clothing during the Middle Ages also nurtured the idea of fetishism. Corset laced dresses also got longer during the medieval era, and by the 15th century the upper half of a woman's dress displayed the decollete as well as a good portion of the breasts. Skirts, in contrast, were extremely long and dragged behind a woman as she walked. Those not wealthy enough to have a page-boy carry their extensive trains used a troussoir, (from the French trousser, meaning to load), an iron hook that the train cord was hung on to prevent it from picking up dust and debris as it dragged over the ground. The troussoir inspired the poets of the era as it was worn close to the female form and led to many a male fantasy about what was underneath.

Medieval troussoir, a dress hook to keep one's train from gathering dust.

Another interesting factor in the development of underwear in the Middle Ages is that while the lingerie of the time was considered sexually charged, and kept the prize mostly hidden from view, men and women did not wear underwear when sleeping with each other. Although nightshirts were the same for both sexes, there were very few nightshirts in the Middle Ages since clothing was supposed to emphasize the differences between the sexes. The naked body was also the prize after removing layer upon layer of clothing, so why put anything else on after spending twenty minutes taking everything off? Nakedness in bed was the ultimate victory. In fact, the concept of sleeping naked was synonymous with having sex, and if nightshirts were worn, they demonstrated that no sex would be taking place in bed that evening. Though nightshirts re-emerged in the 16th century, brides and grooms still slept naked on the first night of their union.

Ironically, despite the numerous types of undergarments favored during the Middle Ages, there doesn't seem to be any evidence of actual panties worn by women during this period of western civilization. Women wore hosiery, assorted breast supports, and chemises, yet under their chemises they wore nothing. Roman women had worn underwear variations that covered the groin, yet none of the undergarments for women during the Middle Ages covered this area. The long dresses worn by women during the medieval period could explain the lack of panties, as lifting heavy skirts when relieving themselves was cumbersome enough.

A bra from late Middle Age that was found during an excavation in Austria.

A 2008 excavation of an Austrian castle unearthed a new chapter in the history of undergarments. Archaeologist Beatrix Nutz discovered four bras and a pair of men’s underwear dating back to the 15th century and, ultimately, altered everything we knew about underthings during the Middle Ages. The bras, which don lace as light embellishments, are thought to be an early form of lingerie, as they were worn by nobility to enhance the look of their breasts, according to Nutz. The striking similarity between those 15th century garments and 20th century long line bras made popular in the 1940s is uncanny! The claim of the modern bra having been invented in the 1800's is now thoroughly disproved by Nutz's unique discovery.

A pair of men's breechclout underwear also found during the 2008 excavation at an Austrian castle.

Though the Middle Ages was a time when people were obsessed by the differences between men and women and clothing was highly indicative of this, it is the subsequent period of western civilization when technical advances in tailoring and garment construction saw the true development of the corset into the classic form that we know and love.