25 November 2012

The 14th Century bust: Part 2

I started by considering the common methods of bust support used by individuals reproducing English/French 14th Century female fashions. However, of course, it is more important to consider the historical evidence: the silhouette of the era and any primary sources (documentary or archaeological) for bust supportive methods. This post will consider the historical silhouette. 

I shall not be considering the 15th Century - it is not my area of interest whatsoever. However, I hope I can convince you that for the vast majority of the 14th Century the female silhouette is completely different from that of the 15th Century and thus what applies to the latter will not necessarily apply to the former. 

Part 2: The Fashionable Female Silhouette 1300-1375 ~

One of the first things that is apparent about the 14th Century bust is that it is often remarkably flat. This is most evident in the early 14th Century, when fashion appears to have still been based on drape and fabric rather than fitting:
Luttrell Psalter, English c. 1320-40, f. 208r, 202v, 63r and 193r.
Taymouth Hours, English c. 1325-1350, 74v, 61v and 81v.

Occasionally, a subtle indication of curves is in seen in the bust area, as here:
Luttrell Psalter, English c. 1320-40, f. 193r and 208r.
Looking further forwards, now using effigies, we continue to see what modern eyes would consider a very flat bust:

Blanche Mortimer, Much Marcle, England, d.1347.
Maud Hiltons, Swine in Holderness, England, d. after 1363.
Margaret Blanket, Bristol, England, c. 1371.
Etc. Finally, even when there is some evidence of a bust, the silhouette is often rather compressed, with a low, flat, mono-bosom effect:

Katherine Mortimer, Warwick, England, c. 1369.
Wife of Henry Berkhamsted, Berkhamsted, England, c. 1370.
Lady, Newent, England, c. 1380.
Thus, it can be seen that for the majority of the 14th Century the female silhouette was one of compression and flatness rather than emphasis and lift. Additionally, the bust is de-emphasised in another way: cleavage. Necklines are generally oval and may show a fair amount of collarbone and shoulder. An extreme of this is reached in the mid-1300s before regressing back in the opposite direction:

Roman de Alexandre (MS Bodl. 264), Tournai c. 1338-1344, f. 128v.
However, throughout the first three quarters of the 14th Century, low necklines are notably absent and cleavage is never seen. Indeed, when the neckline curves down exceptionally low over the shoulders it often curves up over the chest. 

All of this changes at approximately 1370, when curved bust silhouettes and cleavage begin to be seen. However, that is a topic for another day and the next part of this discussion.

(All effigy images are from The Medieval Combat Society. The Luttrell Psalter and the Taymouth Hours are from the British Library. MS Bodl. 264 is from the Bodleian Library, via LUNA.)


  1. Of course, grave effigies can be misleading about the appearance of the bust, even if they are very realistic, because they show the person *lying down*, and the bust always looks small when one is lying down because the fullness tends to move sideways. So the flat busts on grave effigies may overstate the flatness of a woman's real appearance in life.

    1. You make a very valid point.

      Although, I wonder how much effigies are supposed to look like someone lying down as often there are other gravity-defying details, e.g. the drape of the veils, that suggest they were carved from a model (physical or mental) of someone standing.

      The other point is that one of the key parts of Robin Netherton's "gothic fitted dress" method is making the occupant lie on their back during fitting to enable the bosom to be pushed up further. In those photos the bust is *flatter* than when standing upright but by no means *flat*. E.g.: http://cottesimple.com/tutorials/curved-front-seam/

    2. I know I'm chiming in *very* late here, but isn't there some possibility that part of this had to do with the fact that people in general were much slimmer in period than they are now? Nutrition wasn't a known thing, parasites were an issue, etc. Putting aside whatever theories exist about the impacts of animal hormones on our bodies in the modern era (which I'm not sure I buy into, fwiw), our diet is very different now, and the average silhouette in the 14th century was very slim all over. Slimmer hips, arms, necks, etc. We Americans are especially heavy the past few decades, and therefore have much larger busts.

      Loving your blog, btw!

    3. Please don't worry in about chiming in late. All comments are appreciated, especially ones that make me think!

      I think weight/size/nutrition definitely has something to do with it. I also wonder about the impact of the high levels of hormonal contraception use in modern Western populations, which often can cause bust growth. Another possibility is that the 'ideal' age for a woman in medeival Europe was considered to be 14 years of age (e.g. in the 'Pearl' poem) -- with poor nutrition and a generally slimmer size, that's barely pubescent.

      That all said, pregnancy was much more prevalent (and prevalent earlier) in medieval Europe (even if the Hajnal line theory has shown that its prevalence/earliness was not as great as the stereotype would suggest). So, there would be more post-pregnancy bodies, which are generally heavier and bustier (though in a different way to an overweight/obese person, or a skinny person with contraception-induced bust growth).

      Glad you like the blog (and sorry to not post much recently -- I'm currently being consumed by grad school, but hope to get back to costuming and reenacting once my thesis is in!).

  2. Another possibility is that, since this is the 'fashionable' silhouette of the period, consequently all women are portrayed in that manner. Regional sculptors of tomb effigies also tended to have a stylised method of working, as did the creators of memorial brasses, unrelated to the individual figure or face of the woman portrayed. The only exception I can think of is the effigy of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England (1369), showing the realistic figure of an older woman without any attempt at fashionable slenderness. In this case, it is possible that Jean of Liege, the sculptor, was creating a close likeness of the queen at the request of her husband, Edward 111, as they had been a devoted couple.

    1. Oh, I totally agree. However, that was kind of my point -- flat-chestedness and/or compressed into a columnar shape rather than hourglassy was the fashion for much of the 14th Century.

      Yes, as in all eras different women will have had different abilities to conform to that fashionable ideal based on their personal bodyshape. However, a curvy woman would still (if she wanted to be fashionable) attempt to conform to that fashionable silhouette by wearing breast bindings, support garments or clothes in general that emphasised flatchestedness and a columnar silhouette. She would not try to *emphasise* an hourglass silhouette.