30 July 2012

Lengberg underwear: thoughts on the pants

Just pondering on the Lengberg underwear some more...

I am curious as to why some people (often re-enactors, or SCA) are so adamant that the bikini-like pants must be a female garment. The argument of "women must have worn pants" doesn't make much sense to me. We know that in many later eras women did not routinely wear pants (or wore crotchless ones), making that argument (at least in its most blanket form) false.
I can certainly understand the argument that "women must have done something at that time of the month" - but why does it have to be pants (a la mens'), and why does wearing something for one's period automatically equate to wearing something for the rest of the month too? This argument seems particularly nonsensical to me when it comes to the mid-1300s and before, when mens' braies were huge baggy things that would not be able to hold any conjectural medieval sanitary pad close against the crotch.

In any case, the argument I've been reading about the Lengberg pants in particular is that they look nothing like the mens' braies seen in 14th C and 15th C manuscript illustrations. True. However, a lot of those illustrations are French or English. Also, may I direct you to a woodcut and a sketch by Albrecht Durer: The Men's Bathhouse (c. 1498) and Self Portrait as an Act (c. 1507). Yes, these are at the very end of the 15th C / very beginning of the 16th C. However, I don't know how precise the Lengberg radiocarbon date of "15th C" is. Also, the images are from the correct country. In any case, they definitively show men wearing bikini-style pants.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I think it's like bras. Women with small busts will make the braless argument, and have good physical evidence to back it up. Women who are well-endowed can't imagine going without for extended periods of time, and there is plenty of written evidence to suggest that many people used bust support of some kind; be it camisoles, partlets, breast bags (bras), bindings, supportive shifts, etc. sometimes referenced in art, sometimes not.
    Women who have slender thighs or a (forgive me) dryer personal environment, will say "you don't need it, they didn't wear it" whereas women who chaff or have a more humid body type will get a bit testy if they are told they can't wear underwear. Speaking as a lady who hasn't been able to go without either bust support or upper leg protection since I was about 8 years old; I'm a fan of drawers.

    As a reenactor, I think it has to come down to comfort and feasibility. If you are fine going without, go without. If you'll be crippled by blisters and chaffing within 8 steps or have a wet spot on your skirts after sitting for 30 minutes, please wear something. Not to mention varying degrees of incontinence which is quite natural after childbirth, etc.

    In terms of history and evidence, if you look at what the sermons are preaching against and glance through the medical treatises, you'll find a lot more than what is listed in the tailor's inventories. Also look into funeral practices; personal items were routinely burned or donated to charity without being listed individually, and while we can't know exactly what was there, there is room for a reasonable assumption (with caution).

    1. *shrug* I'm really not sure. I think part of the trouble is, like any really handy innovation, once you have it you can't IMAGINE how people survived without it. Equally, if you have lived your entire life without something (e.g. shoes) you are going to be a lot more resilient (in the case of shoes, both physically (tougher feet) and mentally (did that *really* hurt badly?)) than someone who has lived their whole life with, then is made suddenly to do without.

      Thus, I think that what one does as a reenactor has to be separated from what one does as an experimental archaeologist, and from one's conjecture about the past. As a reenactor, certainly wear a bra, some conjectural bust support, braies, knickers, whatever. Please, though, make it so that it won't show and don't go telling the public "oh, this *is* what *everyone* did".

      However, the argument that 'some women must have...' doesn't fly with me. Mostly because whoever says it often assumes that women then were like women now - often overweight, often in very hot/humid (American) climates, often used to wearing nothing but trousers for their entire adult life, etc., etc. Also, because in comparatively more modern times we know women (e.g. Regency women) often didn't wear drawers or only wore open-crotched drawers, so why assume that women before must have?

      I do, however, readily admit that this is a hobby and I am not an expert. Textual sources are one of my weak points - but I would love references to any of the sermons, medical treatises, tailor's inventories, etc. if you have them. And, thank you for the comment. It is nice to discuss things.