18 November 2012

The 14th Century bust: Part 1

When it came to making an English upper-class 14th Century dress, there were lots of things to consider. Now, one day I will sew all the buttons back on it (!), acquire a camera that works (mine recently died), put it on and get some good photos for you all. In the mean time, I shall ramble a bit about my thoughts on English/French 14th Century female fashion and the bust in particular.

Part 1: Introduction ~

(First, a disclaimer: I have no formal education in medieval history, sewing, fashion, art history or anything of that sort (actually, I'm a scientist...). My library of sources are limited to a few books and the internet. So, I make no attempt to claim that this is a correct or complete analysis. It is simply my musings and opinions on a topic. That said, I very much welcome debate, suggestions, further sources, etc.)

So, to start with: what is the current (popular, reenactor/SCA) theory?

Of course, this is a rather backwards way of going about any research. One should not look at modern recreations and then try to find history to match it. However, it has to be said that modern interpretations (be they reenactor's, SCAdian's or TV/film-based) are often the inspiration point for people's costumes. Also, it's often very handy to look at other people's interpretations - not only can you save yourself from redesigning the wheel and find some good references, but you can also learn from other's mistakes.

The options that presented themselves are:
  1. No support (the theory favoured by several UK reenactors I've asked)
  2. A bra / sports bra (the practice favoured by nearly every female UK reenactor I know)
  3. A modern Victorian-styled corset (yes, I've seen reenactors do this...!)
  4. Robin Netherton's (in)famous gothic fitted dress (as adored by the SCA)
  5. A variation upon the GFD - a fitted shift a la Elina from Neulakko
  6. Some form of breast binding, for example that used by Marie-Chantal Cadieux
  7. The new and intriguing Lengberg "bra" finds
Now, certain options can be discarded straight away (ahem, no. 3). Of course, more than one option may be correct. Even today in the homogeneous Western culture, although the bra is the preferred method of bust support for the majority of women it is not the only method. There are women who regularly go bra-less, those who regularly wear a sports bra, those who prefer a corset (for its bust support, independent of any waist training) and even cis-gendered women who regularly wear some form of compressive garment(s).

However, to determine which of the options is the most correct an investigation of the actual evidence is required. That will be the subject of my next post.


  1. I think if you need to wear a bra today (ie if you're over an a cup- I'm a D and find it painful to go braless round the house for more than an hour) you would have needed some form of support back then too. They would have found some way to avoid getting a bad back.

    I think there are no right or wrong answers (aprt from the victorian corset, obviously) when there so many reasonable options. I've found though that the advocates of bralessness do tend to be on the teeny titted side

    1. Oh, I agree totally. I'm busty (FF) and can (and have) done no bra before - but that was my choice and I wasn't doing anything terribly strenuous - no running or bending/lifting. Also, having gained weight/bust since making my current kit, my underdress has a certain amount of (unintentional) supportive effect.

      All the options (except the corset!) are viable and possible. However, I also think that whatever option you chose you have to also try to make it recreate the correct shape - that is my main problem with the gothic fitted dress idea. Whether or not Robin Netherton actually espouses this, the majority of the people who make/wear those dresses seem to think that the female silhouette (and most of the clothing) is identical from 1340 to 1480. My favourite era of fashion is narrowing down to be 1340-1370, so I get kinda sad when people treat it as if it's just "oh, 15th C without a houppelande".