600-Year-Old Bras Found in Austria

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let's talk lady's undergarments for a moment, specifically the question, how long have bras been around? Well, one answer is 1914. That's when Mary Phelps Jacob patented what we know as the modern brazier here in the U.S.but that's not the whole story. According to the University of Innsbruck in Austria,bras date back to at least the 15th century. To find out more, we've got Hillary Davidson on the line with us. Hillary Davidson is a fashion curator at the Museum of London. In much of the Western world today, especially the U.S. Hillary, bras are everywhere. It's pretty much taken for granted that women wear bras. Why should we be surprised that women were doing the same in the 1400s?

Hillary Davidson: Well, this is what's so exciting about the find. We can assume and we can wonder about exactly what women were doing with their busts, but this is the first time we've had really hard material evidence to say, "Hey, we've got the same kind of concerns." Some women wanted to enhance. Some people wanted to reduce the size of their bust, and they came to really similar conclusions to us.

Werman: And so, tell me about this bra from the 15th century.

Davidson: Well, there's been three or four pieces found, and they seem to correspond with what the documentary evidence sometimes calls breast bags. One of them has kind of round cups that, in effect, would have lifted and separated like modern bras. Another one sort of is like hanging a pair of bags over your shoulder and letting the difference in the size of the bag and the size of the bust hold everything up.

Werman: Do you have a sense of how the bra took off if we can trace it back to Austria in the 15th century, did it take off from there across Europe? Were there other parts of the world that were also developing this support system?

Davidson: Well, this is the thing that we don't know, and why these finds just open up so many questions. The way clothing was cut from the, say the 14th century, was very tight across the bust, and it kind of has a certain amount of bust support in it. We do have, certainly, evidence of breast bands and things like that much, much earlier, say, in Cretan society, in Roman society,but really, after the 15th century, the thing that takes over our stage, which we perhaps know better now as corsets, and they're doing something else entirely. They're kind of lifting from the bottom and kind of crushing the breasts into a smooth shape. So, this might actually be the last gasp of the brazier if it existed before that until the 20th century.

Werman: Wow. That's interesting. So, women perhaps just didn't wear bras for a couple hundred years?

Davidson: Well, they didn't- what they wore was basically some kind of chemise or smock, which was a linen garment as the first thing they put on, and then, over the top of that, they put on some sort of stiffened bodice, stays, corsets, just something that gives you a little bit of support, but it's running from the bust right down to the waist and doesn't have this kind of cropped quality, and it certainly doesn't, well, lift and separate. It's really to kind of lift and create a single line around the bosom. And what makes these pieces, they look so modern because you've got sort of two individual breasts as it were, which we don't see for hundreds of years.

Werman: Hillary Davidson, fashion curator at the Museum of London. Thanks so much.

Davison: My pleasure.