600-Year-Old Bras Were Austrian Fashion Statement

A missing link in the history of women's underwear has been revealed by the University of Innsbruck in the U.K. They are four linen bras dating back to the Middle Ages and change the answer to that nagging question, "Which came first, the corset or the bra?" Hilary Davidson, fashion curator for the London Museum, explains the importance of the find.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. If you want to give a thrill to the medieval clothing historian in your life, give her a big pile of linen rags - and make sure some really old bras are in there.

HILARY DAVIDSON: One of them has, actually, two separate cups for the breasts, and then has two straps that go over each shoulder.

CORNISH: That's Hilary Davidson, fashion curator and medieval clothes expert at the Museum of London. And she's talking about four items among thousands of textiles discovered between the floorboards of an Austrian castle. The material was stuffed there during a 15th-century renovation.

DAVIDSON: The bras seem to be made of very fine linen, and beautifully embellished with an early form of needle lace.

SIEGEL: Those garments were uncovered in 2008 by a research team from Austria's University of Innsbruck. And while they are worn and raggedy, they are very well-preserved. Carbon dating has now confirmed their age. Yes, these are 600-year-old bras. That's a surprising discovery, since the notion of a single garment to lift and separate the breasts is thought to be a modern development, dating from the late 19th century.

CORNISH: Exactly what medieval women wore under their clothes has long been somewhat of a mystery, though Hilary Davidson says there have been clues.

DAVIDSON: There are some references to women wearing what translates as breast bags in 15th-century Germanic regions. But like so many things, we only find out about this because people complained about them - usually, men.

SIEGEL: Including one unknown, 15th-century German writer who put his complaints about the (German word spoken) - or breast bag - into satirical verse.

DAVIDSON: (Reading) Many women make two breast bags. With them, she roams the streets so that all the young men that look at her, can see her beautiful breasts. But whose breasts are too large makes tight pouches, so there is no gossip in the city about her big breasts.

I mean, it's so modern!

CORNISH: Researchers think the bras were likely worn as a fashion statement by well-off Germanic women. As for their modern aspects, we don't think we'll see Gisele Bundchen in a Victoria Secret (German word spoken) anytime soon.

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