We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring You More Underwear

The internet — those portions of it interested in women’s underwear, and that means most of it — is abuzz with the find of six-hundred-year-old bras and undies in Lengberg Castle in Austria.

The six-hundred-year-old underpants from Lengberg Castle

The underwear was found in 2008, but only hit the news with the publication of an article about it all in this month’s BBC History Magazine.  You can read the article here.

The archeologist in charge is Beatrix Nutz, of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Innsbruck.  Nutz has backed up her finds with documentary evidence; the article includes good sources on the medieval tradition of “breastbags,” i.e. bras, which some women in Germanic areas used to harness their breasts.

In addition to the four bras, the find included a pair of underpants that resemble a modern thong.  In this connection, Nutz discusses sources that describe women wearing breeches or drawers.  I have to confess I don’t understand why Samuel Pepys is convinced that his wife wearing drawers means she’s having an affair.

But my real question is whether these various women’s breeches or drawers described in documents had material at the crotch, or whether they consisted merely of legs, like the pantalettes discussed a few blogs ago.

The advantages of a crotchless existence were many.  This is where those who don’t like history unvarnished should look away.  Just yesterday someone told me the story of someone they knew as a child following his grandmother walking down a country road.  The grandmother said, “Run on ahead,” and as he did so, she stopped in the road, spread her legs wide (remaining standing), said “Ah!” and walked on, leaving a small steaming puddle on the dirt road.

You can look back now.

That’s the advantage of crotchless underpants.

Nutz thinks the Lengberg underpants are male, noting that underpants are considered male at most points in history, Elizabeth I’s drawers notwithstanding.  In fact, “Underpants were considered a symbol of male dominance and power,” Nutz is quoted as saying in other interviews.

The Lengberg underpants don’t look like the medieval underpants I’m used to.  Those underpants — always on men — tend to appear in depictions of sinners in the Passion of Christ.* The artist’s point is that in the presence of divinity, only sinners let their underpants flap open.  Depictions of underwear also show up in images of workmen, who apparently labored in their underpants on hot days, underpants then being no more shocking (or revealing) than an undershirt is now.  In all those images underpants are bulky and white.

I’ve certainly never seen anything as skimpy as the Lengberg underpants, especially that thread or cord connecting the back and the front.  These look mighty like the “sanitary belt” of the twentieth century, the holder for menstrual pads or rags.

Nutz does raise this possibility in her article.  The media picked up the bras pretty darn quick, and a few sources mentioned the underwear, but not one media source mentioned the menstruation connection.  Nevertheless every woman I’ve proposed it to has said something on the order of (imagine a tone of unswayable conviction) “Oh yeah.”

*I have actually written an academic article on this, with many medieval pictures of men with their underwear flapping open.  It is called “Clothing, Exposure, and the Depiction of Sin in Passion Iconography,” in Weaving, Veiling, and Dressing: Cultural Approaches to Textiles and their Religious Function in the Middle Ages, ed. Barbara Baert and Kathryn M. Rudy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 290-306.  “Clothing, Exposure, and the Depiction of Sin” is a euphemism for “pictures of sinful men with their bottoms hanging out of their underwear.”


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