By Madeleine Colvin
Despite being one of the most important garments, underwear is the part of medieval clothing that is often ignored and unexplored in historical fiction and costuming. Modern day costuming and fashion appears to have a fascination with the corsets and crinolines of the Victorian era, but has little interest in what came earlier. What can we say about this element of fashion, which has been overlooked for far too long?
While corsets can be related to modern undergarments, such as “spanx” and other waist-training and body shaping contraptions, what about earlier underwear makes it utterly ignorable? And what about the undergarments of men? This article is a brief overview of what underwear looked like in the middle ages, and how it compares to what we’re likely to wear today. While modern underwear may appear to be on a quest to shrink smaller and less visible each year, it actually had big beginnings!
The underwear of men is much more prevalent in historical art sources than that of women, possibly because the idea of an unclothed man was considered to be humorous opposed to lewd. There were two common items of underclothing in the middle ages: braies and under tunics. If we want to think about what men wear nowadays, these can be compared to modern undershirts and boxers.
Modern men’s underwear and shirts are usually made from a cotton or a cotton/ polyester blend, and are stretchy to allow for them to conform to the shape of the body and not be visible underneath your outer-clothes. Medieval underclothes were a little bit different – though they weren’t intended to be visible, it was not seen to be so much of an insult to have them peeking out in places that your outer clothes do not cover. Under tunics were long and billowy, sometimes floor or knee length depending on the length of the outer clothes. Commonly, under tunics were usually tucked into a man’s underwear.
In the Middle Ages, pants as we know them today were not in fashion. Modern costuming interpretations often consider the pants of the Middle Ages to be “tights”, but they were actually made from two separate pieces of fabric, and didn’t become a singular item resembling “pants” until later in the fifteenth century. Instead, men wore long, fitted socks that went from toe to hip and created a general look similar to tight pants. They were tied at the waist to either lacing on their braies (underwear) or to a separate cloth belt worn under their clothing. Because of the nature of these “pants”, braies had a few different designs, ranging from short and resembling boxer-briefs to long and hanging loosely under the knee in billowing mounds of fabric. Some of the most famous examples can be found in the Maciejowski Bible (Morgan Bible), which features a number of unclothed men, giving us a greater understanding of what the average man in the middle ages would wear under his outerwear.
So men’s underwear was a little bit more voluminous but otherwise not so different from modern day. What came earlier for women, before the cinched waist and structured undergarments? It is a pretty simple answer: glorious shapelessness. In our day and age, woman may choose to achieve their preferred figure through fitted undergarments, but early undergarments were more likely to just be a loose linen dress. Reference images of women in underwear in the Middle Ages are few (they are more likely to be depicted as either completely nude or fully clothed), but this loose fitting dress is the most commonly observed. This garment was often referred to as a “smock” or “chemise”, and was the most common undergarment for women for well over 500 years, from the early medieval period through to the Renaissance.
A few different designs and materials can be noted with the chemise, with the most common material being linen. Poorer civilians may have worn undergarments made from hemp cloth, while noblewomen had been known to have smocks made of silk. Underdresses have always been depicted in manuscripts as being either white or off white, either made from opaque fabric or from more sheer, see-through material (which was most likely very, very fine linen or silk). Some dresses, such as those worn by the colloquially known “Bohemian Bathhouse Babes” in the Wenceslas Bible, wear spaghetti-strapped dresses with a more fitted torso that appears to provide some support comparable to the modern bra.
With such loose undergarments, it’s easy to assume that the fashion of the day must have been of similar silhouettes, but that was not the case at all! Particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, fashion appeared to favor tight fitting over dresses of wool of silk, showing off a tight bosom and fitted waist, flaring out into a full, straight skirt. An example can be taken from the The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), where we can see women wearing flattering, contoured dresses.
You may also be wondering what women did for underwear on their lower body. The answer to that is…. nobody knows! There are no reliable historical sources on the matter, and it is a common conclusion that women didn’t wear briefs of any variety. If they did, we can assume that they were similar to those of men, resembling small shorts. Researchers tend to disagree on this subject, and there is currently no definitive answer to this question.
In modern times it may seem counterproductive to wear a loose, billowy chemise under a tight overdress, but underwear was worn for more than just support in the Middle Ages. It also provided a vital extra layer of warmth and shielded sensitive skin from itchy woollen outer clothes. It also protected expensive outerwear from sweat and other wear and tear, extending its life and requiring much less washing, which was especially important with delicate materials such as silk.
Every time we make a historical discovery, we learn more and more about daily life in the Middle Ages. Just a few years ago, we discovered a series of undergarments from the 15th century that resemble bras, completely changing our perspective on historical underwear. Domestic matters such as underclothes may seem mundane, but having an understanding of things like this helps deepen our knowledge of the past and make sense of who we have become today. It is easy to forget that items that are often overlooked and undervalued are the most essential.
Reflecting on everything, it becomes clear that the true utilitarian use of underwear really hasn’t changed much in the last 700 years. However, one can’t help but note that while medieval underwear was loose and large, modern underwear seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Not to mention that underdresses and slips appear to have gone out of fashion years ago, reserved to be worn with only the sheerest of dresses. There is much to say about the difference in beauty standards from the Middle Ages to today – but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Hopefully this article has brought some clarity to the matter of underwear, and has ignited an interest in what usually remains hidden – after all this is simply a brief overview, there is so much more to be discovered!
Our thanks to Madeleine Colvin and Mykhaylo “Miha” Skorobogatov of ArmStreet for this article. ArmStreet is an international company with offices in the US, Australia and Ukraine. Headquartered in Milwaukee, WI, USA, it was founded as a co-op of several LARP game masters and designers, and is now a world leader in top-quality medieval costumes. Click here to visit their website. You can also like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @armstreet.