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"Supportive gowns"- ??????

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 2:45 am
by Gwen
I've been watching a fascinating phenomenon spread in the US and I'm posting to find out if it has spread to England yet.

A few years ago a theory emerged that in the 14th-15thC there was such a thing as a "supportive undergown". This miraculous gown provided lift and shape to the breasts through cut alone. As far as I can tell, this conclusion was drawn by looking at period artwork and "must have been" experimental tailoring.

The "supportive gown" theory was picked up by the ever-enthusiastic SCA here in the US and has spread like wildfire. "Supportive gown" workshops, clinics, papers and websites are proliferating at an ever-growing rate.

Since I became I first encountered this theory in about 2001, it has morphed from a speculation based theory to historical fact. I was prompted to post here because Ayliffe's Steve made his request for information on a US board and was told "This dress is the top layer, and should be worn over a supportive undergown, which is worn over a smock. .

Have you seen this "supportive gown" theory there yet? If so, how is it being received?

Avidly curious-


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 6:18 am
by Shadowcat
Yes, I subscribe to a costuming list, and this is also known as something else, like a "Gothic fitted dress" if I remember rightly. There is one particular "expert" who seems to have suggested it. (I disagree with her opinions on another matter so I don't know how much I agree with this.) Apparently you fit it by asking the wearer to lie down on the floor and you tighten it that way - I can just see me doing that in the small space I have with pins and fabric and cat on the floor!

I suppose it is possible that dresses were made to fit that tightly, and to do the work of a bra, but I am not totally convinced that "everyone" had their clothes fitted that way. As far as I know, it has not infiltrated english costuming yet - Tuppence may have come across it on the same list, and may have other ideas.


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 6:57 am
by Gwen
Yes, that's the one! I'll be interested to know if anyone else is aware of it.

I love "experts"- they provide so much free entertainment! :)


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 9:46 am
by Drachelis
Well if I lie down the weight of my boobs makes them slip siedeways towards my underarm!!!!!!

I would have to lie there in a bra to kep them pointing upwards - rather defeats the object asbras weren't invented.

shadowlight Designs

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:28 am
by Sophia
Very sceptical about this as you cannot achieve a fit by any method that really supports anything above a C cup unless you are moving into the realm of the very late C15th flat-fronted kirtle/petticoat.

There is an outside possibility that there might have been some sort of breastband used but if I remember correctly this is only speculation - like for intimate underwear we have no proof.

One can achieve a best fit from The Medieval Tailor's Assistant, but this will not be a modern silhouette. Just not possible without a bra and Sarah will tell you so. If you can't manage without corsetry either be inauthentic and wear a bra or pick a later period.

I can think of the type of pictures which have led to this - mainly Madonna's with impossibly spherical tits can't possibly have ever fed anything, young idealised female saints, etc.

We should remember this is definitely pre-Cromwell so the "warts and all" just ain't there.

Sophia :roll:

P.S. I am a 38ff/g and know about these things

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:41 am
by Alice the Huswyf
This old chestnut again.........I so love this modern and erroneously overlaid idea of 'support' - why are they aiming at baps on a plate, modern style? (And without seeing the article I bet I am right). Most 'support' in period clothing is gained by good fit, ie fitting the breasts neatly within the dress. If breasts are too large to attain this, binding or suppression bodices seem to be the norm from what I see in period illustrations: a flat fronted bodice gives no support - it suppresses and may create an upward overflow. It does NOT create lift, which is a modern requirement. Even Tudor bodices suppressed. Even C18th stays suppressed. You see the top swell of the breast illustrated as it is covered by the bodice edge - perhaps 1/4 of the breast - and I are talking of the breast as presented from attachment to the ribcage, not as it swells from the chest. Yet there is this persistant desire to add the wonderbra effect and expose as close to the aureola as possible, and as horiziontally as it can be hoisted.

Wasn't one of the reasons that Henry objected to Anne of Cleves was her large germanic bosom? That he preferred the neater, smaller -breasted english fashionable figure?

Period necklines seem low only by the comparison to a modern, collar wearing, post victorian society. We are uncomfortable with the idea of the neck and shoulders being exposed in daily wear. We are unaware of the role of neckerchiefs or fichus. So it is easily assumed that this equals low cut.

Not in my book! Not in any book I've looked in!

Now I am going to complain to the wallpaper about the incorrect use of the word crutch and aggressively tidy my handkerchief draw............

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:43 am
by Tuppence
I'm on the same costuming list as Shadowcat, and think the same of the "expert's" theory (which she espouses not as a theory, but as a proven fact - nice to know it's not just me, btw :D ).

Although it is possible to cut a garment that supports the bust somewhat, and it can be done for larger women with trial and error, I too am very sceptical about whether this would have been commonplace, or anything other than an experimental thing done by a few tailors.

I'm less sceptical about the idea of some sort of breast wrapping, because, although it's purely specualtion, as there's obviously no evidence for any female underwear other than shifts, I can't see all women going about without support - not from a vanity point of view, but a comfort one - not wearing a bra when doing anything remotely physical hurts lots if you're above a c - d cup!!!
Well if I lie down the weight of my boobs makes them slip siedeways towards my underarm!!!!!!
Oh, you and me both, hun! :D


(34g - gg, so I can relate too!)

PS - thanks for the reminder, need to go and find a decent sports bra for Hastings - and I'm being a "boy"!!

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:49 am
by Alice the Huswyf
The only references and I've seen to breast binding, and a friend has tried it - is rather more as a minimiser bra for a feeding mother, or to stop the discomfort my very large breasted friend had when going bra-less.

Breast binding does NOT give support. to raise - it minimises to stop black eyes when running fro the bus.

(A problem I wish I had.)

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:49 am
by lidimy
"Anne was described as thin, with small breasts. The Fashion was for very low cut necklines, although women flattened their breasts by binding them tightly under the stomacher. But less than modest women pushed their breasts up to make them spill over the tops of their gowns and so show off their voloptuous figures. Sanuto remarked that Anne did not follow this trend, for her breasts were 'not much raised'. "

'Anne Boleyn' by Joanna Denny

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:55 am
by Sophia
I think I might experiment with making myself a breastband. I remember my gran describing the one she had to have to look fashionable between the wars (being well-endowed). It was made from a double layer of bias cut fabric and closed with hooks.

Maybe this is what a canny housewife did with any left over fabric from making hose :wink:

In the meantime I will accept that lift and separate was not in the Medieval woman's vocabulary.

Debs - for a large cup sports bra try Bravissimo or Fig Leaves, both have websites and good delivery times.

Sophia :D

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 12:44 pm
by Shadowcat
Glad I am not the only one to be sceptical. I can get a good, supporting fit by seams under the bust, BUT and it's a big BUT, there do not seem to be any paintings as evidence of this. As for lying on the floor, well, mine drop sideways when I'm standing, if unsupported, so heaven knows where they go when I lie down!

What I do under my houppelande, inauthentic though it may be, is to have a laced up bodice lining, in a firm fabric, with the lacing showing. Lacing is authentic here though, as it can be seen in paintings. I did not want to make a kirtle - a) no time, and b) too hot for a person plagued with hot flushes. It works very well, and although it is not shaped, it does keep the busty substances from bouncing about. Worn over a linen smock, the thing is just about bearable in summer, and comfortable in winter.


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 1:06 pm
by Sophia
As I have seen Suzi, it is an excellent solution if one does not require 100% authenticity and perhaps what many of these American's should be considering as they do not always seem to prioritise authenticity to the degree many people here do (No offence intended, just an observation).

For those of us who are going the authentic route we will just have to grin, bear it and experiment with breast binding.

As someone who doesn't suffer from hot flushes but still managed to feel the heat this summer, I recommend ensuring that everything is made from natural fibres (linen is always better than cotton). Also shop around and find different weights of wool. Too many re-enactors seem to make everything out of coat weight wool when you can get lighter stuff.

Also pitch your garments to your activity - you can get away with a shift, kirtle and apron when cooking and tending your fire, but if you are going to market or sitting and embroidering you should definitely be wearing a gown over your kirtle. If it were to get very hot, I suppose you could consider making your gown out of linen or silk though there is limited evidence for this. I will admit to linen kirtles though for the summer. (Bad case of LENEL)

Sophia :D

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 1:30 pm
by Lady Cecily
I strongly suspect that this is a consequence of women being generally much bigger these days. Many of us are overweight and breasts on even normal weight women are bigger now than they have ever been. IT is modern mores of displaying breast that are driving this not the desire for authenticity.

I don't like the idea of a theory being portrayed as fact.

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 3:11 pm
by Mary Craig
I agree, it's not an undergown, but we know that 'matrons' used a band from at least Roman and Greek times to support their breasts.

Mothers who decided not to breastfeed used to have their breasts tightly bound to provide comfort until the milk 'scattered' ( still being done to my knowledge 20 years ago; I fed my babies myself, my friends didn't ) If a very firm supporting sports bra was worn I suppose the same effect would be obtained.
Isn't lycra wonderful? :D

I'd be interested to hear how you get on with the bias cut band....there might be instructions for these in Victorian and Edwardian patterns? I regularly sew for a lady who makes my D cup look small :oops: andshe would greatly appreciate comfort without elastic or corsetry.

I also agree with the comments on our weight being an issue on size and shape. It certainly makes the cut of some gowns look a touch odd.


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 3:21 pm
by Sophia

There was no pattern mentioned. Gran just spoke about a double layer of bias cut heavy silk - probably a taffeta or very heavy duchess satin which fastened with loads of hooks and eyes and went from under her arms to the bottom of her rib cage. She also said it wasn't very comfortable and she rapidly gave up on it. I got the impression that she was really pleased when bosoms came back in in the late 30's. Said it was seriously uncomfortable. :shock: :D

She was in the Tailoring business and I doubt that there was such a thing as a standard pattern in her youth. I can remember her measuring us for summer dresses and then drawing direct onto the fabric. We still have the real silk velvet dress she made for her engagement party (not the bridal gown as it did the round of cousins for wartime weddings) and some clothes she made for my mother and uncle when they were kids and the standard of finish is amazing. :D

I just wish I was half as skilled as she was, also that she was still around to advise me :cry:

Sophia :D

P.S. Thanks for the package - will be in touch.

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 3:46 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
FWIW, the biggest proponent of the "Gothic fitted dress" (Robin Netherton) isn't in the SCA. But there have been several SCA-based variations on the style; see Marcele and Mathilde's versions, for example.

(Me, I just make simple kirtles with flat fronts -- no seams down the front or the back, just on the sides -- but most of the support is in the smock I'm wearing under that layer. Not that it's any more historically-accurate -- it's certainly not borne out by the pictures of women's smocks at -- and sometimes I combine the "smock" and "kirtle" into a single linen layer I call a "smirtle," for hot-weather events. But then & again, I'm only a D cup -- but this way, I don't have outerwear straining to "support" me.)

Meh, if it makes 'em comfortable, it really don't bother me none; it's certainly a better attempt at creating the "look" of a medieval illustration than most. What bothers me is when it's taught as the "authentic" way. (Robin has a bandwagon of disciples throughout the SCA, and it's hard to convince people that sometimes :shock: her theories might be wrong. Ye shall know the disciples by their bandying-about of the phrases "Gothic fitted dress" and "all tippets were fur" ...)

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 4:14 pm
by Alice the Huswyf
I admitted I was wrong over something in public once. I even did it in front of a reporter. I don't know which shocked Vicky most. It's not like crack. It is not an addictive practice. However, unlike hard drugs, it really is something we should all consider doing from time to time!

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 4:22 pm
by Sophia
Barring the lying on the back business this is not a lot different from the method of creating a Body Block shown in The Medieval Tailors Assistant. Her method specifies that a bra should not be worn and therefore produces a minimising effect.

Also it helps when following this method if the garment is fully lined and the front edge is reinforced with a strip of fabric cut straight to the grain if you are going to go for front lacing with a D+ cup.

On the smock issue, I have had a good look at your links Karen and I can't really see much sign of support except for in the torture of the young Agrippina where I think she might actually be wearing a kirtle.

I can see why you might indulge in a smirtle given the temperatures you can get in the states. As I said my solution has been to play with the weight of wools used for my gowns and to make all linen kirtles for the hot weather.

The business of theories as truth is however a real nuisance. I wish people would understand that unless we actually have a garment to take apart everything we do is a best guess.

Sophia :D

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 4:27 pm
by Shadowcat
Ye shall know the disciples by their bandying-about of the phrases "Gothic fitted dress" and "all tippets were fur" ..

And "There is no such thing as a wheel farthingale."


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 4:33 pm
by Sophia
Not had the misfortune to come across that one yet - its a bit late for me though.

Sophia :roll:

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 4:39 pm
by Gwen
Thanks for the input ladies!

I object more to the way this theory is promoted as fact far more than the theory itself- everyone is allowed to have an opinion, right? Karen is correct though, the acolytes tend to be rather *emphatic* in espousing the One True Supportive Undergown Way™. This theory is running absolutely rampant among the SCA here and has just crossed the edges of reenactment, hence my question to you.

Myself, I buy the breast-binding theory and reject the "supportive gown" theory. A gal in Canada has done a nice little write up about breast binding that I wish more people knew about. You can find Marie-Chantal Cadieux's description of Breast Binding here. (That's a link in case it doesn't show up very well on your screen)


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 5:05 pm
by lidimy
i read that breast binding thing before. im still small round the top so it doesnt really apply yet to me :D

Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 5:26 pm
by Shadowcat
Big tits and breast binding don't always work together - depends on the size and shape. Also these days I don't like being too squashed, so I'll stick with my bodice, and not tell a soul it's not authentic!


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 5:48 pm
by Sophia

Remember things change - we do not stay the same shape all of our lives. I too could once not worry about that. :roll:


Go ahead - you are entitled to a bit of comfort and you are not pushing it as the truth, just as your solution to a particular problem. :D


Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2006 6:41 pm
by Gwen
As someone further up pointed out, our concept of what is the "right shape" for breasts in clothing is driven by current fashions. Right now the fashion is up and out, but in the 20's it was for no breasts at all (my poor husband would have been in hell then!!!! :( )

Judging by art of the period (which one assumes reflects current fashion) a rather rounded outline was what fashionable women were going for in the 14th and 15th C. I have found sports bras to provide an admirable balance of comfort and historically correct line under period clothing. I think the ones that don't close in the center front are best, because those provide that nice cushion/monoboob look. :)

I've had excellent reports on the Title Nine "No Bounce" Frog Bra One of my customers is a very large-breasted woman who does a male ECW portrayal, and she swears by this bra for minimizing her large female assets and keeping everything in place while she pursues male activities such as fencing and fighting.

I also found which might be a good resource for you ladies on that side of the great pond.

Personally, not being one of the "orfentic" brigade, I've taken to wearing a molded cup T shirt bra under my 15th C. kit. They're specifically designed to not show under clothing, and the molded cup gives me a nice round shape. Although when I was younger my breasts were firm enough to give my costumes a nice shape, I find I've gotten "squishy" with age, and think my bodices look too flat. The T shirt bra gives me the shape I had when I was 25, which frankly appeals to my vanity!


Posted: Mon Oct 09, 2006 12:14 am
by Tuppence
Breast binding does NOT give support. to raise - it minimises to stop black eyes when running fro the bus.
That's the kind of support I meant - not in the modern bra sense - in the not wiggling round, bobbing up and down, tearing breast tissue way. (ie effectively squashing. unless you were promoting a certain trade (when they were still squashed, but pushed up under corsetry- there are a couple of early mod. clerical rantings about that), the flattening of the bust was pretty much standard till the mid 19th c, when corsetry became all curvy and hour glass, and women started buying breast enhancers, etc.
And of course, boobs have been going in and out, and up and down (and pointy and not pointy!) ever since.
She was in the Tailoring business and I doubt that there was such a thing as a standard pattern in her youth. I can remember her measuring us for summer dresses and then drawing direct onto the fabric.
that's what my nana (trained in the 30s) used to do!! I do it with v simple patterns (though I always plan it on paper first so I have a record in case a customer gets difficult).
FWIW, the biggest proponent of the "Gothic fitted dress"
ooh - you named and shamed. :D me like!!! hee hee!!

I've largely taken to skipping all the posts on the group about the "gfw", as it gets sooo boring wading through all the accolyte messages. it does sometimes make one winder whether they've ever read any books not written / edited by the goddess of costume history that is She.
I even did it in front of a reporter.

there are worse things than that :D - at hastings 95 Nigel's hose fell down in front of a press photographer...
And at Kirby one year, a friend from ECWS was portraying a highlander - authentically, if you get my drift. and during the shoe he slipped over and ended up flat on his back kicking his legs in the air - right in front of the rope barrier, with his bits pointed straight at the crowd....
Personally, not being one of the "orfentic" brigade, I've taken to wearing a molded cup T shirt bra under my 15th C. kit.

I do that under my norman frock. ok, it matters less, as my norman frock is basically a big loose sack :lol: , but it's more or less the right shape.

just sorted me sports bra for being a boy :shock: at hastings though (drat those war-y normans, why couldn't they have brought a couple of girls with them when they invaded????)

Posted: Mon Oct 09, 2006 7:24 am
by Gwen
just sorted me sports bra for being a boy

You might want to keep that info handy- I've seen several boys who could use a sports bra... :shock: Terrifying but true....


Posted: Mon Oct 09, 2006 11:02 am
Authenticity issues aside, this lying on the back to fit thing intrigued me so I did a LITTLE "hands on", so to speak, experimentation.

To put it in context. I am a a woman of a certain ageand size who in the not too distant past spent 3 years either pregnant, breast feeding or both. I also did a lot of riding, in not brilliant Bras. I'm not in the "chuck um over the shoulder class" but wear and tear is, shall we say, present...

So what I did was to sit up in bed, cup my hands under my breasts where the band of my bra would sit then flop onto my back. now the lateral shift happened -but they flopped diectly to the sides, staying above the hands. so if you were to alter the ribcage part of the garment white in this position and sort the over boob bit when upright... You probably could come up with a some what more supportive garment.

I'll get my coat....

Posted: Mon Oct 09, 2006 4:04 pm
by Gwen
I saw (and covertly photographed) 3 of these "supportive gowns" in use at the market I attended in August.

Rather than looking like any period image I've seen, they look exactly like a large and/or large breasted women crammed into an ill fitting, too tight garment. There are loads of horizontal stress lines around the body from armpit to waist, and the breasts are squashed in a variety of not-nice shapes. The armhole is completely distorted, and the upper arm way too tight. Rather than looking like examples of expert tailoring, they look poorly made and uncomfortably tight. Perhaps even explosively tight, in one case.

Perhaps the ones I photographed are poor examples of the technique, but I don't think so.

Anyway, this was more a request for information on the phenomenon than a critique of it. Live and let live and all.


Posted: Mon Oct 09, 2006 6:55 pm
by nutmeg_bec
My brocade underdress was made a "little" along the lines of the GFD. Great, until I got out my hunting (long) bow. I trashed all the seams, especially round the arms. I guess these dresses can be just too tight! I've not got much squish-factor, so other than the restrictive nature of the dress around the arms, I liked the shape, and I'm trying again to make a dress with breast support (well, tight under the bust, anyways - I'm only a c-cup, so should be alright)! I'll keep you posted on my success (or lack of it) :P