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17 July 2012

Rant About Poor Scholarship

I’m going to be a bit ranty today. I just saw something on The Daily Mail that really concerns me. Supposedly Hilary Davidson, the fashion curator at the Museum of London, says that the discovery of these two items “totally rewrites” fashion history. To which I say BOLLOCKS!

These items were found in Lengberg Castle in east Tyrol (Austria). They are thought to have been buried c. 1480. I’ve spent 30+ years as a re-enactor studying late 15th century and early 16th century “German” Landsknechts. It’s probably the period I know the most about, and these garments don’t rewrite ANYTHING from where I’m sitting. In fact, they appear to be rather common.


Let’s start with the underpants (please click on the images to enlarge them, I had to make them small to fit them all in). I haven’t the slightest idea how Davidson came to the conclusion that the underwear were for women. Every scrap of evidence I’ve seen supports the opposite conclusion. Here is a detail from The Men’s Bathhouse by Albrecht Dürer, 1498. What are all the MEN wearing? Little undies that tie on the sides. They look suspiciously familiar, don’t they? Not entirely sure how anyone claiming to be a fashion historian with a specialty in the Medieval period could fail to have connected this garment and this image in a heartbeat.

UPDATE: Please see the comment from Nutz below. "Davidson NEVER came to the conclusion that the underpants were for women and I NEVER said so either. I always said that underpants were a male garment in the Middle Ages." So the quote in The Daily Mail is misleading. 

On to the “bra”. Please look closely at this garment. The bottom is frayed. Why? Because there’s something missing. Please look at the side. See all the little eyelet holes? Those are for lacing. What was the MAIN female undergarment of the day? The kirtle (a long, tightly-fitted smock). You can see tons of examples of this garment in the Wenceslaus Bible (dated to the late 14th century). There is NOTHING groundbreaking about finding the top portion of a kirtle. 

I know sensationalism sells, but is it really worth your reputation to make such easily debunked statements? I know I’ve pretty much lost all respect for the Davidson, and I have serious reservations about anything coming out of the Museum of London at this point.  (I'll cut this given that I'm being told Davidson was misquoted). In conclusion, I’ll wait until I hear something from Dr. Jutta Zander-Seidel telling me that SHE thinks these rather common looking garments “totally rewrite” fashion history.

Rant over. Ok, not quite ... Update:

fighting for the pants
More reading for those who just can’t get enough of the topic. Here is Beatrix Nutz’s article for BBC History Magazine, and here is a shorter piece that was posted on the University of Innsbruck website (where it specifically notes that the cache contained men’s clothing, further undercutting the attribution of the underwear as women’s clothing). Given what I’ve seen so far, I stand by my opinion of the find. Is it possible I’ll change my mind? Sure … at least about the “bras” (there are still two I haven’t seen). But not about the underpants. There’s simply no supporting documentation out there for them to be attributed to women, nor is there any reason to pluck them out of a mixed cache of clothing and come to that conclusion. 

UPDATE from Nutz's comment: "As to the “longline bra”: The bottom is NOT frayed. There is a hem at the lower end, even if it is only preserved over a short length. In addition there is NOTHING to indicate that a skirt may have been sewn onto that end thus making it a kirtle. No tiny holes in the fabric where a sewing needle and thread may have passed through.

And the kirtles in the Wenceslaus Bible: They do have narrow shoulder straps like the “longline bra” but I can´t make out anything that even remotely resembles cups. Besides – there´s still the other “bras” from Lengberg that end right below the breasts and are definitely NOT upper parts of dresses
."


I don't agree that you can extrapolate from art 100%, so it's not possible to dismiss the tie to the bathing gowns simply because you can't make out cups. But given that Nutz has access to all the "bras", I'll again state that I'm open to having my mind changed on this one. Perhaps the French article will have more and better images? Or perhaps Nutz will post high rez ones somewhere? 

I’d love if they made the dig notes and pictures available. I’d also love to see the final thesis that Nutz is working on, as it’s entirely possible that the article she wrote (and the ensuing coverage in the news) isn’t wholly representational.  I’m attempting to get a hold of the partial notes that a friend had previously reviewed, but the link for them has been removed. More to come, hopefully!

Beating husband w/spindle
while pulling on his pants
Another Update: I found the link to another article in German. The ever lovely GrowlyCub gave it a quick look over since she’s fluent and her report is that all it says is that DNA testing on the underpants was inconclusive in attempting to establish which sex wore them and that all the evidence for women wearing them is confined to art. What it doesn’t mention is that all of said art is allegorical in nature, and you can’t use it to show that women wore underpants any more than you can to show that Landsknecht soldiers wore sandals. (Nutz says in the comments that she agrees with this point, so I clearly misunderstood the articles). The images she’s talking about are all about hen-pecked husbands and adulteresses. They all allude to the woman wearing the man’s garments to assert her authority (the underpants in question) and they frequently show the husband desperately trying to get them back. Here are a couple that aren't in any of the linked articles so far. What needs to be acknowledged is that the power of the image is lost if this was a common woman’s garment. The reason underpants were chosen to symbolize the wife stealing the husband’s power is because the garment was unmistakably seen as masculine during the period.

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25 Comments:

OpenID ellaquinnauthor said...

By, George, I think you're right. That is almost exactly what those garment must be.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Carolyn Jewel said...

Yeah, I know practically nothing about the subject, and even I recognized the "bra" as a portion of a different garment altogether. And look at the shape of the "knickers" I think it's pretty suspicious right there for male anatomy, not female. Think jock strap for pity's sake.

Maybe someone misquoted her badly?

3:43 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

It's so frustrating to see something distorted like this. And it's been all over twitter making me NUTS!

9:12 PM  
Blogger Helen Hollick said...

To be fair - it's very possible that Davidson said something completely different.... this IS the Daily Mail!
I agree about the "bra" being the top bit of a chemise and I agree about the knickers possibly being male underpants.... but I do wonder how women managed at "a certain time of the month". It doesn't take much common sense to figure that these undergarments could be very useful for holding "Medieval Sanitarywear" in place does it?

And seeing as a Roman "bikini" was found quite a while ago, I also agree that this isn't ground-breaking changing history news!

4:21 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I'm no expert but even I could see there was something wrong with their conclusions about the "bra."

5:51 AM  
Blogger Samantha Kane said...

I knew the "bra" was part of a larger, common undergarment and that the knickers were probably not knickers. But the photos are interesting, and so many people on Twitter have never seen images like this of actual clothing from the time period. So I reposted the link. I think most people know not to take the Daily Mail as gospel on scholarly issues.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

The person I would trust most on this topic is Dr. Jutta Zander-Seidel (author of Textiler Hausrat). When I spoke to her about this topic, she stated: “Underpants were not a usual component of women’s clothing in the 15th - 17th centuries . . . for the general populace, the use of these garments are not known before the beginning of the 19th century.”

She's done extensive studies of household accounts, and would know if any such garments were listed among them. They're simply not.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

And yes, I'm hoping someone misquoted Davidson, but she's the second supposed expert I've seen make sensationalist statments about this "find".

6:41 AM  
Blogger Jo Bourne said...

I love this. Long may you rant.

(Though I rather like the Museum of London, too. Even after this.)

8:36 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I do too, Jo. *PLEASE* may their curator have been misquoted. If it was the V&A, I'd email the guy I know there and ask, LOL!

2:11 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

I noticed the dangling fabric immediately and am delighted by your "rant." The "bra" was clearly part of a larger garment.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Michelle Styles said...

It is actually worth reading the proper article and looking at the other pictures of the garments found.
Actaully I have no problem with the briefs. I have more of a problem thinking that women went commando during their TOM and left a trail of blood everywhere...

4:24 AM  
Blogger Michelle Styles said...

The full length article from which the Dail Mail was culled is found at http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie

4:25 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Actually, I have read that, but thanks. I've also read Nix's full paper. The fact that she's using allegorical images as part of her documentation completely undercuts her position (the entire point of that image is that that the woman is wearing a MAN’s pants). And the further fragments also appear to be parts of larger garments (aka just other examples of the kind of kirtle that was common at the time).

8:00 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

As for what women did during their TOM, there is no documentation before the mid-Victorian period (at least none that anyone I know--including medical historians, costume historians, and museum curators--has ever found). There is a vast deal of speculation, and we’re all sure they must have done something logical and simple, but without documentation, I’m not willing to state what that was. We do know from household accounts that unspecified “rags” were frequently listed, and that underwear for the female members of the household was not.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I noticed that Dear Author posted the Yahoo News version of this story with the headline that Medieval bras was discovered. Thank goodness I read your post first Isobel.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Hopefully the lovely GrowlyCub will be translating a German article on the find for me. MORE INFO!

12:18 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Isobel, thanks for injecting some sanity and genuine scholarly debunking into this discussion. I'm late coming to it because I've been on multiple deadlines, but it's quite clear that the top is a decayed part of something else and the "underpants" would appear to be most likely mens' bathhouse coverups. I'm waiting to see someone pull up a representation of women's "underwear" in context, from German 15th c. literature, drama, poetry, etc, correspondence. When will so-called experts stop hooking their theories on the fine art of a given time period, which so often offers false clues, as you so easily and handily showed in your rant?

9:26 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As a spinner, I think that she's beating him with a rather ornate distaff (it holds the fiber away from the spindle so it doesn't tangle in with the spun yarn); the sense is the same whether distaff or spindle. That's also a (less ornate) distaff in the photo on the right. Both of these tools were seen as essentially feminine, as in Handel's Hercules, where Dejaneira tells Hercules that he might as well 'the distaff and the spindle wield.' (When I saw Hercules I refrained just barely from waving my spindle in the air.)

11:13 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Thanks! I'm sure my friends who spin are ashamed of me. I know next to nothing about spinning, except that I love the results, LOL!

10:14 PM  
OpenID openid said...

Love this post. Thanks for the clarification Isobel. At least this is out there online now to correct the other article.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Sigrid Briansdotter said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Sigrid Briansdotter said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Sigrid Briansdotter said...

Sorry for the deletes. I'm not accustomed to this format and had some minor edits to take care of.
-----------------------
Beatrix Nutz asked me to forward a response. She doesn't have accounts that would allow her to post.
---------------------------

First: Davidson NEVER came to the conclusion that the underpants were for women and I NEVER said so either. I always said that underpants were a male garment in the Middle Ages.

As to the “longline bra”: The bottom is NOT frayed. There is a hem at the lower end, even if it is only preserved over a short length. In addition there is NOTHING to indicate that a skirt may have been sewn onto that end thus making it a kirtle. No tiny holes in the fabric where a sewing needle and thread may have passed through.

And the kirtles in the Wenceslaus Bible: They do have narrow shoulder straps like the “longline bra” but I can´t make out anything that even remotely resembles cups. Besides – there´s still the other “bras” from Lengberg that end right below the breasts and are definitely NOT upper parts of dresses.

The book by Jutta Zander-Seidel is titled “Textiler Hausrat. Kleidung und Haustextilien in Nuernberg von 1500-1650” (Household textiles. Clothing and household textiles in Nuremberg from 1500-1650)
So she only writes about Nuremberg AND it´s early modern times. In my article for the BBC I talked about ITALIAN women in the 16th century wearing drawers.

Oh –and I am sure to have mentioned, especially in my article for the BBC History Magazine, that medieval images depicting women wearing underpants are always either in the context of “a world turned upside down” or of women dressing up as men. Let me quote myself: “When women are shown wearing pants it’s always in the context of ‘a world turned upside down’. Trousers and underpants were considered a symbol of male power and women wearing them were pugnacious wives trying to usurp the authority of their husbands, or women of low morality”.

Thanks for listening

Kind regards

Beatrix
------------------------------
Please note that more information has come out even in the last few days and more will as we are expecting another article from Beatrix Nutz in a special issue of “Histoire et Images Medievales” to hit the shelves soon. August 16th I'm told. The editors had it translated into French for publication. There are several interviews now that can be found online. Beatrix hopes to have a booklet with more information published soon. Of course, I most look forward to her finishing her dissertation but I expect that will be a while as there is still much research to be done.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'd certainly LOVE for more images (and better images) to be made available. The ones out there are not high resolution, they do not show the "bras" from all angles, and they do not show all of the "bras" that were found.

I'm glad to see that we're all in agreement that these are just a pair of men's underwear. I'm not sure why so many of the articles out there are stressing the "women's lingerie" angle though given that fact.

12:38 PM  

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