Fitting for bust-support: how I started

There are a variety of silhouettes in the body-hugging dresses worn by women in the fine art of the late 14th and early 15th centuries in Europe. Theories abound concerning the methods used to achieve the look of these dresses — a look that more often than not hoisted the bust to attractive heights, or at the least, gave it the appearance of comfortable support. Did the dress itself support the bust?

The recent finds of 15th-century undergarments with built-in bust support in Tyrol, Austria provides intriguing possibilities, but there also appears to be tell-tale textual evidence that women used at least two other methods to support the bust before corsets and later, bras, made the scene. Period texts describe breast binding and in one case, the women of Montpellier are cited for their tight tunics and lacing. Eustace Deschamps’ late 14th- or early 15th-century poem, Balade sur Les Femmes Qui Troussent Leur Tetins, describes two sacks sewn in the chest area, trussed tight with cords. It becomes clear that lacing played an integral part in wrangling the bust during the fitted dress era. Whether this lacing was applied as part of an undergarment or as part of the foundation dress may have varied from person to person and region to region, as well as time period.

In the many cases of feminine figural art in which lacing is seen either as a center-front closure or a side seam closure the question as to its purpose on a dress must be answered. If bust support is worked into the chemise or another underwear layer (a shirt with breast pockets, perhaps), why add lacing to a dress? Lacing did not appear to serve the same decorative function as buttons did in this time period. It appears as a utilitarian method for closing open seams on clothing and tends to be depicted in a low-profile manner. If it did not serve a decorative purpose, then surely it must have served a tailoring purpose — to make the clothing so tight that one must sew two seams up with a lace to keep them closed. If clothing with laces was loose enough to pull on and off over the head, it was probably not tight enough to give any meaningful support to the bust. And, it begs for understanding as to why the dress was made with lacing at all.

When I began on this journey to find an historically viable method for supporting breasts in the tightly-fitted dresses of the later 14th century, I created both chemises and dresses with lacing at the center-front, but their fit was imperfect. At the time, I was only able to flat-draft patterns from measurements, and my skills were not strong enough to achieve the reliable and well-fitted bust support I needed. Much later I became skilled enough to draft good support into a garment with measurements alone, but in the intervening time, I casted about for something better.

I asked around in online communities and came across Robin Netherton’s informative posts from the H-Costume archives on what she calls the “Gothic Fitted Dress”, or GFD for short. I began to experiment with four, narrow rectangular panels, pinning and basting them along the vertical seams under the arms, up the center-back, and up the center-front, a clothes-making method she cites as likely used by tailors/seamstresses in period. I missed some of her salient points in my eagerness to get started and came up with a draping method that is slightly different from hers, but which I have ended up finding quite sufficient. It is worth noting that my method, which involves a curvature in the center-front seams, is a close cousin to Robin’s method, which uses a straight center-front seam. I would like to make clear that the fitting experiment covered in my two photo-essays for the curved-front seam and straight-front seam bust supportive dress was done in the spirit of learning and comparison, and not in opposition to Robin’s well-researched and credible fitting methods.

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