Anatomy of my bodice pattern for 14th century bust support

I’m going to break down the tailoring details of how I typically attain 14thc century bust support, and more specifically, the kind that looks right for the last two decades of that century in Western Europe. Please note, though I talk about a specific method in this post, I happen to also like other methods with different tailoring techniques and placement of the lacing. I also can’t wait to see the work that develops from the Austrian bra-like finds. There has long been an undercurrent of rumor that visible historical costumers like me are dogmatic in our approach to such things, but I find that silly. By the very nature of what I am seeking to learn, there is no corner on the market of knowledge because so much is still yet unknown. All I have ever done is conduct experiments based on viable theories. And what fun it has been!

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Henri de Mondeville, before his death in 1320, wrote in his work Cirurgia (translated into English):

“Some women, unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, make in their chemises two sacks proportioned to their breasts, but shallow, and they put them on every morning, and compress them as much as they can with a suitable bandage. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces…” (bolding mine)

I first became aware of this gem from Will McLean’s blog, A Commonplace Book.

I suppose that makes me very much a “woman of Montpellier”, because I prefer to wear dresses requiring lacing and a tight fit in order to wrangle my bosom. Although, one really must ask, what did a surgeon have to offer the amply-endowed 14th century woman? I am both intrigued and afraid to know!

As with any journey from Point A to Point B, there is more than one way to solve this whole bust support issue in European 14th century clothing, with more than one result in comfort, aesthetics, and silhouette. I am partial to a front-lacing dress with curves built into the center front edges and the side seams. Of course, as discussed in a previous blog post, I still fudge the silhouette with generous shoulder seams, but I am of the opinion that changing that aspect of my pattern will not affect the rest of it enough to invalidate the version I’m sharing in this post.

This comfortably traditional pattern of mine for bust support has evolved through the years. It’s a silhouette that works well for the 1380s into the early 15th century, judging from the artistic portrayals across multiple geographic locations and media usage. I could stand to adjust the shoulder seams and neckline shape as already mentioned, but otherwise, I’m quite happy with it. To see how different this pattern is from my earlier efforts, take a quick look at the final pattern shape I came up with for the curved front seam method in my old photo essay on this topic. Keep that page open, and then compare to the photo of my more recent pattern below. Virtually unrelated!

There are a number of signature features to this bodice pattern’s tailoring. By analyzing them individually, we can better understand a form of patterning that will be effective for the challenge of wrangling the female bust.

Here’s a photo of the most recent custom bodice pattern which I use for my own late 14th century-style fitted dresses:

Tasha's traditional bodice pattern

Tasha’s traditional bodice pattern

Keep in mind that the principle at work behind this tailoring method is “negative ease”, which means that it’s skin-tight. This is not a pattern intended to skim the upper body. This is what my body silhouette would look like if it were flattened out and quartered. (YUCK!) Now I will highlight specific shapes and explain their purpose.

Under-bust points on the front piece

Under-bust points on the front piece

On both the center-front edge and the side seam there is a sharply defined point where the bust curve ends and the lines below the bust begin. When laced close, this creates a band of strength just below the bust which prevents the bust from creeping downward. It also creates a sharply defined pocket within which the bust can rest.

Bust curves on front piece

Bust curves on front piece

Note also that both the side seam and the center-front edge have a defined curve in the bust area. This helps distribute the bust evenly across the entire chest and helps reduce the tendency for the bust to collect in the middle. I find the curve on the side seam especially useful and important, even for women of a smaller size. The less important curve is the one in the front, as long as the side’s curve provides room for the bust.

Under-bust flare on front piec

Under-bust flare on front piec

Notice that the lines extending out from under the bust points are mostly straight for about three inches of length before they flare generously. This is the aforementioned band of strength which stabilizes the bust and gives you confidence that everything is going to stay where it should for long periods of time. The subsequent flare allows the dress to skim over the tummy while maintaining the appearance of a defined waist. Much of the later 14th century and early 15th century figural imagery portrays women with higher waists than we modern folks are used to. If it is too close-fitting across the belly, every little variation in your curves will show, and that’s not always desirable (or comfortable!) either.

Armholes on front and back pieces

Armholes on front and back pieces

The armhole is deeper in the front than in the back. They are both cut with a strong curve and end right up in the armpit, though you can see that the back piece’s armhole is somewhat shallower than the front piece’s. This improves range of motion of the arm in its natural position (slightly towards the front of the body). It also places the armhole seam at the fulcrum of your shoulder joint’s movement, which keeps it from binding your mobility. My initial photo essays on the draping method for this style showed the armholes much larger than I would now deem ideal for this style of dress.

The curve of the center-back seam

The curve of the center-back seam

The center back seam closely follows the curve of the body all the way to the top of the rear end. This accentuates the S-curve at the bottom of the spine — a feminine feature much appreciated aesthetically. You may have also noticed that the back piece is much thinner than the front piece. This is because there is typically more of you on the front of your body than the back, if we are using the side seam as the splitting point.

Tasha, August 2012

Tasha, August 2012

Here I am, wearing a linen dress I made from the pattern above. Pretty comfortable and definitely supportive.

Other people have different signature bodice patterns that they are equally happy with, and I encourage you to experiment until you find the right one(s) for you.

The Fitted Dress Neckline: Devil in the Details

While I have consistently indulged in a relatively deep scoop neckline for my 14th century-style fitted dresses, I have done so in a willful departure from what the art of the time actually reveals. In fact, I have come across precious few images of fitted dresses with generously wide shoulder seams that also dip low enough to show cleavage. As it turns out, where you have one, you frequently do not have the other.

I’ve been stubbornly using my signature scoop for a number of reasons, none of them based on historical accuracy. Firstly, the more shoulder coverage you have, the easier it is to achieve the bust support mechanism built into the dress. Secondly, the deeper the scoop, the less vast (for “less aesthetically pleasing” values of vast) my bosom appears, though there is a fine line between “less gigantic” and “way too cleavage-y”. Simply put, it has always been convenient and is not so outlandishly far from the more common necklines seen on fitted dresses of the 14th and 15th centuries to force a different approach.

Now that the rationalizing part is out of the way, I readily admit there are more visually accurate ways to make a fitted dress neckline, and this post dabbles in the possibilities. Let’s walk through the common necklines of the 14th century (and the turn of the 15th).

The Boat Neckline

The rise of the fitted dress, which happened for the most part in the 1340s, gave us a boat neck so severe, it was almost a reverse curve. The middle of the neckline appears to bow upwards, and the dress perches itself at the points of the shoulders. How much of this is artistic convention or accurate portrayal is hard to know, but comparing a number of contemporary manuscripts shows a consistent portrayal of this severe boat style.

As time marched on, the boat neck continued to appear.

Bible Moralisée, 1350-1, BNF Ms. fr. 167 f.7v

Bible Moralisée, 1350-1, BNF Ms. fr. 167 f.7v

English book of hours, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, circa 1345

English book of hours, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, circa 1345

Aristotle Ethiques, 1397+, Chantilly Mus. Condé Ms. 277 (XIX C 10) f.60

Aristotle Ethiques, 1397+, Chantilly Mus. Condé Ms. 277 (XIX C 10) f.60

The Off-the-Shoulder Neckline—a variation on the boat neckline

At the end of the 14th century there appeared a striking style of fitted dress which moved the neckline so far wide that it passed beyond the point of the shoulders to become a true off-the-shoulder fashion. Presented with this tailoring feat, was the gravity-defying lifted and shelf-like presentation of the bosom. Illuminators seem to have delighted in portraying this style on ladies with prodigious endowment. For students of this period’s dress, the Bohemian examples likely spring to mind.

Wenceslas Bible, 1390+, second volume, f.20

Wenceslas Bible, 1390+, second volume, f.20

Wenceslas Bible, 1387,  volume of Willehalm de Orange, Cp. no. 91

Wenceslas Bible, 1387, volume of Willehalm de Orange, Cp. no. 91

Honorat Bovet, Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun,1398,  BNF Ms. Fr. 811 f.IV

Honorat Bovet, Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun,1398, BNF Ms. Fr. 811 f.IV

The Curved Neckline

A simply rounded neckline is not as universal as one might assume in this time period, though there is a respectable representation in the figural art. How far off the shoulder and how deep the scoop—these are degrees and variations of the same thing, though the persistent trend is for a very narrow shoulder seam and a relatively shallow curve. This neckline style is interspersed throughout the time of the fitted dress. Note the last image below shows a scoop neckline—one of those “precious few” I mentioned above.

Wife of Sir __ de Redford, 1390, English

Wife of Sir __ de Redford, 1390, English

Abbaye du Trésor, 1400

Abbaye du Trésor, 1400 (neckline outlined in black for clarity)

Les Belles Heures de Jean duc de Berry, 1409

Les Belles Heures de Jean duc de Berry, 1409

Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1400, Rouen Town Library, Ms. 3054 f.24v

Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1400, Rouen Town Library, Ms. 3054 f.24v

Square Neckline

Fitted dresses were not all tailored exactly the same way. There is plenty of evidence that silhouette, including neckline, varied all over Europe. In some cases, the tailoring itself probably inspired the neckline shape, as in the case of dresses made from five or six panels. There are a few well-known Italian examples of two-tone dresses cut with three front panels which likely influenced the squared shaping seen in their necklines:

Birth of the Virgin, 1365, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

Birth of the Virgin, 1365, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

Pietà di San Remigio, Giottino,1365

Pietà di San Remigio, Giottino,1365

The square neckline crops up in the art throughout the time period of the fitted dress. The persistence of this style makes it something of a hallmark aesthetic of the time. Were the fronts of these dresses regularly cut with three panels—a proto-princess-seamed arrangement? I suspect this was more common than we can prove within the confines of our limited surviving data set.

Note in the first English example below, the square neckline is gently rounded at the edges. As with all of these images, there is always a question of how much accuracy a given artisan puts into the figure’s clothing. Is this a square neckline with rounded edges or just a stylized version of a curved neckline? Hard to know for sure.

Roman de la Rose, 1370+,  Arras, Bibl. mun. Ms. 897 f.117

Roman de la Rose, 1370+, Arras, Bibl. mun. Ms. 897 f.117

Six treatises on common Christian matters, Tomáš Štítný, 1376, Prague, National and University Library, sign. XII A.6. f.37

Six treatises on common Christian matters, Tomáš Štítný, 1376, Prague, National and University Library, sign. XII A.6. f.37

Joan de Cobham, 1380, English

Joan de Cobham, 1380, English

Isabeau de Bavière, Jacquemart de Hesdin, 1385-9,  Pierpont Morgan Library Ms. 346 f.2

Isabeau de Bavière, Jacquemart de Hesdin, 1385-9, Pierpont Morgan Library Ms. 346 f.2

Eleynore Corp, 1391, English

Eleynore Corp, 1391, English

Occasionally, fitted dresses with squared necklines are portrayed with a peak between the breasts. These differ from the earlier boat-necked examples, as these dresses clearly have shoulder seams, while the boat neck versions either do not (implying an off-the-shoulder raglan sleeve), or have such negligibly small ones as to render them meaningless. In addition, these figures are often portrayed with a more defined bust, which leads me to wonder if the peak we are seeing is actually intended to represent fabric wrapping around each breast and indenting between them. Or, more simply, it could be meant to evoke the look of cleavage. This probably could use more study.

Fais et dis mémorables des romains, Valerius maximus,1376, BNF Ms. fr. 9749  f.76v

Fais et dis mémorables des romains, Valerius maximus,1376, BNF Ms. fr. 9749 f.76v

Trésor de vénerie, Hardouin de Fontaines-Guerin, 1394+, BNF Ms. fr. 855 p.23

Trésor de vénerie, Hardouin de Fontaines-Guerin, 1394+, BNF Ms. fr. 855 p.23

In the early 15th century, some fitted dress images with square-like necklines show a sweetheart variation—curves over the bosom reminiscent of the top of a heart. I have long wondered if such necklines were in reality cut to this shape or if, like the peak described above, they were an illuminator’s way of showing the slinkiness and tightness of a dress covering the bust, only with the peak turned into a dip. Here’s a fine example of it, along with intriguing seam lines showing a three-part front panel:

Bible Moralisée, 1403-4, BNF Ms. fr. 166 f.24

Bible Moralisée, 1403-4, BNF Ms. fr. 166 f.24

How a new neckline might impact your existing dress pattern

In light of the undeniable variation in fitted dress neckline styles, how might this affect the pattern you use for a fitted dress? Good news and bad news. If you, like me, have a relatively pronounced scoop in your pattern, it will adapt easily to a more shallowly curved neckline, as well as square necklines that aren’t cut too low, and sweetheart styles. It will also adapt well to boat neck styles that don’t go entirely off the shoulder. I have found that as long as you have at least an inch in your shoulder seam, the bust support continues to work the same as it would for a shoulder seam with more length in it. However, as soon as you remove the shoulder support or reduce it to a tiny band tenuously gripping the point of the shoulder, you begin to encounter challenges with bust support and physical comfort. If you try to stretch your existing pattern’s shoulder seams off to the sides in order to grip the shoulder points, the fabric will likely buckle and pouch outward in the areas where your sleeve meets your bodice in the front and back. This will require a refitting of the pattern involving a reduction in the size of your armhole. It can be done, but I advise patience and experimentation.

With the 15th century bust-supportive bra-like finds in the Tyrol, one must wonder if the more shoulder-exposing styles made use of a supportive undergarment for added structure under the fitted dress. In particular, might a long-line style of narrow-strapped bra or “bra chemise” with side-lacing have come in handy? With a narrow strap comes mobility of the strap. Have you ever pulled your modern-day bra straps wide, to the points of your shoulders, in an effort to wear a boat-necked garment without showing the world your bra straps? I certainly have. Regardless, if the fit of your dress is snug enough through the bust and upper abdomen, a certain amount of support will always be present, much like a modern-day strapless bra.

As you can see, there is no one correct neckline for a fitted dress of the 14th century, though there are recognizably common styles. The safest way to get an accurate look is to study the figural art of a particular time and location. Note the trends and make your dresses to match. One of these days I will abandon my comfortable and familiar scoop altogether and make dresses with more representative necklines. One of these days…

Body pattern pieces

New tutorial lite: Making a dress from your bust-supportive bodice pattern

For my recent workshops in California, I produced a couple of hand-outs for attendees. Tonight I webbed one of them, a sort of fast-and-rough guide to making a dress from a bust-supportive bodice pattern. While far from comprehensive, it does contain a fair bit of useful information, especially for the advanced beginner who is comfortable making her own historical dresses, but may still be working from others’ patterns. Drafting sleeves, for instance, is not always for the faint of heart, and even seasoned experts can find themselves stymied when a particularly interesting arm and shoulder present for consideration.

Making a dress from your bust-supportive bodice pattern

It is my hope that my diagrams will illuminate the basic patterning steps. This webbed version of the hand-out also contains a bunch of useful links to tutorials and further instructions, which should give you more than enough to learn, if you are not already familiar with the techniques described. Happy dress-making!