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.

Comments

  1. This is great! I have fumbled with how to make a bodice work without making myself flat-chested or painfully unsupported. I’ll be giving this a try. Thanks!

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      One thing I don’t discuss in this post is how to get that pattern created. As you might have already seen, you can have someone drape-fit you, but you can also attempt this from measurements (and perhaps a repetitive process of sewing it up, trying it on, noting the errors, and adjusting again, if needed). Good luck! Hope you find success.

  2. I truly enjoy your site. However, when comes to being bra-less in public I quiver at the thought! I’m a G cup, sadly and obviously not the ideal for the 1350′s Europe and despite being heavy I have an actual waist. Being in Southern California wearing wool is not an option, as most of our events are in near desert or high desert areas. Linen works but I doubt a single layer of linen will support me. Suggestions?

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      I’m currently an F cup, or DDD, depending on the brand name, so I understand your concern! The picture at the end of my post is a linen dress with a linen half-lining. The weight of both fabrics is 5.3 oz, from fabrics-store.com. You can certainly get good support if you do what I did. Just line to your hips, and leave the sleeves and skirt one layer. To me, the fit must be “tight to be right”. An ample bosom weighs a lot and the only way to mitigate that weight is to really snugly contain it.

  3. I made my daughter’s wedding dress. I lined the bodice. When her breasts were shy I put darts in the lining. It did 2 things 1st & desired effect, it pushed her breasts off to the groom’s delight & 2nd it did make the surface fabric look not so tight. When making darts the rule of thumb is the smaller the breast the straighter the line, the fuller the breast the more curved the dart line.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Darts are a great tailoring option, but I don’t think solid evidence for them in the 14thc century in Europe has been found yet. That’s why my version doesn’t have any, and all shaping is created from the seams themselves. However, I like the idea of working darts into the lining to do more of the work, while leaving the outer fabric smooth. I don’t think it’s impossible such techniques could have been used back then — one never knows. There was talk of “bags” being sewn into garments, so darts could very well be one way of creating a “bag” shape to cradle the breasts.

  4. To the lady with a G cup – that’s my size as well, and I’ve successfully done a variation of this pattern (and an eager to see if some of the ideas mentioned here will work for me). My dresses that have enough hold to go braless underneath are lined in a slightly thicker fabric than the outer dress, and I’ve used light boning on the side seams and up the front to prevent that all-important ‘band’ that she talks about from scrunching up on me! When you think about it, bras aren’t of terribly thick materials either, so as long as the fabric is a tight weave it should work!

  5. Jim Tschen Emmons says:

    Tasha, thank you for all the work you do and for sharing it. As an historian I have found your site invaluable as a resource. I’m currently working on a book that deals with daily life in the Middle Ages (one aimed for say college freshmen) and am, at this moment, working on one of the entries, the “brassiere” found in Lengberg Castle, Austria, in 2008 (announced 2012)–here is a link to a general article, but one that consulted one of the primary researchers: http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie I would keen to get your take on this. In any event, seemed a fitting contribution when discussing women’s clothing and support.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Jim. I would be happy to discuss further in email, perhaps after this weekend which promises to be very busy for me. I do certainly have plenty of thoughts to share!

  6. Jim Tschen Emmons says:

    Hi Tasha, you are most welcome. After this weekend is fine–I understand busy all too well =)

  7. Lady Tasha,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a 36H and always hard pressed to find clothes that hang properly. I look to trying this method of fitting for my upper torso. I have always been unwilling to go bra-less in public because of my size. Like Ms. Weekly, I too have a waist, but I wear Target brand’s junior straight jeans (no hips or posterior to speak of) which makes fitting even more aggravating. Should I lightly pad the posterior and hip region of this dress? I would like it to look period even though my general shape is not (lol). Any help is appreciated.
    thank you.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Hi, glad this is useful! I recommend you do not pad your hips or backside area in a dress like this — if you make it nice and snug under your bust and then let the fabric flare from there in the front but keep it fitted until you reach the top of the bum in back before flaring, you may find this dress works wonders at implying a more hourglass shape. Best of luck!

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