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.

Spiral Lacing—Why and how to do it on 14th century clothing

I was recently asked how I placed my eyelets for lacing my dresses shut. I lace the fronts and sides of my dresses using an off-set pattern of eyelets, finished with matched eyelets on each side at the top and the bottom of the opening. This arrangement facilitates a spiral lacing pattern which reliably holds my dresses shut. More on that below.

In the meantime, I should not assume that every reader will know what I mean by “spiral lacing”. This is a method for lacing a dress using a single lace which is threaded through eyelets in a spiral pattern, usually from bottom to top on front closures, and from top to bottom on side closures. (It is a matter of physical convenience. Try it out and you will see what I mean.) On one side of the opening, the lace pokes through the eyelets from the outside in, while on the other side the lace pokes through the eyelets from the inside out. This is the same principle at work when sewing a whip stitch.

In this first photo, I’ve sewn the edges of two pieces of fabric together using a whip stitch.

Whip stitch

Whip stitch

When opened out so that both pieces lay flat and their edges abut each other, a diagonal pattern appears.

Spiral stitching

Spiral stitching

When drawn tight so that the edges overlap, it becomes recognizable as the pattern seen in a myriad of period figural imagery for both women’s and men’s laced clothing dated to the 14th century in Europe.

Edges overlapped

Edges overlapped

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

 

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

 

Images of dresses with lacing clearly portrayed on them are far less common than dresses portrayed with no clear closure method, but there are enough such examples to put to rest any question about whether or not fitted dresses were laced closed in the 14th century. If a front-laced dress is good enough for Philippa of Hainault, the beloved wife of Edward III of England, a front-laced dress is good enough for us modern-day re-creators.

Some reasons for less copious representation of closure methods in art can be varied and have been covered in my paper, “How I stopped worrying and learned to love layers”. Particular to lacing, most figural imagery shows women wearing more than one dress at a time. Lacing is far more likely to appear on a foundation layer dress than on the outer dress which does not need to be quite so tight as the layer beneath it, and can therefore be more easily made a pull-over or a buttoned dress. Another roadblock is side-lacing—through the years I’ve found a number of 14th century examples of side-laced dresses (one being the side-laced over dress from the Tacuinum Sanitatis above) and it is all too obvious why this almost hidden location for lacing would be ignored by illuminators. It’s frequently tucked under arms where our view is occluded.

But I have digressed with a defense of lacing! Back to the patterns used.

If the stitches seen in the photo called “Edges overlapped” above were actually a lace drawn through eyelets, we would see that the eyelets are off-set, meaning that no two eyelets sit exactly across from each other. The finished effect, however, is one of maximal closure with the least possibility for gaps between the two edges.

There is another detail which bears further examination. At the top and bottom of Catherine’s dress, we see the first and last lines of lacing sit horizontally, unlike the rest of the lacing between them, which is diagonal and off-set.

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at bottom

Close up of lacing at bottom

This allows the edges to line up so that the ends of the opening will match up. In particular, this matched eyelet arrangement works best at the top of a front-laced dress, where an off-set neckline would be glaringly noticeable.

Jen Thompson’s Zen of Spiral Lacing is a great read on this topic. Students of 14th century clothing should read and internalize this concise web article and in particular the second diagram, which shows the arrangement I discuss above and corroborate with the Countess of Warwick’s effigy. Here’s an expanded view of the simple stitches I sewed to mimic this pattern:

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

To be clear, not every single example of lacing in figural imagery shows the exact arrangement seen on the countess’ effigy. There are variations, such as no clear example of a matched set of eyelets at the top or the bottom. (If you ignore this finishing touch, however,  your closure edges will have a harder time staying even with each other without upwards or downwards shift on one side.) Another variation is lacing that appears to run in horizontal rows, rather than off-set, diagonal rows as seen in the image below.

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

 

Whatever one’s preference for the placement of eyelets and the pattern of the lace’s path, here are some good takeaways:

1) Lacing was used on fitted dresses and men’s fitted garments in the 14th century.

2) Lacing was used on the front of garments and on the sides of garments. It is unclear whether or not it was used on the backs of garments. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, but within the context of currently known research, it is much less defensible than lacing on the front or sides.

3) A single-strand spiral lace was the most common lacing approach, given its prevalence in the art. This means that cross lacing—where there are two laces crossing over each other—was far less common. I’ve come across a couple of images of men’s martial surcoats laced this way, but that’s it so far. You can see those images in slide 15 of my presentation on 14th Century Martial Surcoats in England and France.

Go forth and lace up!