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.

Tasha and Greg before the Christmas tree

The cotehardie that ate my brain!

My sweetheart’s birthday is in early November. He gently suggested I might make him something historically-themed and  fine to wear. I thought this was a capital idea, given my experience and interests. I decided to make him a cotehardie in the style of Charles de Blois. I have my own pattern for easy fitting, after all, and I even had enough of the fine lampas I used for the Charles VI recreation left over to use. I was off to the races.

Greg hanging out with a circa 1400 harness

Greg hanging out with a circa 1400 harness

I took measurements and then altered the sleeves on my commercial pattern for a size 42 chest. Greg has really long arms, so I knew better than to go with the pre-sized sleeves. I lengthened them by a good three inches, adding room to the upper arm piece, the forearm piece, and the cuff. Next, I ran the pattern up using a bubblegum-pink linen I had in my stash but knew I’d never have the heart to use for a finished garment. I don’t usually waste linen on a mock-up, but this color was hopeless with respect to my tastes, so it might as well be put to use.

Because Greg lives some distance from me, I mailed him this atrocity and had him try it on while we were Skyping. I took notes for alterations and he mailed it back to me. I reworked it slightly and mailed it to him again. This time the fit was correct. I proceeded to cut out the good stuff.

This is where most people quail. The fabric cost me $58 a yard (a bargain really; it originally retailed for about $300 a yard). But I’m weird and unafraid of cutting expensive fabric. I’m sure this s a fault, not a positive, but so far so good. Ironically, as gorgeous and complex as this silk lampas is, the pattern on it is not medieval. At best, it’s 18th century.

I sewed up the fashion layer and the lining, which incidentally is made from a gorgeous natural herringbone linen which I scored for $2 a yard in a private sale from a retired seamstress. This was the super-easy part. Next came hand-finishing, making all the buttons, and the dreaded buttonholes. By now, Greg’s birthday had come and gone and I was only getting started.

Somewhere around mid-November I began making buttons. And making them. And making them some more. All together, this cote ended up with 67 hand-made buttons. Which meant 67 buttonholes. *gulp*

A surfeit of buttons

A surfeit of buttons

I do believe the buttonholes drove me slightly mad. I had no time for anything else aside from making dinner, attending to my son’s homework and bedtime routine, and going to my day job. When I finally finished, it was the night before Greg was to wear it, this past weekend, at a Yule celebration held by friends of ours in Connecticut. But it got finished! And, it looked pretty spiff, if I say so myself. Greg was happy with it, which is what counts.

Tasha and Greg before the Christmas tree

Tasha and Greg before the Christmas tree