The Middle Ages was a dark time for many, and the early Middle Ages saw many women attempting to minimize their figures. Garments that drew attention to the bust were actually outlawed by the Catholic Church in an edict out of Strasbourg. By the late Middle Ages, things were changing, but women during this period typically kept a low profile and garments were designed not to draw attention to their bust lines and feminine attributes. During this time period, it was exceptional for women to wear any kind of bra or breast support at all. If they did, it was typically just a simple cloth binder, designed to minimize the appearance of the bust and hold it in place while women went about their daily tasks.
The Edict of Strasbourg
Many documents quote an edict out of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire from 1370, stating “No woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or tightened dress.” This Church edict likely arose out of a renewed focus on living a simple, constrained life, free of sin. By emphasizing a feminine shape, women would be responsible for tempting men; an act which could cause men to stray into sin. The Catholic Church was attempting to curtail these temptations.
Straight Waists and Tight Bodices Minimized the Breasts
The Middle Ages also saw a very stern, puritanical way of life. Merriment and jollity were discouraged and frowned upon by the Church, and it was a time of duty, struggle and strife. It is unsurprising that this resulted in severe fashion and styles designed to prevent social jockeying, political intrigue and an atmosphere of lightheartedness or frivolity.
Fashion and Cultural Significance
Generally speaking, during the Middle Ages, breasts were minimized by tight-fitting, straight bodices, full skirts and high necklines. Garments that were too tight to permit work were often exchanged for looser-fitting garments by women who worked inside or outside the home, bowing to practical need. When women wore these loser garments, they typically wore a camisole underneath, which may have had a simple tie under the breast line in the bodice area.
In the 15th century, the ideal form was small-breasted and full-figured, which symbolized abundance and fertility. Wide hips for child bearing were considered good, and women who were full-figured were more desirable because they represented this ideal of health and abundance. Slim was not in fashion, as it implied that a family didn’t have enough food on the table, or that the woman was in poor health.
The Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance
In the late Middle Ages toward the Renaissance period, women began to display more décolletage in fashionable circles. An emphasis on firm breasts began to emerge, and fashionable women often handed their children off to wet nurses for breastfeeding in order to retain their firm breasts and more closely resemble the fashionable ideal. This reflected a general shift in attitude at the end of the late Middle Ages as Europe moved into a Renaissance and mores became more liberal and fashion-oriented.
Décolletage Became More Fashionable in the Late Middle Ages