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Undergarments and Means of Support: II. The question of an underbreast/midriff support undergarment in 16th Century Italy

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  • Brenda Bell
    We ve all seen them at Ren Faires, in fantasy images, in medievaloid costume, in national/traditional costume: the low-slung, front-laced bodice, the waist
    Message 1 of 1 , May 12, 2002
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      We've all seen them at Ren Faires, in fantasy images, in medievaloid
      costume, in "national/traditional" costume: the low-slung, front-laced
      bodice, the waist cincher, and other front-laced garments that seem to
      thrust the unbound breasts into prominent focus. I don't know if there is
      contemporary written or non-allegorical documentation for these garments,
      but the underbreast "underbodice" does show up in in religious/allegorical
      paintings in a context that warrants further research.

      The place most of us have first seen this concept in a period painting is
      in Caravaggio's "Judith" piece,
      <http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/caravaggio/judith.jpg>. Here, Judith
      is wearing a sleeveless gown-type garment with no visible sleeve mount. The
      "gown" is ladder-laced across her midriff, and tied in place again above
      her breasts. Beneath, she wears only a camicia. Notice that this camicia is
      *not* gathered across the neckline; this will come back up in Part III,
      where I try to synthesize all of this into something that's likely to send
      Bella yelling at me across five centuries <eg>.

      (While the "Judith" tale is allegorical or religious - take your pick - one
      of the themes is that Judith "seduced" Holofernes as she plied him with
      salty cheeses and alcohol-heavy wines. Several artists have taken the
      "seduction" aspect as license for Judith to appear en deshabille.)

      Caravaggio's Judith is in similar disarray to Lotto's Judith of 1512
      <http://www.civictrustwales.demon.co.uk/a205/lotto/Judith.jpg> (sorry for
      the small image; it was the only one I could find online). In Lotto's
      Judith, there is a green fabric underlay distributing the stress of
      Judith's bodice lacing, and a jewel on the above-breast tie. Her maid --
      this one young, possibly even the same age as Judith -- is similarly
      undressed, but with loose lacing and no underlay. The maid's bodice looks
      like it may lace up higher than Judith's, more like a Winters-and-Savoy
      renfaire bodice. (This higher lace-up bodice also pops up in Titian's
      "Three Ages of Man"
      <http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/art/t/tiziano/z_other/threeage.jpg> and
      Caravaggio's "Conversion of Mary Magdalene" (known at Web Gallery as
      "Martha and Mary Magdalene")
      <http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/art/c/caravagg/02/16martha.jpg>.)

      The underbreast tightening and overbreast tying of the low bodice is not
      unsimilar to the effect of the contemporary German gown bodices in Cranach
      paintings of both contemporary and allegorical figures; its use as an
      undergown support, and in Italy, is to my limited knowledge undocumented
      other than in the Judith images above. Indirect support may be gathered
      from portraits that depict a bustline similar to that which this sort of
      garment would provide: full breasts, with a bit of a natural droop to
      them, spreading horizontally over the top edge of the support. (If you're
      "fluffy" and full-breasted, stand naked in front of a mirror and use your
      hands to compress your midriff fluff inward and slightly upward; observe
      how the appearance of your breasts changes.) In a woman whose breasts "pass
      the pencil test", the clothed appearance will be of a trim waist with
      prominent, rounded breasts. Cesare da Sesto's Salome
      <http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMedia/Images/24/NG2485/eNG2485.j
      pg> has this sort of appearance, as does Rogier van der Weyden's Mary
      Magdalen <http://www.southern.net/wm/paint/auth/weyden/magdalen.jpg>. I've
      not yet had time to look *thoroughly* for other,
      nonreligious/nonallegorical, images of this type, though the Trachtenb├╝ch
      <http://www.marquise.de/1500/weigel/> seems to be awash in them. Since
      Caravaggio was Roman, and it is possible that Lotto produced his "Judith"
      for a Roman patron, another place to look is Roman garments. Those pages of
      Boissard's "Habitus" which show younger Roman women show curvature
      consistent with this sort of undergarment, as well, though without the
      overbreast ties (though *with* contrasting bodices and multiple skirt layers).

      So, I would provisionally hypothesize that the cinch-waist underbreast
      bodice is not fantasywear so much as underwear, used in 16th Century Rome
      and possibly elsewhere/elsewhen.

      (As an aside, the overbreast tie can be seen on Mary in Bernardino Luini's
      "Martha and Mary Magdalene" (c. 1516)
      <http://www.sdmart.org/pix/eyes/magdalene-large.jpg>, though in this case
      the tie appears to be attached to her camicia. I don't recall seeing it in
      any other 16th-Century images.)




      Brenda F. Bell
      webwarren@...
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