On Cleavage and Breast Mounds

Got your attention, didn’t I?

One of these days I’m going to learn to write a whole article when I start it. I had a fantastic article all started, I just hadn’t put together the images, all about breast support. It had literary quotes, analysis, disapproving monks, the works! Then the Lengberg Bra news broke, and more organized people got those quotes together, including much more than I’d ever dug up. So far, the most comprehensive piece I’ve seen on the subject was at the Medieval Silkwork blog, Supportive Underwear in Written Sources. Good stuff. Go read it.

In recreating the clothing of the 14th and 15th centuries, I’ve always stuck with the idea that there was more than one way to go about doing things. I doubt that all women always used a bust support method. I doubt that the only bust support method was similar to the Lengberg bras, with separated “breast sacks.” I doubt that the only way to create a integrally-fitted dress or chemise was with a straight front seam or a curved front seam. Many people like absolutes. Not me.

Personally, my favorite of all of the quotes that support, well, support, is this:

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…

Translation and original found at Will’s Commonplace Book.

It seems to me that this quote, even without the others at the Silkwork link, does a good job of explaining that different women had different methods.

Not to mention that the idea of breast sacks just tickles me to pieces.

When Jeff and I were in Belgium a few years ago, I took photos of an elaborately-carved retable (altarpiece) in the Musees Royaux d’art et d’Histoire which had some very interesting costume details. One was this woman:

Retable - Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels, Belgium

Retable – Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels, Belgium

She’s not pushed up too far, but she looks gently supported. Looks like breast sack-type support to me. What do you think?

There are many arguments against breast support. The most common that I’ve seen is that the extant garments we have don’t appear to be supportive. A second is that many illustrations, especially mid-century and earlier, don’t feature the breasts. The third is a suggestion that breast support is a medieval-ish solution to a modern problem.

With respect to extant garments, we have so few. And even though there are many different cuts from the Herjolfsnes garments, they are from the same culture and location. Even taken all together, we don’t have necessarily a good representative sample covering time, location, and class.

Illustrations are easy. We can also find illustrations which do feature the breasts, cleavage, and lower necklines. I’ve found them from the 1370s – 80s on, but keep your eye out and you might see them earlier. (Be careful on dates of brasses and monuments – some are dated from the death date, not the carving date.)

More on the illustrations in a bit.

As for it being a modern problem, well, I doubt it. But don’t take my word for it, read the text at the Silkwork link above. There are multiple references throughout the middle ages, even before the fitted dress era, describing women who attempted to somehow support their breasts. Boobs aren’t new.

Back to the point about the illustrations.

And on to Cleavage and Breast Mounds.

Over the years since I’ve been looking at this, and since I first read some of the arguments saying that supportive garments are a reenactor-ism, I’ve noticed plenty of representations of the lifted and compressed breast in artwork. Even that, though, critics will point out might be idealization of the female form. This isn’t a bad argument. For example, I’m not sure that Jean Fouquet ever saw a nude female who wasn’t lying down.

But breasts don’t creep up into cleavage on their own. Even the most blessed and perky of us don’t have that little dip or breast mounds without help. Even when we’re lying down, they creep off to the side leaving a more generous space between. Sure, artists will make up a lot of stuff. But what’s more likely, that they just invented the concept of cleavage and breast mounds, or saw them in life?

Wait. They were mostly guys. Don’t answer that.

Moving on. Here is a sample of these representations.

(Note: I’m a bad blogger, and I don’t have great citations for everything. I have them somewhere, and I think that the raw photos where I took pictures of the citation are on a hard drive on the other side of the country. I’ll do my best. My apologies.)

Effigies and brasses are where I first started noticing cleavage. They’re simply rendered, without much extraneous information.

St Andrews Esmoun and Isabel de Malyns, 1385

St Andrews Esmoun and Isabel de Malyns, 1385

Ms. Isabel de Malyns does seem to be showing us her cleavage. Well, many brasses were made from an artist’s template, but I’m sure you get what I mean. There’s potentially the explanation that the cleavage-like lines are just other artifacts on the brass. Perhaps? But the brasses don’t exist in a vacuum. We do have other examples.

Margaret de Cobham, 1375, Cobham Church

Margaret de Cobham, 1375, Cobham Church

You’ll probably have to click through to the full size to see it, but there it is, on another roughly contemporary brass.


Another one you can click through to see.

Maud de Grey, 1394, Stanton Harcourt

Maud de Grey, 1394, Stanton Harcourt

Here’s one on a stone effigy.

She’s lying down, so perhaps her breast mounds are a little more enhanced than they otherwise would be. However, considering that the veil and cloak are not rendered as if she were lying on her back, we might not be able to make the assumption that the artist was attempting that level of perspective.

St. Mary the Virgin, 1390, Swine in Holderness

St. Mary the Virgin, 1390, Swine in Holderness

This one is my very favorite. She’s got breast mounds. And she has a stunningly low neckline. The bodice of the gown is flat, so how lifelike was it meant to be? That’s unclear. But what’s clear (to me) is that the artist has seen breasts pushed up like that.

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Here’s a woman with some definite cleavage, drawn in. She’s upright. She’s rendered in detail. Her dress shows curves. My citation for this is not with me, but it looks to me like the early 15th century illustrations of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

St Ursula and her Virgin Companions. Medieval miniature by Giovanni di benedetto, 1385-1390. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.

St Ursula and her Virgin Companions. Medieval miniature by Giovanni di benedetto, 1385-1390. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.

This was the one that really threw me for a loop. I’ve looked at this image SO many times. And yet, until recently, I never noticed the breast mounds on the companion on the far left. How many other examples of cleavage or mounds have I been missing?

Keep your eye out, and I’m sure you’ll start seeing them too.

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