Friday, May 21, 2010

Medieval Underwear or What Aren’t You Wearing?

Today's guest is Jeri Westerson, medieval mystery writer extraordinaire and an old friend of the mystery writing Pens!

Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri Westerson’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Reporter, would-be actress, graphic artist; these are the things she spent her time on before creating the newest hardboiled detective, Crispin Guest—ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London in her Medieval Noir series. The Boston Globe called her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, and her third, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT is due for release in October.

When you write novels in an historical setting, you really have to find out all manner of things, things you think you know, but until you really research them you realize you don’t.

We take a lot of information for granted. I suppose we get a lot of our information from movies when it comes to the day to day life of earlier times. But that is a false assumption. For one, you are assuming that the art director did their homework, which they very well may have done, but it also might have been undermined by any number of factors, not the least of which is the director who may say that s/he just doesn’t like the look of something and changes it to something completely anachronistic for the time period.

Like clothing, for instance. Underwear, specifically.

For the most part, we never see medieval underwear. In statues, tapestries, embroideries, and illuminated manuscripts, we usually see people depicted with their clothes on. But that is not always the case. It is wonderful, in fact, when a contemporary artist—and in most cases these are monks drawing in illuminated manuscripts—depict scenes of everyday life; threshing in a field; a lord and lady taking a bath; peasants dancing; entertainers with their trained animals; a lord and lady in the bedchamber.

In cases of the peasantry, we get a good old-fashioned glimpse of their underwear, and underwear tells us a great deal about the rest of their society and the kind of outer garments they wear.

We should address the men, first. It should also be noted that the period I am most concerned with is the fourteenth century, since this is the period I write about in my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.

In the illustration, you can see men’s underwear. They are always white and made of linen (as cotton was a latecomer to Europe and very expensive, and wool was just plain too awful to contemplate for underwear). These breeches, called braies, have two legs and a drawstring waistband. Sometimes, though, they are looser, open garments made more like a diaper. The later, however, was so that the design could be flexible, either left longer for long gowns or wrapped up shorter for more stylish shorter cotehardies. The waistbands are rolled down over the drawstring to keep everything secure.

In the second illustration, you can see that the hose or chausses are stockings (which sometimes had feet attached and sometimes not, leaving the wearer to also don socks). For wealthier people, these are made tailored to the shape of the leg. It is made of standard cloth and not like the elastic tights we have today. If it wasn’t made to the leg, it was a lot baggier, as you can imagine. On the thigh they come to a point with a string that is tied to the string waistband of the braies. At this point, men did not wear the tight form-fitting combination hose and underwear (like panty hose) where you can see what they had for breakfast. That was a later innovation, when we see codpieces attached to the front for holstering men’s nether regions (making easy access for a call of nature) and because they couldn’t get breeches on under the tight fitting hose.

For women it was rather more simple. They didn’t wear any underwear. That’s right. No braies, no panties. Nothing but air.

And bras? Forget about it. Though, I think if you were particularly well endowed, you might have invented your own sort of sling, fashion be damned. But if that were so, records and illustrations are scarce on the subject. Possibly for modesty’s sake. There are lists of the king’s clothing, for instance, by the Master of the Wardrobe, and when it gets to mentioning his unmentionables, they resort to quaint Latinate euphemisms.

So wait a minute, you are saying. Why is it that women didn’t wear medieval panties?

It has to be a matter of hygiene. If women were to relieve themselves, they couldn’t be nattering about with lots of ties and this and that and long skirts. At least that’s the explanation. Even in the Victorian era, if breeches/pantaloons they wore, they were crotchless affairs in order to simply get on with it with all those corsets and layers of skirts. Panties are a quite modern innovation for women. But this lack of panties could also very well be the prohibition of women wearing men’s clothing, and breeches certainly smacked of that. The only time women seemed to wear anything on their nether regions was when they had their menses and needed layered cloth pinned in a sort of belt, which was still the way of it up until about the 1970s before adhesive backed paper pads were invented. Now that’s what I call an innovation!

At any rate, under the outerwear, both men and women wore the multi-purpose chemise or shirt/shift. For men the shirt, for women a shift, like a long slip with sleeves. It’s what you see poking out below their skirt and rolled up on a hot day at their sleeves and around the neckline.

Gowns and cotehardies are worn over that. Now remember, underwear was washed, outer clothing, for the most part, was not. Anything close to the skin with its sweat and dirt had to be laundered and therefore underwear was white (colors would fade). Outerwear had to last you a long time and washing clothing breaks it down a lot quicker than any old wear and tear, especially with the harsh lye soaps. Outer clothing was usually made of wool, something plentiful in jolly old England, and was brushed to eliminate dirt and bring back the nap, with particular care taken for individual stains. This is one reason why my character Crispin Guest, can be seen wearing the same cotehardie, his outer clothing, for years and years.

Aaah! Are you smelling it in your mind? I know I am!


Jeri Westerson spends a lot of time imagining that she’s smelling the Middle Ages when she writes her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and that’s saying something since her character lives on the Shambles, the pungent butcher’s district in London. To read an excerpt of her latest, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, and to watch her book trailer, go to


Sophie Littlefield said...

i am thinking that a nooner would be a very different affair back then....

Jeri Westerson said...

Funnily enough, noon was called Sext. Which really has nothing to do with sex. It is merely Latin for the sixth hour of the day (from six am).

Undo a flap here, lift a skirt there--it's doable.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Fabulous post, Jeri. The things that most intrigue me from history are of this type: the details of everyday life-- like how women dealt with menses, for instance. And the smells -- I always think about smells and lice and whatnot when thinking of life in the past, or current life in so many parts of the world!
Thanks for dropping by the Pens!

Jeri Westerson said...

Thanks, Juliet. Although let me say here that bad smells were anathema to them as well. Bad smells equated with sin and good smells with holiness so people did try to clean themselves as well as they could. The notion that no one bathed in the Middle Ages is one of those myths like a stubborn stain that's hard to get rid of. They didn't have deodorant like we do, of course, and there was a certain tolerance for normal bodily odors, but cleanliness was important. Even in London they realized the sanitary problems of so many people in one spot without a sewer system. There were public privies along the Thames, so when the tide came in they would be cleaned out. Yeah.

Kaye George said...

Now you've got me wondering about women's panties. Like when they were first used, and why? Fascinating post, Jeri. Thanks!

Jeri Westerson said...

Flapper era, I think. When skirts started getting shorter, perhaps?

Rachael Herron said...

Such great details... And yes, it reconfirms my love for wool as outerwear.... nothing more hardy!

Gigi Pandian said...

Such interesting stuff -- so now you've got me wondering what type of historical research covers this subject!

Jeri Westerson said...

Lots of reading about early textiles, Gigi and Rachael. Looking at illuminated manuscripts that depict images of everyday life, reading from the inventory of the king and others who had these lists of their wardrobe, reading books from experts in the field (each era has experts). Plus there are tons of re-enactors out there. You know, those folks who belong to the Society of Creative Anachronism who hold Renaissance Fair events (only medieval ones) and make their own hands-on study of it. They dye the wool, some even weave it, and others just make--by hand--all their clothes, including what underthings were appropriate to the period. That's dedication!

Joyce Moore said...

Hi Jeri: I've posted about this same subject before. I think it's so interesting to everyone because, well, there's precious little extant underwear in museums! I think the earliest bras were when the tight bodices came in, and they began wearing corsets with boning to push up their breasts. Maybe the courtesans were the first to think of that, but who knows? Enjoyed the post immensely.

Jeri Westerson said...

Thanks, Joyce. Yes, it's funny the stuff you take for granted. Didn't we all just assume ladies wore underwear all through history?

R said...

Great post. One of those reenactor/researches from Ren Fiar here. If I may add some notes of my own.

-Bras - a well cut and fitted dress of the 14th century will support just about anyone's bust. And it will be pretty comfortable as well, given there is no elastic to cut into your shoulder or your ribs. (This goes for many historical eras)

-Menses/cleanliness. So there are several factors at play. The body cloth was always linen. Linen is very hard to dye and thus does not stain easily. It is very durable and just gets softer and softer the more you wash it. So you can (and they did) boil your linen body clothing in soap and water to get out smells and stains. (Linen is also great for hot and cold weather). I'm sure they had period chemises the same way many of us have period panties.
Most people had fresh linen for every day. They might have months worth of body clothing so they could sleep in the previous days linen and then put on fresh in the morning.
So if your chemise got menstrual blood on it during the course of the day, you just dealt with it.

Also in doing research on what the hell to do when I have my period at events, I found (but don't remember where) that some extant chemises have pin marks at waist level in front and back. It is possible that these pin marks were from a menstrual cloth being pinned to the chemise as there were no panties for it to attach to.

-documented underpants for women start showing up during Austen's era. Pantelets were short pant legs attached to a belt. They evolved into the split leg bloomers of the Victorian era. They may sound racy, but in practice split leg bloomers under victorian dresses are the best thing since sliced bread!

All done, thanks for the inspiration!

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This is so cool, I found some midevil looking mens underwear online. It had to be the funniest thing ever!

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It shows women did wear underwear much earlier than some historians thought previously.

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