Elizabeth’s Secret

When I find old underwear, it isn’t of world-altering importance. It may be handy particularly if I haven’t done laundry for a while. However, when these archaeologists rummaged around an old Austrian castle and found some 600 year old bras, it may well have changed the way we think about the past:

A revolutionary discovery is rewriting the history of underwear: Some 600 years ago, women wore bras.

The University of Innsbruck said that archeologists found four linen bras dating from the Middle Ages in an Austrian castle. Fashion experts describe the find as surprising because the bra had commonly been thought to be only little more than 100 years old as women abandoned the tight corset.

Instead, it appears the bra came first, followed by the corset, followed by the reinvented bra.

One specimen in particular “looks exactly like a [modern] brassiere,” said Hilary Davidson, fashion curator for the London Museum. “These are amazing finds.”

We have a very distorted view of the past. The history books and novels that have been written, the movies that have been made, and the images we conjure up in our minds depend disproportionately on things made of bone, stone, pottery, metal, and, to some extent, glass. But those are just what survived the depradations of time. We have good reason to believe that much of the past didn’t consist of these more durable things but was constructed from more ephemeral paper, wood, rushes, leather, paint, and cloth. Not to mention even more elusive food and music. We know very little about the music of the ancient past. A few guesses, perhaps.

We know that the popular images of ancient Athens are almost completely wrong. The Caryatids (huge columns in female form) on the porch of the Erechtheion weren’t stately bare marble. They were painted, gilded, and decorated with glass beads. 18th and 19th century buildings with facades in imitation of the buildings of classical antiquity are imitating an antiquity that never was. The reality was brighter, gaudier, and much more ephemeral.

The oldest cloth found to date is approximately 10,000 years old (in Turkey) and it’s quite sophisticated, suggesting a lengthy tradition of manufacture. In all likelihood cloth was a commonplace but, because it’s fragile relative to, say, stone we don’t think of ancient buildings as having floors and walls covered with rugs, drapes, and walls covered with tapestries.

Some of the oldest pottery found, roughly 20,000 years old, is studiedly made to resemble basketry models. The baskets have not survived but the pottery has.

It’s possible that human beings of the Paleolithic didn’t wear skins, as portrayed in every movie from One Million BC (the one with Carole Landis and Victor Mature) to Year One, but wore clothing not terribly different from the clothing we wear. No zippers, of course. Or polyester.

Just as an exercise look around your home. How many of your possessions are made of stone? Pottery? Glass? Wood? Cloth? Plastic? How many of them will still be around in 1,000 years? If an archaeologist of the future knew nothing about us other than the things we made of stone, pottery, and, to a lesser extent (since it degrades, too), metal, would they arrive at an accurate imagining of our lives, our culture?

5 comments… add one
  • jan

    A very good essay which takes the mind off politics, causing one to ponder details of life behind us.

    I have often thought that earlier cultures might be far more sophisticated and advanced than anthropologists and historians have given them credit. We tend to look for tangible evidence to construct images of what it was like thousands of years ago. Finding only durable ones, rather than ones more subject to perish under the elements of time. people make assumptions that are really no more valid than any speculative opinion which looks back at the past or forwards to the future.

  • Additionally, the difference between the “practical arts”, e.g. cooking, and “fine arts”, sculpture in marble, has traditionally been between crafts performed by women and crafts performed by men. The emphasis on stone and metal undervalues the contributions of women to the society.

    Another distinction: objects made for and by ordinary people and objects made by highly-paid craftsmen for the rich.

  • jan

    So, Dave are you implying there was no ‘Women’s Movement’ in earlier cultures, to impart the role of being the great equalizer? LOL

  • TastyBits

    I still contend that this attitude is a conceit of each modern age, and the modern age is always the present age. Similarly, “the youth” are always being corrupt. Ancient history is all time before one’s grandfather. We assume that this ancient history was fairly consistent. We project backwards, and we idealize the past.

    Interestingly, there is a lot we do not know about the recent past, and archaeological digs give a better understanding of this time. In most cases, the findings provide a richer understanding, but occasionally, they alter it. I cannot remember the exact details, but the slaves life and the early 20th century urban life were altered by digs.

    Unfortunately, many people’s knowledge of the past is obtained from Hollywood.

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