Title: Britannia et Panem
Chett made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.
Today’s topic is smallclothes. What the heck are smallclothes? Underwear of some kind based on their description, but they give this medievalist pause. Did medieval people wear undergarments or are they purely an invention of GRRM?
It’s not an easy question to answer, because natural fibers don’t survive the ages well, making archaeological finds unlikely. Underwear also doesn’t appear in the literature, so either it didn’t exist or people were uncomfortable writing about it—unlikely, since medieval people weren’t particularly fussy about writing about natural functions. Art historians have shouldered much of the burden in determining what if anything people wore under their clothes.
Let’s consider men first. Smallclothes is a term that was first used in the mid 18th century to describe the tight fitting knee breeches that men wore. So, the term at least is not a medieval one. But did men wear something akin to underwear that we might term smallclothes?
Well, they wore something, but nothing like modern (or Roman—more on that later) underwear. Men wore braies or loose drawers. This garment was worn by Celtic and Germanic tribes as clothing in northern climes during antiquity. They were somewhat similar to modern basketball shorts, reaching between the knees and below. They were cinched at the waist with a drawstring or belt and made of leather or wool. During the Middle Ages, braies became linen undergarments. However, they were substantial enough that they could be worn in hot weather, particularly by laborers, as the sole covering on the body’s lower half.
There is no evidence of women wearing braies. It is likely that due to the length of their dresses, underwear would have made elimination rather difficult. If you’ve ever worn a voluminous wedding gown, you can attest to this.
This doesn’t mean that they wore nothing under those dresses. Women wore hose, just as men did. Men’s hose often attached to their braies, and therefore stretched above the knee, whereas women’s hose did not extend above the knee and were secured by cord or ribbon. Likewise, both men and women wore chemises or undertunics made of linen. A man’s reached to the thigh and a woman’s often came to the ankle.
This peasant laborer has tucked her dress up, exposing her long chemise.
What about the breasts? Excuse me, teats. Until very recently, we had no solid evidence of medieval women securing their breasts. Ouch. This changed in 2008, when a textile discovery was made in an Austrian castle. Four bras were found, which scholars believe can be dated to the 15th century. Two are essentially chemises with bags sewn into them to hold a woman’s breasts. Another looks more modern, consisting of a shoulder strap and two breast bags (pictured), and the fourth is the most modern, looking a great deal like a 1950s style bra (pictured).
We don’t know if it was common for the amply endowed to have altered chemises or bras like this, since this is the sole find of its kind, but it seems certain that beyond this late medieval nod to undergarments for the female form, there were no basic undies or pretty knickers in the Middle Ages. Since underwear were men’s wear, it would have been shocking for women to wear braies. Indeed, when courtesans in Italy began to wear underpants in the 16th century, they did so to shock and stimulate men, pairing underwear with other male clothing to complete the male look. Women’s underwear—or pantaloons—didn’t become widespread until the 19th century with the advent of hoop skirts that could unintentionally expose more than a lady cared to expose if that hoop popped up.
If no one was trotting around in what we’d consider underwear in the Middle Ages, what exactly are Westerosi smallclothes? I’ve been asked my opinion on their appearance, and the best I can imagine is something similar to what Romans wore, which amounted to wrapped linen loincloths for men and women. They needed something under those drafty short tunics.
Of course, Westerosi men’s smallclothes could just be braies, but those drawers aren’t sexy, which brings up an interesting possibility for why smallclothes make an appearance at all. Westerosi clothing draws heavily on medieval style, and yet, the addition of smallclothes—particularly for women—is not historical. Fanfiction often goes even further, putting Westerosi women in corsets and lingerie. Perhaps it is difficult for us to imagine life without basic foundational garments or perhaps we need the concealment and gradual reveal that underwear provides, making smallclothes and other undergarments appealing in an indispensible way to our conception of what constitutes sexiness.
It’s nothing to get your knickers in a twist about. But, for those of you going commando today, enjoy the medieval life.
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