How to make a supportive smock for your medieval outfit

Download the handout with all the instructions originally made for
a workshop on making a supportive underdress
at Visby medieval week 2015 here:
How to make a supportive smock – Lady, have pity on the breast! (pdf)

I made the handout with the intention that you can use it independently, without participating in the workshop. It includes really all I have to say about making a supportive underdress. There are a few frequently asked questions, which I will answer below.

Supportive smock FAQ

Q: So is this what they really wore in the middle ages?

There is precious little that we know for sure about medieval underwear. Depictions are few and preserved pieces are even fewer. So I cannot say for certain that this is what women wore. However, this smock is made of materials and with techniques that certainly excisted and it looks like the smocks that we have visual evidence for in manuscripts etc.  It is a calf-length linen smock with long sleeves that supports the breasts. Something that could have been worn. It’s what I wear for underwear when I do living history.

Q:  How do you put it on? Is there some kind of lacing in the back? Or do you just wiggle in?

There are no lacings or other fastenings in the dress. You just pull it on and adjust, which isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The process goes like this: you pull the smock on over your head like any other smock. Once on, you use your hands to pull your breasts up into place via the neckline opening so that they are no longer squeezed flat by the tightest part of the smock.  The tight part should sit under your breasts and your breasts above it. Luckily breasts are soft and malleable so they make this kind of an adjustment easy.

Q: I’m a size 70E/75K – will this hold my breasts in place?

I’ve fitted these dresses for over 10 years on all sorts of wonderful women of different shapes and sizes. From that experience I can say that big breasts are not an issue. If the linen is sturdy, It will work for you. (I also know for certain because I’ve worn this dress with the bra sizes mentioned in the question above.) Usually the kind of shape this is trickiest on is one where the breasts are small and the person is of a petite shape – then it can be hard to fit a dress that is still possible to get out of and still tight enough. But these have been rather rare cases. I have heard that in this situation, a (side) lacing can be an effective solution.

Q: What other alternatives are there?

In the recent years a really interesting stuff on medieval underwear has been discovered! Look at options to find a good fit for yourself as well as the time/place/person you wish to portray. Look at Medieval Silkwork posting about: Supportive underwear in pictorial sources and in written sources and have a look at this bra-shirt! And the fascinating 15th century find at Lengberg Castle (a little too late for me but super interesting). And you can also consider making a your dress layer supportive and just wear a very loose smock.

Q: Why do I need a supportive underdress?

A lot of women are used to having some support of the breasts so it is a question of comfort. It is also a matter of achieving the correct silhouette – as dresses become more and fitted the kind of silhouette they show is one where the breasts seem to be lifted up and pushed together, which hints that there has to be some support. Modern underwear (bras and tops) has a tendency of showing at the neckline at awkward moments and it also never provides the correct looking medieval silhouette. Having the underpinnings that go with the rest of the outfit just makes yous clothes look 100% better!

Q: Can I fit myself?

It’s really really really hard. I seriously suggest getting someone to help, especially the first time you do this.

Q: Can I use whatever fabric I have? Is a thin twill ok for this?

The right materials are necessary to make the dress work. A thin fabric will not provide you with enough support and a twill will stretch so the support will be lost. So get tabby woven sturdy linen. Linen is also a super material to be worn under layers of wool vs. cotton that becomes icky really soon. Hemp is also a great choice.

Q: Miksei tätä ole suomeksi? (Why isn’t this here in Finnish)

No se onkin harmillista! Aika ei ole riittänyt tuon uuden ohjeen kääntämiseen englannista suomeksi ja halusin mielummin postata täydennetyt ohjeet kuin hautoa niitä odottaessani seesteistä hetkeä kesken ruuhkavuosien kääntämishommaa varten. Toivottavasti saatte selkoa englanninkielisestä! Mutta toisaalta Suomessa tätä on monet tehneetkin, ja Suvituulin tekemä mainio klassikko-ohje Neulakon Ohjesivulla on periaatteessa aivan sama juttu (uudessa versiossa tehdään lisäksi hihat).

… and remember to keep it short enough to avoid a certain very medieval sort of embarrasment!