Make this simple but lovely women's smock
Even if you aren't a Bohemian Bathhouse Babe, there is substantive evidence that some medieval women wore a sleeveless shift or smock under their tight-fitting kirtles or cotes, just like we see in on the Bathhouse Keepers in the margins of the Wencelslaus Bible.
Buy our full-size paper pattern with complete instructions and historical notes for 14th century sleeveless smock or shift based on pictorial evidence and an extant example.
Fits busts 30½"-48" and waists 23"-41". All Sizes in one envelope. Historical notes and embellishment suggestions included.
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3 yds 45" or 2 yds 60" wide
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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
What They Wore Under Their Kirtles
In time periods where the underclothing is completely hidden under the outer garments, it's difficult to know what was worn. Indeed, much of our best conjecture can be little more than a guess. In the 14th century, it has long been assumed that women wore a linen shift constructed of rectangles, squares and triangles under their kirtles or that they wore shorter kirtles in the same style as their over garments, but made from plain white linen. Without extant garments or pictures of women in undress, it is impossible to confirm or deny this supposition.
However, there is one 14th century woman’s undergarment extant. Pictured in Karl Köhler’s A History of Costume first published in the mid-19th century. The listing of the illustration says “Heyne, Thuringia, Burg Rhanis” (Thuringia is a state in Central Germany bordering Saxony and Bavaria) but the current whereabouts of the garment are unknown. Additionally, very little is known about the garment. It is thought to be made from silk or fine linen, but neither its dimensions nor provenance are mentioned in the book.
For years, clothing historians have ignored this garment, presuming it an anomaly. However it bears a striking resemblance to clothing seen elsewhere.
The Wenceslaus Bible, commissioned by Charles IV of Bohemia and completed around 1390-95, is housed today in the National Library in Vienna. Possibly more famous for its marginalia than its gospels, the Wenceslaus Bible includes a number of female figures who have come to be affectionately called “The Bohemian Bathhouse Babes” in historical clothing circles. These young women dressed only in their white sleeveless shifts carry buckets of water and bath male patrons in illuminations throughout the Wenceslaus Bible.
In the illustrations at left and right, we can see the snugly-fit, sleeveless, white shift as worn by these working women. The shifts vary in length from knee to near the ankles and also in tightness, though most show pronounced cleavage. In some pictures, there appear to be no shoulder straps at all. However, the straps may be obscured by the angle of the figures and the small size of the originals. Most of the illustrations show “spaghetti straps” and it is hard to believe that such a gown would stay up without some support.
Of course the appearance of this garment in only one source calls into question its validity as a real piece of clothing. Was this spaghetti-strapped tight-fitting shift simply the erotic daydream of the Wenceslaus Bible’s illuminator? Most likely not. Jennifer Heise’s wonderful webpage of the Bohemian Bathhouse Babes (see bibliography below for URL) gives two examples of women wearing the shift who are not engaged in bathing activities. These non-bathers are in childbed, causing one to infer that the Bathhouse Babe’s shift was not a Bathhouse “uniform” but simply a woman’s typical underdress and one she might wear in bed.
Even with all this evidence, we still don’t have proof that women wore sleeveless shifts of this type as underdresses. A few paintings of the martyrdom of female saints may prove otherwise. In these paintings -- the Mutilation of St. Barbara is shown at right -- the female saint is stripped down to her underclothing to face her punishment and eventual death. Some of these women are shown wearing tight-fitting sleeveless white shifts, very similar to those in the Wenceslaus Bible.
Another element of this garment must be mentioned before we leave the subject. Modern replicators of historical clothing are constantly searching for a means of bust support in the years before the use of corsetry. It has often been conjectured that the kirtle could be fit to make it supportive to even a very large bust. In the paintings of these sleeveless shifts, they do appear to lift some very substantial breasts into a high position. So it is possible that this shift may be the “push-up bra” of the 14th century. However, depictions of the naked female form from the same time period also show this lifted bust, indicating that the lifted bust was simply an idealised figure and not indicative of how real women of the time looked. Their waists are also shown as impossibly small in the same paintings and their ribcages are not a realistic shape. Realism had not yet come into painting in this time period and we must be careful not to interpret illustrations as strict reality.
This is not to imply that this sleeveless shift was the only undergarment worn under the tight-fitting kirtles of the 14th century. However, its place in clothing history should no longer be ignored.
Austin, Traci L. Women's Dress Lexicon from Fourteenth Century England. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska, 2003).
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion. 1987: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Köhler, Karl. A History of Costume. ed. by Emma von Sichart, trans. by Alexander K. Dallas. 1963: Dover Publications, New York.
Newton, Stella. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince: A Study of the Years 1340-1365. 1999: Boydell Press, London.
Payne, Blanche. History of Costume. 1965: Harper Collins, New York.
Piponnier, Françoise and Perrine Mane. Dress in the Middle Ages. 1997: Yale University Pres, New Haven, CT.
http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/pictures/bohemia/bathkeepers.html by Jennifer A. Heise
http://www.larsdatter.com/baths.htm by Karen Harris
http://www.wga.hu/index1.html and pictures in the author's collection.
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This information © 2009 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History