So, really quick; a very short overview of medieval women & the use of body-shapers (or not) in my limited digital pictorial references.
I went on a whole tare about how you can pretty much tell when a woman (or man) is wearing a corset-like garment / form altering garment / supporting garment, and when they aren't as long as they aren't wrapped up in a blanket. This was inspired by an offhand comment in a book where the author said, "women didn't use support" and those always/never statements just send me over the edge especially when they aren't always true.
I fully admit that I'm just dipping my toes into this era, so I could be making quite a few mistakes - but this is how we learn... through analysis of existing information, interpreting that information based on what we know & adjusting that interpretation as new information becomes available. Yay history!
Let us start with my early images of corset/altered/supported figures, which may or may not be subject to artistic interpretation, and why I call it a corset (even if it's not a true corset)
1130-60 Angers Cathedral, sculpture at West Door.
Accounting for individual body type, the way the dress falls off the hip area suggests the end of a stiffer, body shaping garment over a natural form. The waist is clearly cinched in a bit & the rib cage has been smoothed by her corded belt??? The flattened shape of the chest leads me to believe it's either a cross-bound bust line or a cut corset type garment that divides & lifts the bust, as the elevation relative to her armpits is slightly higher than natural while being well within the range of what a corset is capable of producing.
I favor the idea that the corset aspect of the undergarment was built into a full-length dress and accomplished with stiffer linen fabric, cording etc.
1130-60 Chartres Cathedral, sculpture at ?? door.
This is a more natural form, but I believe that her breasts are bound in a straight wrap. The girdle serves a similar function as the one above in tucking in her waist from rib cage-belly, which is then clearly natural from belly-button to hip line. This look could be accomplished with a slender figure & heavy material without close-fitting support garments, but it's more easily accomplished with than without.
Now, let's talk about indeterminate figures. Maybe, maybe not?
1170-1199 Alfonso VIII, Queen Lenor of England (oddly enough one of Alfonso The Great's many-great grandson's is one of my friends, doesn't mean anything, but it's a fun factoid).
I have no idea if Queen Lenor of England is wearing torso support or not, but nice shoes!
1170 Hunterian Psalter, Eve Spinning
I could go either way with this one. She could be wearing a lightly supportive under-dress that helps the outer cote lay well, or she could be loose for ease of breast feeding... though my friends who have done so tell me it's not really so nice to be "free" at that time because you leak all over, so considering the value of clothing in that era, I'd lean towards some kind of absorbent binding to protect the outer garment from milk stains.
1170 Hunterian Psalter, Women
Lady in the blue cloak, no clue. The yellow/cream cote could very well be something similar to the Chartres sculpture. The ridge at the hip line could be a natural result of her pose or a belt hidden in a fold of cloth. As the bustline is hidden by her hands, it's difficult to tell if it's natural or higher.
1180 Hortus Deliciarum, Grammatica
HOLY WONDER BRA, woman!
I put this in the "I don't know" category because her torso is semi-natural, but the bustline is quite high up there. Easily accomplished with an over-the-shoulder bra type garment or a supporting under-dress similar to what many scholars suspect was worn in the late 1300's. She is wearing a cote underneath the pink surcote, you can see the blue/white at her wrists.
While this could be artist interpretation, I seriously doubt it... there is another image from the Hortus Delicaiarum that I don't have in digital form that shows a much more natural bustline.
BTW, I love the standing collar on this, but I can't imagine fighting with those sleeves all the time.
1220-25 Peterborough Psalter, Mercy & Truth
I'd actually put these in the "no support" category. The forms move naturally, the underdress is clearly loose at the armhole, but the reality is, I just can't tell.
1230 Villard de Honnecourt Sketchbook
Again, simply too many over-clothes to tell. It could go either way. But I'm a fan of the wedge-shaped sleeves that are fitted in the forearm. From what I've been reading, these were often whip-stitched on for the day & then un-stitched at night.
Also, that cloak with the "choke you" rope if you don't hold on to it? Annoying, but pretty.
1270-1322 The Temptation, A Dancing Couple by Master Ermengault
Again, could go either way, but it may surprise you to know that I lean toward a fitted bodice on the under-dress or some form of support. Reason being is the way the folds fall off her chest.. just a touch high for a natural form and the placement leads me to say a straight horizontal binding that creates a sports-bra effect. Could be artistic license, but I'm thinking body-shaper.
Oh, and I want to make these outfits for me & my husband. They are cute & we'd look good in them.
1321 The Book of the Laws of Ancient Kings, detail of The Wreck of the White Ship, English (wish I remembered what site I got this from, it was a fantastic article).
I lean towards bound/supported only because I know exactly what a bust that size looks & feels like when swinging free on a moving boat - NOT fun. Not that anyone here looks like they are having any fun. But I'm also going for support garment due to the horizontal strain across the outer garment that would be created by a tighter bound under-dress.
PS, this is what happens when you drink & "drive." Don't drink & drive - not on land or at sea.
Now, Let's look at unsupported figures:
1250 Maciejowski Bible, Jephath's daughter laments
While these are quite similar to some of the images above, I put these in the "unsupported" category because the girl's torsos are quite natural & their bustlines are at the mid-chest level where a young A-C would naturally fall. Bellies are quite natural, and the way the cloth bags out above the belt says "unsupported torso" to me.
This is not saying they aren't wearing under dresses & smocks under the cotes.
1250 Maciejowski Bible, Woman
I've put this woman in the "unsupported" category because of the way her chest falls into her waist with little or no wrinkles in the dress, which then curves naturally around her belly. It's a lined dress, but loose enough that it doesn't provide any support of it's own.
1250 Maciejowsik Bible, Levite (lady in the pink)
Again, I'd say "unsupported" due to the natural level of her chest. The fullness is under her armpit, where it would be without support. However, I think she's wearing an underdress to help smooth the line of the pink outer garment.
Wasn't that fun?
And now, I must go.
Edit: 8/17/12 - yes, I'm going to refer you to the later bra article again, but it's a perfect example of "never say never." http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie