Drawers - Brache or Calze

Updated October 21 2005


"So what about the nether regions?" I hear you ask. "Did Venetian ladies wear drawers?" Well, we do know Italian ladies wore drawers, but we can only conjecture as to how long they had been wearing them prior to the late sixteenth century - when the few dated extant items available to us were used. For that we must look to what few textual/pictorial sources are available.

The Late 15th and Early 16th Century

The earliest image which shows something akin to modern underwear is from 1473. In that year Johan Zainer (Ulm) printed Giovanni Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus, a biography of over 100 famous women, which Boccaccio wrote around 1362. The images in Zainer's manuscript were included in another edition - the 1487 Louvain edition by Aegidius van der Heerstraten. The image (included below) was used to illustrate the biography of Semiramis, Queen of Assyria. I have been told that Semiramis was usually depicted wearing male garments, and as such is an unreliable source for women's drawers. If this fact about the depiction of Semiramis is true, I agree. (See Fig, A, below)

The sources in which discussion of the earliest instances of drawers occurs, that I have found so far, are all from tertiary sources: Ruth Matilda Anderson's Hispanic Costume, C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington's  The History of Underclothes, Janet Arnold's Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd and Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice. However, each of these authors cite contemporary sources.

According to Anderson, it seems likely that drawers had their origins with the Moors. She provides us with a tantalising description. "The length is uncertain. Navagero describes Moorish women’s Zaragolles (drawers) at Granada as of cotton or linen tied on (attacatta). In Algiers such drawers were reaching the ankle, in Morocco to below the calf of the leg."

From the Moors to the Spanish: "Unmentionables in our period were mentioned but not illustrated for the noble ladies of Spain. The Duchess of Alburquerque’s inventory (1479) includes linen drawers and their white silk cords, presumably for tying about the waist. There are also 9 white ribbons carrying white and gold aglets that had belonged to drawers. The Empress had drawers of yellow satin trimmed with strips of cloth of silver, together with blue and white silk stockings....The Fact that the Empress’s (Isabel of Portugal) zaraguelles were accompanied by stockings suggests that her drawers also reached to the knees, and that drawers and stockings may have been joined, perhaps with agleted laces as men’s upper - and netherstocks could be joined." Anderson also mentions an interesting titbit: Queen Juana's (1509-1555) drawers, "bluntly termed breeches, were lined with white fur".

So how did the Italians get hold of the idea? One theory is that the fashion travelled to Italy from Spain via Lucrezia Borgia. Anderson, citing Rosita Levi Pisetsky's Storia del Costume in Italia, says "Ladies use of drawers were earlier in Spain than in England or France, which did not have the example of the Moors immediately before them. The custom evidently was not criticized at the Spanish Court as a usurpation of male prerogative, which was the case in Italy at this time. Galley Breeches such garments were called at Ferrara, where Lucrezia Borgia had made them fashionable."

Further, in The History of Underclothes, the Cunningtons state that, according to Leloir's Histoire du Costume (1935) "the fashion for wearing 'calecons', or drawers, was introduced into France from Italy by Catherine de Medici."

More research is needed to verify where Leloir got this information, of course, but these two sources seem to point to drawers being worn in Italy before the end of the 16th century, beginning in the late fifteenth century with the Moorish people and the Spanish Court.

The Mid to Late 16th Century

Perhaps the first solid evidence for the use of drawers by Venetian women -  specifically Venetian courtesans - is given to us by Cesare Vecellio. In his Degli habiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo (Venice: D. Zenaro, 1590) he describes the clothing of the Venetian courtesan outside her house.

"They dress in the most lavish manner, their underwear including embroidered hosiery [1]..." (Translated by L. Lawner, Lives of the Courtesans). Whilst Vecellio did not include any image of women of any station wearing drawers, there are others who did depict this item of clothing used in Italy. These engravings of the 1590s (shown below), depict Venetian courtesans revealing the man-style breeches, or drawers, under their gowns. 

The first (Fig. B) is a sixteenth century engraving entitled "Cortigiana Veneza" - Venetian courtesan - by Pierto Bertelli from his Diversarum Nationum Habitus , 1591. This featured a skirt which was a 'flap' - it could be lifted to reveal the drawers underneath. This is missing in this image, but I have seen it in another book. The second image (Fig. D) is by an anonymous artist. It too features this nifty lift-up panel which allows us to peak beneath the courtesan's gown, so it is possible that it is a derivative work. Just for fun I have included a re-drawing of the Bertelli courtesan (See Fig. C, below) by Max Tilke.

Then we have Fynes Morrison, who travelled through Italy in the early 17th century and wrote his Itinerary (1605 -17). He is quoted in The History of Underclothes, as stating that "the city Virgins, and especially Gentlewomen...in many places weare silke or linnen breeches under their gowns." So, by this time, breeches, or drawers, were seen as respectable and fashionable enough for "gentlewomen" and "Virgins" to wear them.

And speaking of virgins, there is one interesting mention of unmentionables in Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice, sourced from an official church document of 1626. "Let the nuns be interrogated...if the nuns have ever seen or heard tell that [Suor] Fiorenza was found in the parlour with Suor Elena and Suor Chiara, and that they had their skirts lifted and their hands in their undergarments...." this not only mentions drawers (the use of the word "in" and not "under" would indicate underpants and not shifts), it also alludes to the respectability, by 1626, of the use of drawers since nuns, usually chaste and required to be utterly 'respectable' in their dress, were now using them.

Amongst other snippets on sartorial splendour, Margaret Rosenthal, author of The Honest Courtesan mentioned, in a lecture delivered to the Costume Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, about how " courtesans wore male-style clothing as undergarments - such as linen knickers, embroidered with phrases such as "I want the heart." This was a truly tasty morsel of information indeed, and would haunt me until much later, when I found a picture of the extant drawers themselves in another book. (See Extant Drawers page)

[1[ Given as calze (drawers) in the original Italian text taken from Vecellio's 1598 edition of his Habiti antichi... in A. Barzaghi's Donne O Cortigiane, Giorgio Bertani, Verona 1980. Florio defines "Calze" as "hosen or shoes".

Please click on thumbnail for a larger image...

Figure A

An interesting image from the 1487 Louvain edition of Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus by Aegidius van der Heerstraten. The images in this edition were copied from the first printing by Johan Zainer in 1473. Here the women can be seen to be wearing drawers that look remarkably like modern day underwear.

Figure B

This is a sixteenth century engraving entitled "Cortigiana Veneza" - Venetian courtesan - by Pierto Bertelli. It is from Diversarum Nationum Habitus , 1591. There is a copy of it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The cut-away diagram on the left shows the courtesan wearing man-style breeches under her gown. They appear to be decorated with slashes and pinkes.

Figure C

Here you can see the same period engraving re-drawn and coloured by Max Tilke, in A Pictorial History of Costume, London, A. Zwemmer Ltd, 1955, which appears on page 78. The "details from the plates" section at the front of the book gives it the classification of "Italy under the influence of Spanish Fashion. 1590 - 1610". The individual images are numbered "3. Venetian courtesan in a garment made of heavy silk damask with a lace collar standing up fan-like and a handkerchief (fazoletto)" and "4. The same woman (the front part of the dress being removed) wearing breeches, stockings with gore and stilt-shoes (wood with leatherwork or painting). These stilt-shoes (zoccoli) were also worn by respectable women."

Figure D

This is "Venetian Courtesan" (engraving) circa 1590, by an anonymous artist. It is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is shown as it appears in Lives Of The Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance, by Lynne Lawner (Rizzoli, 1987).

Again we see a lift-up skirt which reveals man-style breeches beneath the gown. These do not appear to be slashed nor pinked. They have slits at the side knee for ease of movement. It is not clear whether she is wearing any stockings.

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