History of bras

In her book, Bra: A Thousand Years of Style, Support and Seduction, Stephanie Pedersen looks at the humble beginnings of the bra, and how it has evolved over the years from a modest binding to a designer object of desire.

Women in early civilisations often went braless, but for those that did want to protect their breasts during everyday activities, crude depictions show animal skin or cloth wound around the chest in a similar fashion to a bandeau. Minoan women went the other way and not only pushed their breasts up with an early style of corset, but exposed their assets by wearing a cut away bolero-style jacket or dress open to the navel.

The middle ages was a period of fashion failure as everyone wore shapeless cloth sacks, but the thirteenth century brought with it shapely bodices. Rather than an undergarment, a bodice was worn over a dress and covered the entire torso, designed to flatten the chest and emphasise the waist. The dawn of the renaissance in the fourteenth century saw bodice necklines dropping and the erotic exposure of breasts, yet the bust continued to be pressed flat. As more décolleté was displayed, so women had to turn to underwear to control their boobs and a corset was introduced, to be worn under the low-cut bodice.

With the constraint of both a corset and a bodice, women’s waists began to waste away, but the chest remained resolutely squashed flat. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that we saw the hourglass figure we associate with a corset nowadays. Not only did this give women a curvy figure, but it also lifted and supported the breasts, giving rise to a rounded bosom with a cleavage, which is still a look desirable today. But women were literally making themselves ill by cinching in their waists – breaking ribs, displacing organs and reducing their lung capacity – so designers began experimenting with alternate options, and consequently several early prototype bras emerged and many people of the period claim to have invented the bra.

In the late 1800s, manufacturers divided the corsets into different components; the lower half became a girdle for holding in the stomach, while the top portion evolved into a contraption to support the breasts from above, being hung over the shoulders. The French corset maker Herminie Cadolle invented such a structure, called a “Bien-Être” (“well-being”), which was marketed as a health aid and took off in the early 1900s.

Several other European patents were registered at the end of the century, including a chest carrier by Christine Hardt in Germany, a breast support by Marie Tucek in America, and a soft brassiere by another German, Sigmund Lindauer. Mary Phelps Jacob also claims to have invented the bra when she created a discrete device to support her boobs under a sheer evening gown from two silk handkerchiefs, some pink ribbon and thread. She was awarded the patent for her underwear in 1914 and set to work creating many of her “invisible undergarments” for her friends. The word “brassiere” started to infiltrate language and society at the start of the twentieth century and French manufacturers, De Bevoise Company, used silk, cotton and lace to offer over 20 styles of brassieres between 1904 and 1920.

However, it was the start of the First World War that put the bra firmly on the underwear map. As women were required to do men’s work, so corsets stopped being a viable option and besides, the supporting wire was required as a valuable metal for the war effort. But supportive bras were short-lived as the post-war fashion of the Roaring Twenties’ saw flappers flattening their breasts in bandeaus once more, and the introduction of the first minimiser bras. As women were daring to expose more flesh, strappy evening gowns also necessitated the design of a backless bra.

In 1928, Ida and William Rosenthal introduced a system of sizing bras by cup size, and created different bust size categories for every stage of a woman’s life, from puberty to maturity. In 1935, Warners Bras developed this idea further and created A-D cup sizes, which became the common system adopted globally and is still in use today.

Fashion paved the way for the introduction of padding, to help women mimic the prominent curves of the Lana Turner-inspired sweater girl era of the 1930s, before boobs became distinctly pointy through the 1940s and 1950s with cone bras. Hollywood also got in on the act, designing a new cantilever bra to maximise Jane Russell’s burgeoning cleavage in the film The Outlaw in 1943.

Then a few years later, in 1946, the two-piece bathing suit made its first appearance, later immortalised by Bond Girl Ursula Andress. The new swimwear was named the bikini after the tiny island of Bikini Atoll – where the American military exploded two atomic bombs – as the clothing’s creator, Louis Réard, said the revealing outfit would be as explosive to men as the bombs were to the Atoll.

In stark contrast to the bullet bras of the 1950s, Twiggy’s flat-chested waif-like figure of the next decade made going braless fashionable. Hippies loved the freedom, while feminists used to burn bras as a symbol of Women’s Liberation, most notably at the Miss America Pageant on September 7, 1968. The future of female underwear was briefly threatened, but rather than stop the bra dead in its tracks, the braless women of the 1960s gave future generations the freedom of choice in the matter. The action also forced manufacturers in the 1970s to embrace softer, more natural-feeling bras, utilising the relatively new invention of Lycra, which made bras considerably more comfortable. The Lycra-clad Jane Fonda-inspired fitness fad of the late seventies and early eighties saw the emergence of the sports bra, with the first one being literally created by sewing two jock straps together!

Everything was big and bold in the 1980s, and bras were no exception. If you didn’t have Page 3-sized boobs naturally, it became fashionable to get them through silicone implants, so bras had to step up to match the newly-enhanced chests. The following decade took the gaudy glamour of the 1980s and split it to the extremes – the grunge scene championed exposed bras with underwear becoming outerwear, while the silicone implant scandals of the 1990s resulted in an abundance of push-up bras, promoting a natural cleavage with the slogan “Hello Boys”.

With more than a century of bra evolution, the modern selection is wider than ever, embracing styles from every era, from corset-styled basques to minimisers, smooth t-shirt bras to push-ups, balconettes and multi-ways to sports bra. The modern woman can choose a bra to suit her personality, style, activity and outfit; the only question is deciding how best to rest her breast. For a full break down of the different styles, read our bra guide.

by Lucy Ellis

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