The history of the bra

Jenessa Williams 2 August 2021

Love them or loathe them, the bra has gone through many uplifts and serious plunges in it’s long history. Jenessa Williams investigates…

Origins

 As with most fashions, the earliest knowledge of the bra dates back to learnings from ancient storytelling artwork. Paintings of female Minoan-age athletes from the 1300s show a bandeau-like top, a significant progression from the simple sheaf-dresses that were popular beforehand. Whether this was a move of modesty or practical support is unclear, and their providence remains unclear throughout the ancient Greek and Roman times, confounding historians who cannot be sure whether bras were available to all or simply a sign of societal elite.

Things became a little clearer in 2008, when four garments were recovered from textile fragments found at a restoration site in Lengberg Castle, Austria. Dated to the 15th century, each demonstrated a different ‘bra’-like design, suggesting that they might have been a little more widespread than initially thought. By comparing these to written historical accounts of ‘breast bags’ from the era, it appears that some thought these garments to be obscene, while others felt it accentuated women’s femininity for the male gaze—literally crowning their ‘assets’ for display.

 16th Century

Corsets on mannequins

Adopted by French women in the 1500s, the corset is one of the most identifiable garments of western civilization, and a defining style of Tudor England. Cinching the waist and pushing breasts upwards in such a manner that they could ‘overflow’ a lavish gown, corsets were made of lightweight silks and enforced with whalebone, forcing the body into a supposedly feminising ‘S’ curve. Corsets were not known for their comfort, but endured in popularity right up until the 19th century.

19th century

With concerns about the medical implications of corsets at play, women were finding themselves stuck between a bra and an unsupportive placenot wanting to give up the ‘womanly’ definition of shapewear, but also being concerned for the health of their crushed organs.

In 1869, Herminie Cadolle had the ingenious inspiration to cut the corset in half, creating a ‘corselet gorge’a seperate garment that supported the breasts on its own. 

Early patents for bra-like devices by Henry S. Lesher (1859) and dressmaker Olivia Flynt (1876) also form pivotal parts of bra history, as well as Marie Tucke’s 1893 patent for a hook-and-eye fastening and separate pockets for each breast, but by 1905, the House of Cadolle was selling their new bras separately, the first to integrate rubber thread as a means of creating a more comfortable fit. Having outfitted many illustrious names of society’s elite, Cadolle still exists as a lingerie house today, selling a great many elegant bras, corsets, bodysuits and swimwear.

"With concerns about the medical implications of corsets at play, women were finding themselves stuck between a bra and an unsupportive place"

The 1910s and 1920s

An illustration of a woman in the 1920s

With so many bra-makers at play, a new century of mass production lingerie was made possible by the metal shortages of World War One, resigning corsets to history.  Instead, people were getting creative with their breast support options, including the DIY endeavours of 19-year-old New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob. Frustrated at how a corset ruined the aesthetic of her sheer debutante gown, she worked with her maid to fashion silk handkerchiefs with ribbon and cord, creating what is now known as the first ‘backless bra’. Jacob was issued a US patent in 1914, but her entrepreneurial talents were quashed by her husband, who had her sell her patent on elsewhere. 

Given the established gender roles of previous generations, the war effort (and its subsequent uptake of office work by women) gave the bra an air of liberation, a key seller in established department stores. As the 10s became the 20s, androgynous styles encouraged women to compress their breasts rather than accentuate them, but by the end of the decade, Russian seamstress Ida Rosenthal noted that a one-size-fits-all approach wasn’t doing women’s figures the justice they deserved. Along with her husband, she launched Maiden Form, an instrumental brand in the development of the bra as an ‘enhancing’ garment.

The 1930s and 1940s

With bras quickly becoming more desirable, marketing was key to solidify the leading companies who could be relied upon to make the shopping experience as simple as possible. In October 1932, S.H. Camp & Company introduced an alphabet-coded system to assess the size and shape of the breast, training saleswomen to fit customers with their ideal purchase.

While adjustable straps and padding had become commonplace, the classic bra design was still being tweaked to cater for what was thought of as the most practical shape. The pointed ‘bullet bra’ was coined in the 1940s due to claims that it would provide extra protection for women working on the production lines, but also served the purpose of imitating a larger cup size than the wearer actually was, tapping into emerging trends within young Hollywood for large, perky chests. In some cases, women were even required to wear such bras as compulsory uniform, with claims that they supposedly ‘boosted morale’. 

The 1950s and 1960s

Marilyn Monroe in 1953

Marilyn Monroe in 1953, Source: Wikimedia Commons

While Marilyn Monroe’s tight sweater and bullet-bra aesthetic stayed immensely popular in the 1950s, the baby boom also heralded a need for greater practicality – maternity and nursing bras with increased elasticity, as well as the first introduction of pre-teen or ‘training’ bras for younger girls. Some rumours had it that wearing a bra 24 hours a day would guarantee their suppleness, a myth that wouldn’t be debunked until much further down the line.

In 1964, the Wonderbra was invented by Louise Poirier for Canadelle, a Canadian lingerie company that wanted to re-market the bra as a fashionable item. Paying homage to the Victorian ages, it focused on uplifting breasts in a manner that would make them appear more youthful and bountiful. First years sales were a hit, setting the brand up for the ultimate omnipresence as a market leader in the 1990s.

"Some rumours had it that wearing a bra 24 hours a day would guarantee their suppleness, a myth that wouldn’t be debunked until much further down the line"

Though many women were embracing the confidence of a well-fitted bra, others felt that it represented their growing dissent for gender norms and oppression under a patriarchal society. In 1968, a protest at a Miss America beauty pageant sparked the imagery of the bra-burning feminist; women throwing mops, lipstick, high heels and bras into a trashcan of freedom. Witnesses claim that no actual burning took place, but yet the idea of the loose-breasted female vigilante has remained iconic in popular culture, a short-hand label that is used both as a means of self-identification and as a sneering insult. Whatever your side of the argument, there was no denying that the symbolism of the bra had come to mean something much deeper than clothing. 

The 1970s and 1980s

Jogbra

The original 'Jogbra', source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember those female athletes from the ancient Minoan age? Once again there was demand for a bra that would provide the support needed for an active lifestyle, and American inventor Lisa Lindahl (alongside theatre costume designer Polly Smith and assistant, Hinda Schreiber) were more than up for the challenge. Nicknamed the ‘jockbra’, the trio sewed two jockstraps together to support the breasts, later renaming it the ‘jogbra’. Comfortable to run in without compromising too much on style, the jogbra  or ‘sports bras’ is arguably one of the most significant fashion inventions of our modern times, with original prototypes housed and on display at both the Smithsonian and New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the more decorative end of the spectrum, the 1977 launch of Victoria Secret created a brand that felt like an exclusive club, a space for women to shop for their intimates in the relative privacy of a specialist store. Hugely popular throughout the 80s, their blend of brightly coloured sports bras and sexier bedroom-worthy bustiers gave women a real sense of choice, a happy medium that previous decades had long been striving for. 

The 1990s and 2000s

Though there weren’t as many significant technological advancements  for the bra in the 90s or 00s, this time period was all about solidifying what had gone before, turning the lingerie industry into a space of fantasy and fun as well as practicality. It’s difficult for example to think of Madonna without visualising her iconic 50’s style pink silk Gautier cone bra, worn throughout her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour before selling at auction for $52,000.  

Furthering this fantasy of the bra as a kind of celebratory costume, Victoria’s Secret went all-out to celebrate the launch of their promotional fashion show, starring numerous supermodel ‘angels’ in wings and elaborate, expensive bras. Launched in 1995, the show was immensely popular and highly lucrative, but also steeped in controversy and criticism; its sexualisation of young models and unrealistic beauty standards, a lack of diversity in body shapes, and the repeated use of cultural appropriative embellishments and costume. Admit further scrutiny around the MeToo era, the show was cancelled in 2018.

"It’s difficult for example to think of Madonna without visualising her iconic 50’s style pink silk Gautier cone bra"

The 2010s to now

The exterior of a Victoria's Secret shop

In sharp contrast to the glitz and glamour of a Victoria’s Secret show, the aughties rise of ‘t shirt bras’ [heat-moulded to form a singular piece that maintains its shape] proved that women were wanting both comfort and style, as well as the ever-growing popularity of a classic Calvin Klein bra and briefs set, defined by soft cotton and a thick supportive waistband.

In fact, trends in the 10’s suggested that women were going wireless in their droves, moving towards softer ‘bralette’ styles. In 2017, sales of cleavage-enhancing and push-up bras fell by 45%, while Marks and Spencer alone reported a 40% sales increase in their wireless garments.

Given the growing body positivity and fourth-wave feminist movements (not to mention various ‘free the nipple’ campaigns), it seemed that a more holistic sense of self-acceptance and breast-normalisation was well underway, finding a happy medium between bras that felt great without all the fancy padding. Picking up where the Victoria’s Secret shows left, off, Rihanna’s lingerie brand Fenty has led the charge for underwear showcasing, but have been praised for a more diverse span of bodily representation, allowing women of all sizes, abilities and colours to feel accepted and empowered in lingerie. 

This revolution fell just in time for a global pandemic. With many of us working from home, bras and daily make-up and hair styling became far too much like effort, traded in for loungewear and comfort. Now that office life is returning, many have declared that they will never go back to the bra. Could braless comfort be part of our ‘new normal’? There will surely always be a place for the bra as a sexy, confidence-boosting garment, but perhaps we’re no longer under the spell of their ‘morale boosting’ requirements.  

Marge simpson protesting the bra when younger

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