Vogue is credited with coining the term “brassiere” over one hundred years ago; however, the concept and use of the bra is much older than that. For thousands of years, women have used coverings to support, enhance, and draw attention to the breasts.
Today, lingerie – including bras and panties – is a billion-dollar industry with an enormous variety of styles, shapes and purposes. But let’s start back at the beginning, when the bra made its first humble appearance.
Early breast support
Bra-style garments feature in both Indian and Egyptian. Though ancient depictions in both cultures often show women bare-breasted, there are instances where women are shown wearing bras.
Egyptian women wore a simple rectangular piece of cloth sewn into a tube, occasionally with a cross strap over the left breast. This short garment – known as a kalasiris – was most commonly worn by slaves or working women, as it provided support and comfort while working
Ancient Indian women also wore tight-fitting sewn brassieres. They were particularly popular during the Vijayanagara Empire, when skilled tailors were in abundance. A tight bodice with short sleeves, called a kanchuka, was popular at a later period, and was worn by women and young girls alike.
Ancient breast obsession
Around 2500 BC, we come across a culture obsessed with breasts. The Minoan culture adored breasts – almost to the point of worship – and clothing styles reflected that. Minoan women wore a bra-style garment that lifted the breasts up and out of the clothing, leaving the breasts fully on display, and leaving little to the imagination.
Ancient bosom suppression
The Greek and Roman cultures between 450 BC and 285 AD were extremely male-dominant. To this effect, Roman women wore a tight band around the chest which reduced bust size significantly, effectively flattening the chest. Oddly enough, many men also wore these bra style chest wraps.
Greek bosom expression
The Greeks, however, took much the opposite approach. They realized that certain clothing accentuated the breasts, providing a rather pleasing effect. Thus, many Greek women began wearing a belt under the breasts to push them up, enhancing the bust.
The attitude of these ancient cultures displays a rather interesting trend in the history of the bra: the styles and usage of bras have changed in close conjunction to male attitudes toward breasts. Women, unfortunately, were somewhat at the mercy of the trends of the age – and these trends, more often than not, were dictated by men.
The middle ages and the corset
By the 14th and 15th centuries, firm, high, rounded breasts were very much in vogue. The full-busted look depicted in art cannot really be achieved without some kind of breast support. Around this time, the corset made an appearance.
One woman who had an impact on the corset industry was Catherine de Medici of France. Unfortunately, her impact was hardly positive. Hugely focused on fashion, Catherine enforced a ban on “thick waists” at court functions. Though she is not responsible for the introduction of the corset, it seems that her edict brought steel framed corsets into wide-spread use.
As popular as the corset was among the elite, the garment was impractical for the common woman. Corsets made physical work nearly impossible, so most working women wore a simple cloth tie under the breasts.
From the corset to the brassiere
From the 16th century on, the bra was increasingly connected to fashion as much as to function. Corset styles progressed to include irons supports, and a huge emphasis was placed on form. The breasts were compressed and pushed up so that they nearly spilled out of their restraints.
The 17th century saw the introduction of the Empire (or Regency) fashion, made popular by Empress Josephine. Dresses were worn just below the breasts and were somewhat like the classical style of ancient Greece.
Things took a rather drastic turn in the Victorian era. Morality was the thing of the day, and necklines and hemlines followed suit. Oddly enough, though necklines were high, clothing was designed to emphasize the bust and hips by constricting the waist with a corset.
The corset went into decline as the Edwardian era dawned. Women were involved in more physical activity, and thus, the corset provided less breast support, and served more as a girdle. The corset was accompanied by a breast covering called the Bust Bodice.
The shift from corsets to bras can be attributed to two particular developments. The first was rising concern over the effects of tight-fitting corsets on women’s health. The second was the rise of feminists who promoted clothing reform. Because of this, corsets were largely cast off.
The dawn of the bra
There is much debate over who invented the modern bra. There are a host of patents on various bra concepts and devices. The oldest push-up bra dates to the early 19th century, though its maker is unknown.
However, the woman truly credited for inventing the modern bra is Herminie Cadolle of France. Her design separated the corset, leaving a lower part for the waist and an upper breast support, complete with shoulder straps.
The first US patent was earned by Marie Tucek, who created a bra with separate cups, shoulder straps, hook-and-eye closures, and a metal supporting plate. This design was truly the precursor to the modern underwire bra.
The modern bra
Bras became increasingly common as the 19th century progressed. When the US War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets in order to free up metal for war production, the age of the bra truly began.
Mary Phelps Jacobs put together a simple design, utilizing ribbons and silk handkerchiefs. The idea was hugely popular, and she quickly patented the idea. She ended up selling the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company who turned the idea into a $15 million business.
From here on out, the bra took on a much sexier look as women took a whole new attitude to this new intimate apparel. The comfortable lingerie gave women new confidence; and by the time elastic was introduced in 1920, the industry was skyrocketing. Standard cup sizes were introduced, and by the 1930s the strapless bra was introduced.
Maidenform really led the way in bra development. With their empowering advertising, women felt sexy, strong, and confident. Different styles and colors were introduced, including maternity bras, nursing bras, and sports bras.
From there the industry has not stopped. The options are practically endless, and women have more choices than ever where bras, panties, and lingerie are concerned. Women have the power to look great in any outfit and in any environment, thanks to the evolving varieties of brassiere now available.