History of the Bra
Some Egyptologists believe women went bare-breasted for the most part, citing ancient depictions of topless women as evidence. Others think these portrayals are only artistic interpretations and not a reflection of real life. The general consensus is that women of a lower social status went topless while female aristocrats wore loose, sheer clothing. In any case, there was certainly no sign of the bra as we know it today.
The bra we know began in Bronze Age Greece. Minoan wall paintings from the 14th century BC depict women, presumably athletes, wearing bikini-like garments. It is also believed that women on the island of Crete wore support devices similar to corsets. The contraptions were worn over other clothing and were designed to support and expose the breasts, making them more visible. Later on, during the Classical era, Greek women wore a band of fabric called an apodesmos, a precursor to the modern sports bra. They wrapped this band around their breasts to prevent excess movement. From the apodesmos came the mastodeton, a minimizing garment that crossed the breasts and tied or pinned in the back.
The Romans, notorious for stealing cool ideas from the Greeks, used an adaptation of the Greek breast band and called it a strophium or mamillare. Roman society viewed large busts as comical and unattractive, so many young women bound their chest tightly in an attempt to prevent large, sagging breasts.
Roman "Bikini Girls" from the Villa Romana de Casale in Sicily
Further east, a tight-fitting bodice called a kanchuka arose in India. Mentions of the kanchuka appear repeatedly in the literature of the Vijayanagara empire of the 1300s. Fitted garments abounded during this era, and there were even tailors, called chippiga, who specialized in brassieres and tight-fitting blouses. Of course, ancient Indians were no strangers to bras by the 1300s. The very first reference to bras in Indian literature dates back to the rule of King Harshavardhana in the 1st century AD—more than a thousand years earlier!
CHINAThe Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw the rise of a cloth garment called a dudou, a diamond-shaped piece of cloth with straps that reached over the shoulders and tied to a band at the lower back. The dudou was incredibly popular among wealthy women and became especially fashionable during the Quing Dynasty (1644-1912).
THE MODERN BRAThat brings us into the modern era. Born in Italy and brought to France in the 1500s, it was the corset, not the brassiere, which dominated Western breast culture from the sixteenth century onwards. It is hard to say exactly who invented the modern bra, but the most successful version came from a 19-year-old New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacobs.
MARY PHELPS JACOB
The year was 1910. Mary was prepping for a debutante ball and having a great deal of trouble because the whalebone that stiffened the corset kept poking through her sheer evening gown. (Yes, by the way, that is where the term “boning” comes from.) Frustrated, Mary asked her maid to bring her two silk handkerchiefs, some pink ribbon, and a length of cord. From these simple materials, Mary and her maid fashioned a simple bra.
Mary Phelps Jacob poses with her invention.
Mary’s invention was a hit at the debutante. All the other ladies were impressed with how well she could, you know, move. Corsets, especially the ultra-binding whalebone kind, are pretty restrictive. When strangers began offering Mary money for her invention, she realized she might just be onto something.
In 1914, Mary Phelps Jacob was granted an official U.S. patent for the “backless brassiere.” Unfortunately, her invention didn’t initially take off the way she’d hoped, so she sold the patent to the Warner Bros. Corset Company (no, not those Warner Bros.) for $1,500. Meanwhile, over in Bosnia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was busy getting himself assassinated, and Europe plunged headfirst into World War I. When the U.S. joined up in 1917, metal was reserved for making bullets, not corsets. And anyway, women needed lighter, more versatile undergarments in order to take over the factory jobs vacated by enlisted men. Suddenly, the bra was all the rage. When World War II rolled around and brought on yet another metal shortage, it all but cemented the bra’s place in American culture. Warner Bros. Corset Company made roughly $15 million on Mary Phelps Jacob’s patent over the next thirty years. Mary, who changed her name to Caresse Crosby following her second marriage, never fretted over the money. She reflected on the subject in her later years, saying, “I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”
THE 20TH CENTURY AND BEYONDLike most great inventions, the bra has been improved upon over the years.
The 1920s: Ladies gravitated toward more androgynous looks. Chest-flattening bandeau bras soared in popularity. In 1922, Enid Bisset invented the “maiden form”—a bra with two formed cups separated by elastic—to combat the boyish bandeau look.
The 1930s: In the 1930s came the adjustable elastic strap, a key factor in catalyzing the bra industry. S.H. Camp and Company invented cup sizes in 1932 by correlating the size and shape of a woman’s breast to letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, and D. In 1937, Warner Bros. followed suit, and the system caught on.
The 1940s: This decade brought underwire and the first ever push-up bra, called the “Rising Star.” In 1949, the bullet bra was born, designed for “maximum projection.”
The 1950s: The bullet bra gains popularity in the ‘50s, made famous starlets like Jane Russell, Lana Turner, and Marilyn Monroe. During this decade, companies began to market bras for pre-teen girls and those entering puberty.
The 1960s: The counter-culture movement of the '60s saw the “bra burning” movement of second wave feminists. A Canadian lingerie company invents the “Wonderbra” in 1964, a bra designed to lift and push breasts together. In 1967, Mrs. Robinson shocked the world with her sexy leopard-print brassiere in The Graduate.
The 1970s: The first modern sports bra, the “Jogbra,” was invented in 1977. It was made of two jockstraps sewn together. Nipple bras, bras intended to create a "sensual no-bra look," enjoyed a short-lived popularity, then went the way of the Dodo.
The 1990s: Madonna’s iconic pink cone bustier took the lingerie world by storm. The Wonderbra returned with a vengeance, and the nipple bra tried (and failed) to make a comeback.
The early 2000s: Around the turn of the millennium, Bragel International released the NuBra, a set of fully adhesive silicone cups.
Nowadays, the bra comes in thousands of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and styles. There are strapless bras, one-strap bras, adhesive bras, corsets—just about anything you can imagine. What does the future hold for this garment with such humble beginnings? Your guess is as good as ours. In the meantime, subscribe to our blog to keep up with what's new in the bra world.