We don’t know who really invented the bra, as the garment’s got multiple inventors and makeovers, but women owe it a lot, even if we have a love-hate relationship with the brassiere.
To understand the inception of the bra, we need to go way back — to a time long before World War I, a time women were still wearing whalebone corsets which constricted their bodies into an S shape- the breasts thrust out, waists cinched and the hips jutting out. The men loved the female shape and the women- they had all kinds of problems like fainting episodes, chronic digestive issues and a whole lot of unnecessary crap that they put up with for centuries in the name of propriety and beauty.
The bra freed women from the corset. And that’s one right click on this piece of clothing, for sure.
And even though the modern day brassiere has been around for 150 years, I would like to start this blog post with the story of a woman who ‘saved’ women from the torture undergarments- the corset.
So, here it goes-
November 3, 1914, is a seminal day in the history of the bra, even though it was not actually invented on this day.
The bra—the garment that lifts and separates, using cups and straps—became a part of almost every woman’s life officially on this day when the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Mary Phelps Jacobs for what she called a "brassiere."
The necessity that drove Mary to invent the bra was the fashion trend of that day. The young girls wore smock-like dresses which were cut for slim, boyish figures and had plunging necklines. Girls’ breasts were flattened and their waists were tightly wound so that they looked slim enough to carry these gowns.
Now, Mary was what’s called well endowed. She also didn’t like the confinement of the corset. So, while preparing for a Manhattan debutante ball, the 19-year-old decided to do something, rather than suffer in a corset.
As she recalled in her autobiography, The Passionate Years, she asked her maids to bring two of her handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. These were sewn together along with lace and when Mary tried on the resulting piece, and the ribbons were pulled taut and tied, the effect was similar to what was achieved with a corset. She announced, "(It) was delicious. I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass, I saw that I was flat and proper."
The benefits of the new ‘bra’ extended far beyond fashion. The ‘new’ garment allowed women the freedom of movement that corsets had long prevented, it was also comfortable and could be worn beneath diaphanous gowns or while playing tennis.
There have been many such “Aha” moments in the history of the bra. Here’s a quick look at some of these:
Women have been tying up and covering their breasts since ages. The first bras may well date back to ancient Greece in fourth century B.C., where women would wrap bands of fabric across their chests and tie or pinning them in the back.
In ancient Egypt too, women wore a bra-like garment to cover their breasts.
The 16th century
The corset first appeared in the French and Spanish royal courts and it soon became the norm, especially for women of the aristocracy. And the corset reigned supreme for the next four centuries during the 16th century. .
There are reports of Roman girls wearing breast bands to prevent their breasts from sagging.
The 18th century
Corsets, by now had evolved into detailed pieces of art. They had also been shamelessly sexualized. Corsets put so much strain on a woman’s body that they caused them to faint, break ribs, bruise internal organs, and even die from corsets that were too tight.
The first bra appears in Great Britain. It was made up of wire and silk.
In France, Herminie Cadolle cut a corset into two. The top garment which supported the breasts known as corselet gorge would become the modern bra.
New Yorker Marie Tucek patented a “breast supporter,” which in many ways looked a lot like an early prototype for the underwire bra. The bra had still not replaced the corset and was more of an at-home wear. Advertisers though were lustily selling the bra as a healthy alternative for women for whom lung function and mobility were priorities, rather than appearance.
The fashion magazine, Vogue began talking about the bra and by 1911 the word appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first modern bra was officially patented by Mary Phelps Jacobs.
The U.S. War Industries Board asked American women to stop buying corsets so that more metal was available for the war effort. Women finally ditched the corset.
The androgynous look of the flat chested woman became big and women wore bandeau style bras to look flat.
Two New York dressmakers, William and Ida Rosenthal founded the Maidenform company. They also introduced the modern system of sizing.
The word "brassiere" was gradually shortened to "bra". And more marketing and advertising began to be used to sell it.
The bra was becoming more sophisticated, and home-sewn versions also vanished in the 1930s. The bra industry blossomed with the introduction of the adjustable elastic straps.
Bullet-shaped bras became popular.
The first push-up bra prototype for Marilyn Monroe was designed. It was called the Rising Star bra and it was also padded up to make breasts look fuller. Full-bodied female figures became the norm and bra styles followed the trend. The push-up bra was introduced a year later by Frederick Mellinger, who also created the first front-hook bra, colourful bustiers and introduced American women to the thong by the 1980s.
At the Miss America pageant, feminists tried burning bras calling them "instruments of female torture and agents of patriarchy".
Roy Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret. Bras, henceforth, were no longer just underwear, but lingerie.
The Wonderbra became a hit in America. It was (in)famous for pushing up women’s breasts and making them look larger. At the height of its popularity, researchers estimate one Wonderbra was sold every 15 seconds. The Sports bra was also invented.
This decade introduced a variety of designs including strapless, one strap, and the corset bra.
The average bra size ballooned from 34B to 36DD. Bra companies also introduced new large sizes.
Different types of bras have flooded the market. We now have strapless, backless, and adhesive bras to name a few. And if history is any indication, the innovations will just keep coming.
Another important landmark in the history of the modern bra apart from the clothing reform movement which powered the evolution of the bra from the corset came in 1968 as a feminist hit-back at the bra and all it epitomizes, called the bra-burning movement. These so-called emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism by women like Germaine Greer who famously said: "Bras are a ludicrous invention...", in The Female Eunuch.
Feminists charged that bras, makeup and high heels were oppressive and patriarchal, and reduced women to sex objects.
About 400 women from the New York Radical Women trashed high-heeled shoes, makeup, corset, girdles, and bras to represent liberation from the oppression of patriarchy and the male gaze.
The bra has taken another big hit as a supporting garment that prevents sagging- this time from science. A 15-year study completed in 2013 by Jean-Denis Rouillon has concluded that bras provide no benefits to women and might actually be harmful to breasts over time. His study involving 300 women ages 18 to 35 showed that women who did not wear bras developed more chest muscle to provide natural breast support and showed that the restriction caused by wearing bras prevents the muscle from growing and may actually encourage breasts to sag.
Correct me if I am wrong, but bras were supposed to prevent breasts from sagging... I mean that was the raison d'être of bras, at least in the beginning. So, now that we know that bras don't support breasts long-term, why are we still wearing them?
Most women say they wear bras for support and to look decent. Some wear them for the uplift. But, if you ask me, the bra is really important to us in the head and the good news is that the demand is swiftly shifting towards less restrictive minimal bras that also go well with low necklines and larger breasts.
The movements to get rid of the bra are gaining ground and experts predict that the brassiere, just like the corset, will meet its end soon!