The Bra, A Family History

by Shari Lefler

My great, great grandmother — that is to say, my grandmother’s grandmother — did not like the bra. It was invented during her lifetime, and she used to say, “I don’t know why anyone would want to make those things stick out.” My grandma tells me that great-great-grandmomma refused to wear bras. And for a long time, I assumed this meant great-great-grandmomma spent her life free-boobing it, but now, I assume she favored the corset, which, instead of making those things stick out, sucked them down as tightly as possible.

There’s a story told about the bra, that it was invented by a man, just another ploy of the patriarchy to control women’s bodies. But like many famous stories, it is a fiction. And in reality, the bra was invented by a woman. Of course it was invented by a woman. Because when you consider the alternative — the rib crushing, organ shuffling corset — no man could understand the stakes like a woman. So in 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs invented of the bra we know and love and loathe today.

6232791f9468d42b83f3b3eab2e3bc27An early bra

Mary Phelps Jacobs made her first bra by sewing together two handkerchiefs and some ribbon, then patenting it as the “backless brassiere.” She sold her patent, and later manufacturers would add more structure, underwire, and padding, but bras like Mary Phelps Jacobs’s are still available. Models that adhere most closely to her design are marketed as “bralettes,” two thin triangles of fabrics and some straps. These are the kinds of bras my mother wore through my prepubescence — the kinds of bras I found so embarrassing.

Mom walked around the house in her underwear until we were old enough to complain about it, cotton panties and those bralettes. The profile of Mom’s nipples poked out from behind the thin fabric, and I was embarrassed by her nipples — a Puritan raised by a bohemian. I was only starting to adjust to the idea of having boobs. I hadn’t stopped to consider the implications of having nipples too, and I didn’t want to consider them. All I wanted was for my mom to buy a real bra, a bra with lining and padding and underwire.

And that was the kind of bra I wanted — a real bra — the kind my mom wouldn’t wear. And I wanted it because I thought it would make me a real woman. Because that’s the story they tell you in school. Puberty means you’re becoming a woman, and puberty means boobs, and boobs mean bras. So if I just had enough boob to fill a real bra, then I would be a real woman. Plus, I felt like I’d earned it; a bra would be my reward for putting up with all the indignities that came with boobs.


Indignities like when I told Mom I was getting boobs and she insisted on touching them — this new body part I was feeling protective of — then said, “no, those aren’t boobs. That’s just baby fat.”

Or like having to let her touch them again a couple months later, insisting, “no, they really are boobs this time.”

Or like Grandma dragging me into the bedroom and making me feel her underwire, while I stared uncomfortably at the ceiling, because she swore she’d found the world’s most comfortable bra.

Or like Susie Alvaro snapping bra straps in the girl’s locker room.

For all that, I wanted a real bra. But when we got to the department store, Mom and the sales girl steered me past the lace bras and padded bras and underwired bras, past the real bras and toward the “training bras.”


Training bras are the ugly step-children of bralettes and sports bras. Marketed to girls tiptoeing on the edge of womanhood, eager to cross that line, they fill in that awkward time between when you discover your boobs and when boys discover your boobs.

I hated my training bras. But eventually, I grew out of them and into a full cup size, an A cup. And even though this was enough to give me access to padded, lacey, under-wire, real bras, I hoped they would keep growing. But once they hit that A cup, they seemed pretty satisfied with themselves and slowed their growth rate to the approximate pace of pitch sliding through a straw. And as long as my boobs insisted on remaining an A cup, I insisted on squeezing them into any push-up bra I could find, inflating them to some false ideal of the perfect size.

There are a lot of myths about the perfect breast size, the biggest being that there is one. And long before my boobs came in, the expressions I heard ranged from “the bigger the better” to “anything more than a handful is a waste.” One French expression says the perfect breast fits into a champagne glass — the legacy of a myth that the champagne coupe was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breast. But I think it’s more fun to imagine it refers to the champagne flute, not the coupe. There is something in the image of a woman trying to squeeze her boob into a champagne flute that reminds me of hoisting my boobs up into a push-up bra.

140825 EYE 2.jpg.CROP.original originalKate Moss also modeled champagne glasses after her breasts

In my mid-twenties, my boobs settled permanently into a B cup, and then, I decided they were the perfect size. For me, at least. It would be nice to believe this acceptance was a sign of personal growth, but it’s just as likely that after so much time wanting anything other than an A-cup, a B felt like a major victory.

By then, I’d also heard stories about the challenges of big boobs: back pain, finding a sports bra supportive enough to jog in, wearing backless or strapless dresses. And my D-cupped friends are quick to tell me that I can go braless. They say this as though they can’t, but of course, they can. They’ve decided not to, a decision they attribute to their breast size, but even with my small breasts, it seemed easier to just wear the bra.

It’s been over 100 years since the bra was invented, over 100 years of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers putting on a bra every morning. So the choice to not put on a bra is clouded by a century of social mores.

My great-grandmother was so self-conscious about going braless that in her old age, she refused to leave the house after 4 p.m.. By then, her bra was too uncomfortable to wear any longer. My mom assures me that she is never going to be like that because she will “just go braless.” And between that and her nipple-forward bralettes, she has always been progressive. But she also told me that when she goes to the movies, she waits until the lights go down, takes off her bra, and hides it in her purse. And I can’t decide if this makes her a bold, braless pioneer or just another woman who won’t leave the house without her bra on. (After all, why wear the bra in the first place?)

And we keep putting our bras on despite dubious evidence of their usefulness. In 2013, a French study found that the boobs of women who didn’t wear bras sagged less, by about one quarter of an inch. It’s a negligible amount in the grand scheme of boob saggage, well within the margin of error. But in spite of the age-old story that going braless will make you look like an Amazonian woman with boobs down to your belly button, the evidence tells a different story.

The evidence says, “do what you want.” And among all the myths surrounding boobs and bras, that was the one story I’d never heard. That was the story I’d been waiting for. I realized that somewhere between puberty and adulthood, bras stopped feeling like a privilege and started feeling like an obligation. I was ready to take mine off. I wanted to burn my bras like the feminists of the ’60s.

But it turned out even that was just a story, no one burned bras. They just threw them, among other symbols of oppressive beauty standards, into a symbolic trashcan. I could have been like the feminists of the ’60s and thrown my bras into a symbolic trashcan. But I stopped to look at them. And they were so pretty, all frills and lace and oppressive beauty standards.

So I haven’t stopped wearing bras, but I have started wearing them less. I’ve realized if I let go of all the fictions about what my boobs and bras are supposed to be, I can craft my own reality. I’ve come to appreciate the natural shape of my boobs. And I’ve stopped being embarrassed by nipples — even braless on a cold day. I’m no longer afraid, as my great-great-grandmomma was, to let “those things stick out.”

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