We have been binding our busts since ancient times: in Classical Greece, some women wrapped linen bands across their breasts; Romans had a similar method, hoping to prevent their breasts from sagging; during the Ming Dynasty in China, a supportive underlayer called a “dudou” was favored by wealthy women.
The first modern bra in the United States was invented in 1910 by Mary Phelps Jacob (later known as Caresse Crosby), a New Yorker whose chunky whalebone corset just didn’t work under her thin evening gown. As the story goes, the socialite asked her maid to bring her ribbon and two handkerchiefs, and Jacobs sewed herself a simple “backless brassiere.”
In 1914, the backless brassiere design was patented and marketed as a light, comfortable alternative to the corset; it did not immediately become a popular style.
In 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop wearing corsets in order to free up metal for military production. This was the beginning of the true shift from the corset to the brassiere. As women filled jobs previously held by men during WWI, they moved into retail and clerical sectors of industry, and the brassiere moved from the back pages of women’s magazines to window displays–effectively bringing girls to the front!
The 1920s vogue of an androgynous silhouette called for a new brassiere shape. Bandeau bras flattened womens’ breasts, some bandeaus–like those of today–little more than camisoles.
In 1922, New York City dress shop Enid Frocks created the Maiden Form brand, a line of bras for women of all different shapes and sizes, designed to accentuate and flatter the bust rather than hide it.
In the 1930s, “brassiere” was shortened to “bra” and elements like adjustable straps, padded cups, and A through D sizing were introduced. A pointy-breasted silhouette was the new cultural preference in the United States.
With WWII came the “bullet” or “torpedo” bra shape, stiff and conical and very, very pointy. Marketing encouraged the bra as “protection,” and some workplaces enforced a uniform that included a bra (in some cases, for the purpose of “keeping up morale”). Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, and Patti Page popularized the Sweater Girl look in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Rudi Gernreich stirred shit up with the monokini, a single-piece, topless swimsuit for women. The Wonderbra was created by a Canadian lingerie company. A softer, more “natural” breast shape came into style.
Alongside these more commercial developments were bra-burnings and protests for female liberation, including liberation from “trappings” of the objectification of women (hair curlers, false eyelashes, etc). Bras were rejected because they could be restricting and uncomfortable; feminist activists of the sixties felt that this paralleled the restrictions imposed on women by a patriarchal society.
The first sports bra, the Jogbra, was invented in 1977; it was made by students at the University of Vermont, from two jockstraps sewn together. Such a cool move: the repurposing of male-specific items for female use.
In contemporary bra times, we’ve created a huge cast of boob ornaments to fit really any chest need we have: geometric strappy bras, mesh triangle tops, and some high tech comfort. Bras are now a multi-billion dollar industry. Whether you go in for lace, Lycra, or no bra at all, there’s a good fit for everyone… and their boobs.
Sources: npr.org, The Huffington Post, wikipedia.org
Images via Cheltenham Fashion Week, awolau.org, mediamythalert.wordpress.com, Wikipedia, witness2fashion.wordpress.com