A brassiere, or bra, has come a long, long way from the ancient times. With each modification of the undergarment, it has also changed the views on women’s bodies over the years.
Woman today know the bra as a somewhat essential piece of clothing. However, many also view it as uncomfortable, with some eschewing the garment entirely. The burning of bras also has deep symbolic connections to the feminist movement, but the history of the brasserie goes deeper than that!
Below, we’ll take a look at the evolution of the brassiere through the ages. This way, we’ll be able to see how the modern bra eventually came along and what the earliest versions looked like:
Paintings on ancient walls and urns depicted women wearing bandeaus, which are strips of cloth for supporting or covering the breasts.
Nowadays, bigger breasts are considered an asset for women as well as attractive to men. But the Romans saw big breasts in a different way — that they were ludicrous and unsightly. Big, sagging breasts in particular were viewed as a sign of aging (and this opinion hasn’t changed up to now). That’s why women wore bands to prevent their breasts from sagging.
Female Minoan athletes during the 1400 century BC wore bandeaus while playing sports.
Breast Bands or Bandeaus During the Ancient Era
Paintings on ancient walls and urns depicted women wearing bandeaus, which are strips of cloth for supporting or covering the breasts. The depictions were usually from Greco-Roman history and included regular females wearing this piece of clothing as well as powerful goddesses. We can even see a depiction in the ancient Roman Villa Romana del Casale which shows female Minoan athletes during the 1400 century BC wearing bandeaus while playing sports.
Nowadays, bigger breasts are considered an asset for women as well as attractive to men. Back then, though, the Romans saw big breasts in a different way — that they were ludicrous and unsightly. Big, sagging breasts, in particular, were viewed as a sign of aging (and this opinion hasn’t changed up to now).
Preventing their breasts from sagging is only part of the reason why women wore bands, though. Like a modern sports bra, these bandeaus must also have come in handy to give women some much-needed support during their sports.
The Age of the Corset
The French were the first ones to adopt the corset during the 16th century in an effort to achieve the perfect hourglass figure. The breasts were flattened, which caused them to be pushed upward as if almost spilling out of the dress. Corsets also laced up at the back, thereby narrowing the waist to an almost impossible degree.
Although corsets were uncomfortable and even painful to wear, they became the most popular undergarments for the next four centuries. We can even read about the experience of corsets by women in fictional works like “Gone With the Wind”.
Girdles During the 19th Century
The girdle had the weaving and the busk on the front instead of on the back, as was previously seen in the corset. This forced the torso upward and also pushed the hips upward to give the woman’s body more of an “S” shape.
The First Modern Bra
According to historical sources, it was Herminie Cadolle of France who invented the first modern bra. Originally, it was introduced as a two-piece clothing item called the corselet gorge (“well-being”). As a result, they split the corset in two — the lower part for the torso and the upper part for the breasts, supported by shoulder straps. In 1905, bras began to be sold separately.
The Term ‘Brassiere’
Vogue magazine used the term “brassiere” for the first time in 1907. Four years later, the word officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary.
The term “brassiere” was later shortened to “bra.” By the 1930s, large-scale production of the bra started. However, the more important development of the bra was the cup size.
In 1932, S.H. Camp and Company began to correspond to a woman’s breast size to the letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, and D, with D being the largest. Along with this was the introduction of adjustable bands with eye hooks in new bras.
Actresses and singers like Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Pattie Page, and Jane Russell popularized the “Sweater Girl” look, which consisted of wearing a bullet-shaped or cone-shaped bra. They then wore a tight-fitting sweater over the bra to enhance their bust size.
The Push-Up Bra
A Canadian lingerie company named Canadelle introduced the Wonderbra in 1964, which was the first “push-up” bra in the world. This supported the breasts and, at the same time, lifted them up to create a cleavage.
The First Sports Bra
As sports, fitness, and exercise became popular among women, there was a need for a bra which will support the breasts more firmly while providing overall comfort. Hence, in the 1970s, the sports bra was introduced. The initial name for this particular product was “jockbra.”
When Roy Raymond tried to buy some lingerie for his wife in a public department store, he felt too embarrassed to go through with the transaction. That incident inspired him to establish a lingerie store where men would feel more comfortable buying lingerie. It led to the opening of the first Victoria’s Secret in 1977.
Madonna’s Cone Bra
One of Madonna’s most iconic images was during her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. This picture has her wearing the controversial cone-shaped bra designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Reading Up on the History of Bras
Since the concept of bras is inextricably linked to women and their bodies, it stands to reason that many people view it as a symbol of femininity. Some might see it as an empowering tool that supports women’s breasts and allows them to participate in sports and daily tasks in a safe manner. Other might see it as a symbol of oppression, making women uncomfortable and contributing to the idea of breasts as something shameful.
If you’d like to understand the role of the bra throughout history, a reference book might give you more detail on the subject. One place to start could be Cheree Berry’s work “Hoorah for the Bra: A Perky Peek at the History of the Brassiere”.
Bras of Today
Today there are many colors, cup sizes, and styles of bras to choose from. There are the one-strap and strapless options in addition to the usual bras. Even corset bras have made a comeback. There are also bras available which have a memory form that adapts to the shape and size of your breasts, thus providing a more comfortable experience than most options.