There’s no doubt that the bra has a long, fascinating, and often amusing background. The early designs were a very far cry from the sleek, sporty, and sexy designs widely available today.
Let’s take an overview of how the bra came into being.
Some Ancient Greek artdepicts women who took part in sports wearing a bandeau affair over their breasts. It is suggested that this could have been to keep their breasts under control, covered, and safe while they were busy with their athletic enterprises.
This simplistic design shows some of the earliest types of breast support – a rather primitive version of today’s unlined bra and other modern designs.
During this time, however, these fabric bandeaus seem to have mainly been worn by women for sports. The women in this era would go bare-breasted under their flowing dresses otherwise. The first proper sports bra would only be developed in the late 1970s.
Corset to Brassiere
Corsets were used from around the 16th until the early 20th century, though evidence shows corset-like designs may have been used as early as 1600 BC. The age of the corset began to wane when the first brassieres were designed.
The bra arrived on the scene in the late 1860s when Frenchwoman Herminie Cadolle redesigned the corset. She cut a corset so that it would have two parts, which would separate and support each breast. She even developed a design with bra straps.
A little later in the early 1900s, a New York socialite, Mary Phelps Jacobs, designed a backless bra. She did this by sewing two handkerchiefs together and attaching a cord. She later sold the patent for the design to the Warner Brothers Corset company for a princely sum of $1500.
There was a severe shortage of metal in WWI. As corsets had metal wireframes and were still widely used, women were asked to stop wearing them. As the bra had been on the scene for a few years by this time, it became the natural alternative. At that stage, bras did not have underwire cups yet.
In World War II, bras of a conical shape were designed to give women more protection. It was known as the ‘bullet-style,’ which stuck for several years.
Indeed, Marilyn Monroe became the ‘sweater girl’ icon while boasting the conical style bra in the 1950s. Madonna also made waves when she wore her iconic cone-shaped corset during her Blonde Ambition Tour in the 1990s.
The bra later became a symbol for men’s control of women’s bodies and what kind of behavior and dress code was deemed ‘appropriate’ for women and what was not. At the famed ‘Freedom Trashcan Protest’ in Atlantic City, USA, in the late 1960s, 400 women protested these societal pressures that stemmed from the male gaze.
The women threw many women’s items into a trash can, including their bras, hairspray, make-up, etc., to make a statement. Anecdotal history suggests the women ‘burned their bras,’ though this is unlikely to be the truth due to the fire laws at the time.
The Push-Up Bra
Frederick Mellinger developed the push-up bra, which was the prototype for the Wonderbra, in about 1947. The Wonderbra then raised eyebrows in the 1990s with its campaign promoting women’s embracing of their sexuality.
Some Final Thoughts
Whether worn for fashion or function, the bra is firmly ingrained in women’s history. There are many other stops along the way in this bra background story, but these few points highlight some of the undergarment’s key milestones.
Next time you go bra shopping, take a moment to appreciate just how far the item has come in its evolution.