Though it was in the 20th century that the term ‘brassiere’ and its short form ‘bra; came to be commonly used, the history of the modern bra can be traced to the Ancient Greek Minoan civilization (3500BC) where women used a band-like clothing to cover their breasts. It was known as Strophion and the similar piece of attire worn by Roman women was called a Strophium.
In ancient India, a similar breast band called Stanapatta covered the breasts. During the reign of King Harshavardhana (606-647 AD), women and even girls used to wear this to contain their breasts. In ancient China, during the Han dynasty, women used to wear Xieyi, a tunic-like undergarment, and later in the Northern dynasty, the Moxiong which was a one-piece breast binding garment. Coming to European history women used to wear a cloth binder to cover their breasts.
So history shows us that women across the globe had always been conscious of using an article of clothing to cover the upper part of the body. But we are not sure whether it was based on the need for support, customs and practices or for the sake of fashion. Neither are we sure whether all women, belonging to different classes wore these inner garments or were they restricted to only certain affluent segments?
Society and their divisions based on religion, castes, economic status also had a say in the way women dressed- at one point in time in India, women had to pay taxes to cover their breasts. It was considered a crime for a woman of lower caste Hindus to cover their upper body unless they paid for it. This was not applicable to higher caste Hindu women.
The first major shift in history of women’s undergarments in the western world came about during the sixteenth century with the invention of corsets. From the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, the corset was unquestionably a very important inner garment for the women of the western world. The women embraced it to get the perfect shape hourglass silhouette, to their bodies.
Related post: Different types of corsets.
At first, there was a linen underbodice which was a soft body shaper. Women wore it over their shift as a long underslip. But as time went by, the corsets started losing their softness and were stiffened with hard materials. To maintain their stiff and rigid shape, wood, whalebone, steel, etc (today’s plastic boning) were sewn into corsets. But the corsets did nothing to cover the cleavage of the women – it fitted around the bust. In fact, women were supposed to show off their cleavage and ample bosom and corsets easily gave them the desired rounded look. This was called a bust bodice.
However, not all women favored this fashion of wearing corsets which projecteds their cleavage. They wore something called a fichu. A fichu was a cloth made of linen or soft material, similar to a shawl or a scarf that was wrapped around the neck and shoulders and tucked into the bodice.
By the end of the eighteenth century, health professionals were worried about the adverse effects and health issues caused by the corsets and bust bodice. The feminists in the Victorian era found corsets as a hindrance to women’s emancipation and their involvement in societal functions.
In 1869, the first bra was born when Herminie Cadolle split the corset into two separate parts for the upper part and lower part. The split corset was called a corselette- gorge, a bra with straps for the upper part and a tube-like clothing for the lower part. She made several changes to her split corset and by 1905, she started selling the upper part alone which was known as a soutein gorge by then. It was the predecessor to modern-day bra.
The word brassiere was first used by Vogue in 1907. But the modern bra took another few years to be born.
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob wanted something other than the corset to wear under her debutante gown. She had an idea and got to work with two silk pocket kerchiefs and silk ribbon to make the first brassiere. She stitched the kerchiefs to make two subtle cups which were then attached to ribbons. These ribbons, when pulled tight gave something like a halter top bikini without any whalebones. She got the patent for her invention in 1914, but sold it later to Warner Brothers Corset Company.
During the First World War, women were discouraged from wearing corsets which still used steel and the metal was in shortage. This caused brassiere to rise in popularity as an alternative undergarment.
As women got more engaged in outdoor activities and work, they wanted easy to wear and freedom to move in clothes. In the 1920s, the women preferred boyish silhouettes which saw the rise of bandeau-style bras. These bras flattened the chest and gave them the desired look. But this style didn’t last long.
Three dressmakers Enid Bisset and Ida and William Rosenthal started making supportive cups that accentuated the women’s assets. Though they started by sewing them into their dresses, there was a demand to sell them separately. Thus in 1932, they joined forces together and started the Maiden Form Brassiere Co. which also introduced the different cup sizes for the first time. Before that brassiere was made in single, size with stretchy material.
The World War II saw the torpedo style bras which became popular as it vouched for better protection for women force who were Woking outdoors, especially in the factories. These bras were conical in shape. The cups were stitched in circular patterns which made it stiff. The conical bras hit popularity when the actress Marilyn Monroe appeared wearing it under a sweater which became famous as the sweater girl look. These conical bras gave an impression of a bigger cup size.
1950s saw bras for teenagers, strapless bras. The wonderbra or the push-up bras were invented in the 1960s. It was the first of a kind to lift and push the bust line. Around 1960s women who raised their voice for their rights were called bra-burning feminists.
Though different kinds of bras came up in the 70s and 80s, a remarkable change happened in the history of bras with the invention of sports bras. Women had started exercising and taking an active interest in sports. The sports bra was first made by three ladies Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller and Polly Smith in 1977. It was first called a Jockbra which later came to be known as Jogbra. It was hugely successful. The sports bra encouraged women’s participation in sports and gave common women unlimited freedom of movement in all areas. By the 1990s sports bra was established as a must-have bra.
The first exclusive lingerie shop was founded in 1977 by the American businessman Roy Raymond and his wife. He was uncomfortable shopping lingerie for his wife in supermarkets and wanted to open a place where men and women could exclusively shop for lingeries.
Today there are so many different kinds of bras – one for each of us. Bra researchers take into account the needs of the women who wear them as well as that of those who view them.
I believe that the history of bra is intrinsically related to the development of women socially, physically, and economically, contrary to the belief of some about it as a sign of oppression and conformity in a largely patriarchal society.
Some interesting talk about the history of sports bra can be heard in this podcast here.
Updated on October 11, 2022 by Sarina Tariq