AKA: brassiere, over-the-shoulder boulder holder, bandeau, hemispheres of paradise
How to say it: brah
- two cups over the bust
- may or may not have straps
- held in place by an elasticated band around the chest
- closure at the front or back of the body
- can contain underwires and padding for extra support and shape
- can be made from a variety of fabrics
Origins of the style: Women have been supporting and manipulating their breasts with the help of fabric in one way or another for centuries. From the ‘sports bras’ of the Minoan Civilization, to the woolen breast bands worn by the ancient Greek women, to the various styles of corsets worn by women in the 18th and 19th centuries; the style and function of breast support has changed continuously throughout the years, often mirroring the constantly changing ideals of female beauty. However, despite the long and varied history of breast support, the bra as we know it today didn’t appear until the 1800s.
There is some indecision as to whom is actually responsible for the birth of the modern bra. In 1853 Henry S Lesher, of Brooklyn, NY, patented a bra-like device that resembled a kind of breast plate with separate ‘cups’ for each breast. This was followed by a corset substitute designed by Luman L.Chapman of New Jersey in 1863 and labeled the the ‘proto-bra’. In 1889 Herminie Cadolle invented the corselet gorge which was essentially a corset cut into two pieces – the lower half corseted the waist while the upper half supported the bust. By 1905 the upper half was being sold on its own and was known as a soutien-gorge. German born Christine Hardt also patented a bra design in 1889 and in 1893 Marie Tucek patented a design in the U.S. which quite closely resembles the modern bra and is said to be the precursor to the underwire bra. German company Mechanischen Trikotweberei Ludwig Maier und Cie. mass-produced a bra designed by Sigmund Landauer in 1912 and patented it in 1913, and in 1914 Mary Phelps Jacobs (also known as Caresse Crosby and widely regarded as the inventor of the modern bra) patented her backless design made from two silk handkerchiefs and ribbon. Regardless of who actually did invent the first bra, by the early 1900s it was in the fashion-sphere and beginning to gain popularity among women.
World War 1 had a surprisingly big hand in increasing the popularity of the bra in its early days thanks to the request from the United States War Office for women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for the war effort in 1917. The war also required women to go to work which shook up gender roles began to liberate the female body from the corset, further increasing the popularity of the bra as a means of support.
As the Flapper look took hold of fashions in the 1920s, bandeau-like bras emerged and took on the function of flattening the breasts to help women achieve the desired boyish silhouette. In 1922 Ida and William Rosenthal, along with Enid Bissett, launched Maiden Form (now Maidenform) – the first bra company to introduce cup sizes. Maiden Form bras supported and lifted the bust creating a silhouette that was the opposite of the Flapper look and paved the way for the curvy, glamorous women of the 30s.
Despite the increasing number of companies manufacturing bras in the 20s, homemade models were still quite popular throughout the decade and it wasn’t until the 1930s that commercial production really took off, turning the bra into a major player in the underwear market. The design of bras continued to change during this decade – cup labeling was introduced (A through E) by the S.H. Camp and Company in 1932 which was quickly picked up by other manufacturers, multiple hook and eye closures were added to the chest bands to increase adjustability, adjustable shoulder straps were introduced, as were fitting areas in department stores and padding became available for women with smaller breasts. Due to smart marketing and increased international interest, bras became more and more popular and thus more widely available, decreasing the demand for homemade versions. The advent of the pointy-bust look in fashion also helped to make bras more desirable as the pointy silhouette could only be achieved with the help of an undergarment.
In the 1940s the popularity of the bra was once again given a boost by war. The U.S. Military issued female recruits with bras as part of their uniform underwear and women working in industrial areas during the war were often required to wear bras to work to provide protection and support. Bras throughout this period continued to be pointy and became known as bullet or torpedo bras; they were particularly favored by the Sweater Girls, whose busty, curvy figures and wholesome, girl next door looks became a popular beauty ideal at the time.
After the war, materials became more readily available again and bra manufacturers responded by offering increased variety in style, shape, pattern, colour, and fabric. The post-war baby boom saw an increase in nursing bras, and at the other end of the scale, bras for pre-teens debuted on the marketplace in the 50s, and while these bras offered a more natural, rounded silhouette, the bullet bra continued to be in demand thanks to Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Patti Page continuing the Sweater girl look.
The 1960s were a decade of opposites for the bra. On one hand there was the Wonderbra. Introduced by Louise Poirier for Canadelle in 1964, the Wonderbra was designed to lift and support the bust, creating a pushed together cleavage with a deep plunge. The design was an immediate success and is still available in the 21st century. On the other hand, towards the end of the decade the bra began to be seen as a symbol of oppression of women by feminist groups who claimed it represented the restrictions imposed on them by society. This belief was brought to the forefront during a feminist protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, where women threw their bras (along with other symbols of female oppression like hair curlers and false eyelashes) into a ‘Freedom Trash can’. The intention was then to burn the items in the trash can, however a fire permit could not be obtained and so the fire was never lit. Regardless of the lack of flames, the intent of the act was obvious and the bra-burning movement was born.
Feminist protests continued into the early 70s and some bras were eventually burnt, but on the whole the bra had become an indispensable piece of underwear for the modern woman. Throughout the 1970s and 80s the variety of bras available in the marketplace increased in response to the changing fashion trends and beauty ideals of the decades – backless, strapless and plunging versions hit the market ensuring that women would have the support they needed regardless of what they were wearing. This innovation in bra design even reached into the realm of sportswear in 1977 when Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith and Hinda Mille created the first sports bra. It was made from two jock straps and was called the ‘JogBra’.
The 1990s saw the bra become more visible as the Underwear-as-outerwear trend took hold and continued into the 21st century thanks to celebrities like Madonna and her famous cone-bra (which sold for $52,000 at auction in 2012), Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, just to name few. The early 2000s also saw the introduction of the molded cup, most commonly seen in the now ubiquitous t-shirt bra.
In the second decade of the 21st century the bra is well and truly an indispensable and essential piece of clothing for most women, and thanks to the ever increasing variety of designs available, there is a bra on the market to fit into every facet of the modern wardrobe. From sportswear to everyday basics, from special occasion luxury to specialised styles, there is a bra for every woman of every size for every occasion. It can be worn under, or over, any garment or even worn on its own as a fashion piece in its own right. And as technology in the fashion and clothing industry continues to advance, there is no doubt that new and innovative bras will continue to hit the market for many years to come.
Origins of the name: the word bra is shortened from the word brassiere, a term which was first used by the Syracuse Evening Herald in upstate New York in 1893, gained wider usage in 1904 and first appeared in Vogue in 1907. Brassiere was added to Oxford dictionary in 1911, however it wasn’t until the 1930s that brassiere was shortened to bra in popular language.
Some random facts:
- Victoria’s Secret was created by a man who was uncomfortable shopping in a department store for lingerie for his wife
- the most expensive bra was a Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra worn by Gisele Bundchen in 2000. It was made of satin, rubies and diamonds and was valued at $15 million
- the world’s bestselling bra is the Triumph Doreen, worn by millions of women across the globe
- the most common bra size in 2016 is 36DD
Bras in the modern marketplace There are boundless bra options on the modern market. Many brands from designer to the high street offer a variety of bras in endless shapes, sizes and fabrics allowing the 21st century woman to pick and choose the perfect bra for any outfit on any given day.
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