The history of the bra, the most intimate of undergarments, parallels that of its wearer, the woman. Throughout history, women have worn various forms of breast covers or support. Ancient Minoan art depicts women wearing bands of fabric to cover their upper half but there is no indication that this was everyday practice for women of all classes.
The poet, Ovid, also mentions a ‘mamillare’ garment that encased the breasts. Non-western equivalents developed in China, the most common being the dudou, a breast and stomach flattener of the Qing dynasty. In Vietnam a similar garment existed called the yem and in India, the kanchukaIt was worn. The history of the bra is women’s history.
Corset to Bra, Liberating Women‘s Torsos
More than any bra equivalent, it was the corset; the torso encasing undergarment that controlled women’s figures and lives until the 20th century. Its constriction of the rib cage of women controlled their breathing and consequently exercise. The corset symbolised control as well as exerting it.
Amelia Bloomer said, ‘When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.’ There were early prototypes of an upper corset or bra and even numerous patents registered. As the full form of the word ’bra’ is brassiere, it makes sense that a French person allegedly invented it. Life magazine credits Herminie Cadolle of France for the corselet gorge or high corset form.
The Bra as a High Corset
Cadolle designed a two-part corset, one for the waist and another, the corselet gorge to support the bosom using straps over the shoulders. Cadolle patented her concept and exhibited it at the Great Exhibition of 1889. By 1905, the corselet gorge sold as the soutien gorge, a name still used for a bra in France. The company that developed this original bra-corset still exists today. Cadolle really had a good idea that benefited half of the population of the world. Her invention became dubbed the ‘ le bien-etre’, the well-being, reflecting its beneficial effect of freedom and comfort for women.
This form of breast support was a breakaway from the corset support, which offered a literal but uncomfortable supportive shelf for the breasts. This new form of support was seen as a health advantage. For too long women had been rendered breathless by the constriction to their lungs. Many a woman had swooned because of this issue and had to be revived with smelling salts.
The History of the Bra in the Twentieth Century
By the early 1900s, various types of bust improvers and uplifters were available that expanded on the concept of support from the shoulders, not the rib cage. This became necessary when the straight fronted corset became fashionable, as large-breasted women needed support.
An American heiress, Caresse Crosby, the daughter of an engineer, invented and first patented an American form of bra. She devised the undergarment by joining two handkerchiefs and a ribbon and wore it instead of a corset. Being a wealthy woman wielded influence and a corset company bought her patent and expanded on her idea.
Bras and Battleships
The metal shortages of WW1 encouraged an end to the full corset. This trend saved the 28,000 tons of metal or equivalent of two battleships. As many women turned to work to support the war effort, this freeing of the torso was very timely and symbolised a small step towards women’s liberation in society.
Further liberation from stiff undergarments followed in the 1920s after the war. Women wore flapper dresses that promoted a boyish, flat chested figure.
From A to D
In 1932, a bra manufacturer instituted the now well-known sizing of bras from A to D cup. Since these times, bras have become more than just functional. They are an intimate undergarment used to both cover and enhance the bosom and cleavage and a sex symbol in their own right.
After the second world war, metal was again released for undergarment use and the under wire bra emerged. By then women worldwide were wearing bras, even in Africa and Asia where corsets had not been standard apparel.
The Bra and Women’s Liberation
Since then, the bra has waxed and waned with the fashions. There are now training, padded, uplift, sports, nursing and all manner of bras to support women of all sizes and shapes.
During the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, the bra, like its precursor, the corset was viewed as an imposition. Aa form of control.
Women took to the streets to abandon and even burn their bras in protest of its symbolic control of their lives. Germaine Greer cites the bra as an instrument of torture worn to conform women’s bodies into a shape desirable by men. Indeed, the bra is a much-discussed object that many criticise as another male imposed form of control over women.
Bras or No Bras
Regardless of the horrors, limitations and symbolism of bras, many women still wear them at least for part of the day. Apparently less so during Covid. Bras today are far more comfortable than they were. Now they are made from softer, more elastic material and often are without fasteners that can dig in and be uncomfortable.
The good part is that there is a huge choice of bras and all undergarments, something for everywoman, and wearing bras is not compulsory. This is a huge improvement from the days of uncomfortable corsetry and the days when it was scandalous to talk of undergarments, the unmentionables. Women are not as limited they were and no longer bound by fashionable discomfort.
Postcript to the History of the Bra
In 1871, Mark Twain registered the patent for adjustable and detachable straps for garments. This was an alternative to suspenders, which he found very uncomfortable. “My adjustable and detachable straps may be made non-elastic as well as elastic and can be used on other garments”. Mark Twain’s invention did not catch on, until it was used on the bra.
In 2009, Dr, Elena Bodnar won the Ig Nobel Public Health Prize for her then-prototype invention, the ‘Emergency Bra’. The Emergency Bra was a style-conscious undergarment that “Can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks. One for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander in the event of an emergency.”
The Ig Nobel Prizes is an events ceremony that pokes fun at the Nobel Prizes and awards inventors and scientists who work on projects that fall a little outside of the mainstream.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The last Hotel. She co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.