A History of the Bra
Ever since humans met gravity, women have been managing the physics of having breasts. What are the goals from prehistory to right now? It’s all about comfort and support, plus the the proper foundation for the fashions of the day.
Check out how far bras have come in the past few thousand years:
2500 BC - Minoan female athletes wear what looks like a bandeau bikini while competing.
735 BC to 27 BC - The fashion in the Roman Empire is to wear something called a “mamillare” to compress the breasts (for a better line under togas, perhaps).
1500s - Catherine de Medici popularizes the small waist and, for the next few centuries, corsets of various types shape the body. The corset is well known for pinching in the stomach, but it also pushes up breasts—sometimes to the point of wardrobe malfunction.
1800s - Repressed Victorian women wear severely laced corsets that keep them well contained. In 1889, the innovative French chop the corset into two separate garments.
1900 - A strip of metal called a “busk” runs straight up the front of the corset, contorting the wearer’s body into an S-shape, with a prominent backside. These corsets give the breasts little to no support, leading to increased need for a proto- bra.
1910 - Save the whales! That wasn’t her intention, but socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs stitches together some silk hankies and ribbon, leaving out the constricting whalebone construction of corsets. She receives the first U.S. patent for a modern-type bra. Thanks, Mary!
1911 - Anti-corset activists for Clothing Reform advocate for women’s freedom and come up with the Reform Bodice, which sort of looks like a bra. (The list of medical conditions linked to corsets included breathlessness, indigestion, and swooning.) The Oxford English Dictionary adds the word “brassiere.” It was reportedly first used a few years before, in Vogue magazine.
1920s - The flapper silhouette is slim and boyish, speeding the demise of hourglass-inducing corsets (although, as we know, they never truly go away!). Roaring 20s women wear flattening bandeau tops. By the late 1920s, the Maiden Form bra (changed in 1948 to Maidenform), following the body’s natural contours, is on the market—the opposite of the “boy form” bra.
1923 - Underwiring pops up, followed by adjustable straps. Now we’re talkin’.
1930s - Brassiere is abbreviated to “bra,” and S.H. Camp and Company assigns letters (A through D) to varying cup sizes.
1940s and 1950s - Maybe it’s the influence of World War II, but pointy “torpedo” or “bullet” bras become the rage. They are the perfect underpinnings for pin-up Sweater Girls such as Jayne Mansfield and Lana Turner, who need support to properly protrude under their angora. Around now, training bras for young women come into being, and Frederick’s of Hollywood is credited with the first padded bra.
1959 - Spandex, a stretchy synthetic is introduced, leading to a future of better fitting bras.
1960s - Late in the decade, feminists burn bras as a symbol of patriarchal oppression. Hippies and Flower Children go braless or wear the totally sheer and unsupportive No Bra. It was designed in 1964 by Rudy Gernreich, the man behind the monokini.
1977 - Roy Raymond opens a Victoria’s Secret lingerie boutique because he’s embarrassed to buy undies for his wife in a department store. Also this year, the early sports bra is famously made from a couple of jockstraps sewn together, just in time for Title IX and the growing popularity of jogging/running.
1990 - Madonna brings torpedoes back for her Blonde Ambition tour; she wears a cone-shaped bra by Jean Paul Gaultier. The Wonder Bra, first created in the 1960s, goes viral. It lifts and pushes breasts together, creating cleavage and upping cup size.
1992 - The first mastectomy bras that don’t look like medical equipment are developed.
1999 - In a World Cup match, U.S. soccer player Brandi Chastain whips off her jersey to celebrate a goal, showing her athletic bra.
2009 - Heat-sensitive foam cups in the Smart Memory bra react to body temperature, perking up when it’s warm and laying low when it’s cool.
2011 - Companies introduce the L and N cup, for those wanting to go beyond KK.
2013 - ThirdLove launches the first virtual sizing app to help women buy a bra that fits — from home. Here’s how it works: First you download the ThirdLove iOS app, with its patented in-app sizer. Wearing an underwire bra and form-fitting shirt (and standing in front of a mirror), take front and sideways snapshots (which aren’t uploaded or saved anywhere, BTW). Then we give you your perfect size and style.