Sometimes we believe that much of what we accept as normal today was just as normal in history, although in a more primitive form. Although this may be true for some things, such as the gun being the continuation of an entire history of weaponry, the same cannot be said of all modern items–especially the bra.
A History of Bras
Before 8 B.C., just a little over 2,000 years ago, there is no evidence that women were wearing bras or their primitive equivalent. Instead, from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece, the ladies much preferred to go bare-chested under flowing or sheath dresses. The most that can be found is that there is some evidence that a very few women in Ancient Greece chose to wear a woolen or linen band across their chests. This is speculated to have been only when those wearing the floor-length draped chiton were involved in sports.
A mosaic from the 4th century (the 300s) shows two female Roman athletes playing while wearing something that looks much like our modern bandeau. Their version of this was called the strophium. It was used practically for sports and aging, socially as a sign of modesty, and culturally as a mark of beauty (the ideal at that time was small-chested but large-hipped women).
16th Century Europe
The 1500s saw the first use of the historical bra as something almost completely for fashion. This might be because of the time of relative peace and wealth that pervaded Europe during the rise of the Western explorations and empire expansions.
The corset was designed to form the ideal of beauty at the time, which was that of an inverted cone. Wood or whalebone casing kept the back straight and squeezed around the waist, pushing internal organs upward, flattening the breasts, and making the waist tiny. It lasted for the next 300 to 400 years.
19th Century Europe
The corset whalebone casing was moved to the front instead of the back, creating the girdle. The front casing forced the torso to lean forward, and pushed the hips backward, creating something of an “S” shape that was always falling very slightly forward. However, because of the design, it was a step away from the tiny corset-bound waists.
Perhaps for greater flexibility or greater adaptability to fashion, a Frenchman designed the corset to come in two parts. The top part looked much more like the bras as we know them today, with straps and the familiar shape rounding over the breast and dipping low in the front. The lower part was more of a high-waisted skirt style that was eventually abandoned in 1905.
The word “brassiere” appeared for the first time in American Vogue, to describe the unique undergarment women were using widespread throughout the country. By 1911, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized brassiere as a word that wouldn’t be going away any time soon, and they added it in. This is the long and original form of what we now call a “bra.” (In other words, “bra” is, in effect, slang.)
When the wire-and-whalebone corset ruined the outline of Mary Phelps Jacob’s sheer dress while she was preparing to go to a party, the resourceful lady used handkerchiefs and ribbon to create the first wireless brassiere. This endeavor born out of the necessity of fashion turned into a fully patented invention, as women began to prefer these much more comfortable and less constricting bras.
When the first World War hit, the production of corsets was severely limited to redirect all that wire towards building battleships instead. As a default, women turned to Mary Phelps Jacob’s bra for popular use. Women who still used their own corsets began to shift to the wireless bra instead, realizing that men’s jobs need a lot more freedom of movement than a corset can gave them.
If the corset and girdle had both been designed to emphasize women’s busts and hips, the flapper style of the 1920s was the height of the rebellion against this ideal. Women flattened their chests with bandeau bras, creating a more androgynous effect and a much lighter concept. There was no going back for women after World War I.
The bandeau bra developed into one with elastic with different bra sizes–the first time this happened, as their approach tended to be one-size- fits-all. William and Ida Rosenthal realized it would be much easier for ladies to purchase and wear bras if they were able to find their right size.
With the rising star of Marilyn Monroe came the Rising Star, one of the very first padded bras that attempted to empower women to mimic the full-figured bust of the famous actress. In the same spirit, the push-up bra made an appearance only a year later. This was the beginning of a trend that can be seen more commonly today than the 1920s bandeau style.
While the first use of bandeau bra-like garments was specifically for athletic activities, it took quite a few years (more than 1,500 actually) for the modern sports bra to make an appearance. Sisters Victoria Woodrow and Lisa Lindahl joked about how it was frustrating that women didn’t have “jock straps” to support their busts as they ran. The joke turned out to be inspired, and the prototype was created by sewing two jock straps together. This was the origin of Jogbra, the first sports bra.
The Modern Bra
From then on, bras have adapted to every size, shape, and style. We have one-strap bras, removable-strap bras, strapless bras, sewn-in bras, corset bras, bras with higher necklines, bras with smaller cups, bras that contour, minimize, enhance, soften, and so on and so forth. It has had a colorful history, and–with certain groups claiming bras should no longer be worn–promises to have a colorful future.