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The long evolution of the bra: Who invented it and why?

It changed everything.

The long evolution of the bra: Who invented it and why?
A bodice from 1900. Wikimedia Commons

The brassiere or bra is a feminine undergarment that serves to cover, support, or change the appearance of the breasts. It is at the intersection of fashion and function — although the function has been somewhat called into question in recent years.

But let’s go back to the start. Who invented the bra, and what was the reason? And most importantly, is that reason still valid in 2022?

Origins of the bra

There are many people and cultures involved in bra history

The most ancient bras that we know of are depicted in certain pieces of art from the Minoan civilization in the 14th Century BC. These show a mastoeides - a linen or soft leather garment which supported the breasts from underneath, pushing them out and leaving them totally exposed. This means that the bra might have its origins in the Bronze Age.

Bikini girls ancient Greece
Source: Waterborough/Wikimedia Commons

In Greece, in the 5th and 4th century BC, women often wore bands that went over the clothing, giving some support while also lifting and separating. Aphrodite was depicted wearing her own version, called the kestos.

Then, we have Roman bras or “mamillare” — pieces of cloth that women wrapped tightly around their chests to cover their breasts. 

The Bikini Girls, a famous mosaic shown above, from the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, depicts women playing sports while wearing tight bandeaus, likely to keep things from bouncing around too much. Young girls sometimes used breast bands, called strophium, in an attempt to prevent sagging, which the Romans associated with old age and unattractiveness.

There are also medieval bras. At least four types of them were found in 2012 by a group of archeologists in the Lengberg Castle, Austria. Two of them looked like shirts with bags without cup support. The third one had basically two “breast bags” supported by shoulder straps, and the last one looked more like a modern longline bra, with two cups and thinner shoulder straps. 

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medieval bra
Source: Institute for Archaeologies/Chantelle Gerrard

Henri de Mondeville, the surgeon to Philip the Fair of France and his successor Louis X, wrote in 1312–20, “Some women… insert two bags in their dresses, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and fasten them when possible with a matching band.”

The history of the bra momentarily changes direction in the 16th century AD when women in the Western world adopted the corset. This garment lifted up her breasts and shrank the waist to width and shape that was considered a feminine beauty ideal at the time.  The dissemination of the corset is attributed to Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on thick waists at court during the 1550s.

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But during the dress reform, or rational dress, movement in the late Victorian era, corsets were accused of posing several health risks, such as the rearrangement of internal organs due to the tight-lacing practice. They suggested the corset be replaced with looser fitting garments, and many women, literally, breathed a sigh of relief.

corset catalog
Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co Catalogue, Chicago 1894. Source: Zoe Charmaine

In the 19th century, different kinds of corset substitutes and bra-like undergarments were being patented with little to no market penetration. For example, in 1893, Marie Tucek patented a brassiere that included separate pockets for the breasts and straps that went over the shoulder and had hook-and-eye fastening. Although it looked very much like modern bras it failed to take off.

Some sources state that Herminie Cadolle could be also considered the inventor of the modern bra as she showed a corset bra (a two-piece undergarment made of a corset cut in two) at the World Fair of 1889 in Paris.

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So who invented the modern brassiere? The first modern bra is often considered to be a creation of American socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, also known as Caresse Crosby, who was the first recipient of a patent for what looks like the bra we know today. 

In 1910, Crosby had purchased a sheer evening gown for a social event, but she found that her corset kept poking out visibly through the thin fabric. Out of frustration, she stitched together two handkerchiefs with a ribbon and found out that it was much more comfortable, especially while dancing.

Jacob's new undergarment complimented the fashion trends being introduced at the time and her unrestricted movement caught the attention of other women, with some of them wanting to buy her improvised bra. She eventually founded the Fashion Form Brassière Company to make and sell the garment. She patented the invention in 1914 and used the name Caresse Crosby for her business.  

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How bra evolved until today

 The corset went out of fashion rather slowly, but World War I accelerated the process due to the metal shortage it caused. All the metal available was to be used in war production, so it couldn’t be used in corsetry. 

At the same time, women had started to work and become more active outside the home, the corset was no longer comfortable or practical. 

In the 1920s, there was a trend for wearing bandeaus, thanks to the flappers, who wore tight bandeau tops to flatten their chests. Because the design was very easy to fabricate (even at home), it became very popular among all kinds of women. 

flappers
Flapper girls. Source: Cosmopolitan CN

The bras of the 1930s defied the flat-chested look, though. In that decade, the first cup-based modern bra was introduced using a cup sizing scale (A, B, C, D). The 1940s bras followed that trend with the invention of the padded bra in 1947 and the bullet bra by the end of the decade.

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In fact, the bullet bra was the most popular 1950s bra. The trend became so big that in the 1960s bras were still being spiral-stitched and given exaggeratedly pointy ends. A real breakthrough happened in 1964 when designer Louise Poirier created the Wonderbra for Canadian company Canadelle. The Wonderbra was actually designed to replace a girdle and was an instant hit for the way it lifted and shaped the breasts while being comfortable to wear. 

marilyn monroe bullet bra
Actress Marilyn Monroe wearing a bullet bra. Source: Mikel Agirregabiria/Flickr

 In the 1970s, bras were designed to give the breasts a more natural appearance. However, the most important invention during these years is probably the sports bra, designed to support the breasts during physical activity without restricting motion. This made sports much more practical for a large number of women. 

Today, women have many different bra choices, such as padded bras with or without underwires, bralettes, lace bras, nursing bras for women who are breastfeeding, the NuBra adhesive bra made of silicon (which came out in 2002), and other strapless options.

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Why is it important to wear a bra?

So why were bras invented in the first place? The intention behind the invention of the bra was to provide support for the breasts, but nowadays, it is debated whether all women need to have their breasts supported at all times.

While some scientists believe that wearing a bra helps reduce the eventual sagging of the breasts, others argue that sagging in older age is directly related to going braless, and claim there are additional factors involved. A study from the University of  Franche-Comté concludes that breasts naturally have the anatomical support they need and bras actually make the breasts saggier.

sport bras
Source: Rusty Clark/Wikimedia Commons

Some experts argue that for most women, bras are only really necessary during physical activity, to prevent tissue trauma and breast pain, and others claim that only large-breasted women need to wear bras much of the time, in order to reduce back pain due to the weight of their bosoms. 

Bras were invented to provide comfort, but many women don’t find them comfortable, especially at the end of the day. However, this could be because they’re not wearing the right bra for their size. This could be due to the fact that there are no size standards that work equally for all women. 

Given that there is no definitive scientific data in favor of or against wearing bras, bra-wearing may largely be linked to cultural reasons, at least for women with smaller breasts. In fact, a move towards greater comfort means that bra-wearing could actually be decreasing in the Western world. 

Lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic might also have boosted that tendency, or at least, it helped some women dare to try going braless and realize they don’t really like wearing bras all the time

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