Women’s undergarments throughout history are linked with women’s status, fashion and thoughts on the female form. During Ancient Greece devices were used to actually lift naked breasts out of clothing. This was in honour of fertility and the Snake-Goddess who had large breasts proudly on display. During Roman times breasts were strapped down and flattened.
Throughout history breasts were either constrained or uplifted or left loose. It was during the 16th Century that corsets first came into being – this was when it was thought attractive for the upper classes to have a flat torso and high out-thrust breasts. The corset was responsible for all sorts of ill-health and the belief of women as the weaker sex. (Constrained by tight clothing and forced into unnatural posture made fainting, flushing, breathlessness, nausea, eating disorders, bowel and gynaecological problems.
Many health professionals started warning against the use of restrictive clothing and coupled with women wanting to be more active and participate in sports a need was seen for something less constricting.
For every document you read there are of course, different people recognised as the ‘inventor’ of the first bra. There were a large number of patents granted during the 19th century from 1859 by a man, Henry S Lesher, to Marie Tucek in1893. There were also many patterns in women’s magazines so home made bras were as common as factory made.
In 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob created a bra out of silk handkerchief and ribbons to fit under her sheer evening gown. This bra was so popular she decided to patent it and although a few department stores bought some stock the business never took off. She sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. And although her design was soon discontinued Warner Brothers went on to make over $15 million from teh bra patent over the next 30 years.
The first world war with its need for women to work in fields and factories necessitated the need for something less restricting than the corset and so the bra grew in popularity
It was Russian Immigrant Ida Rosenthal and her husband in 1922 that first noticed the need for individual sizing for bras. They also designed bras for different ages. With their main intention being to make dresses look better on the wearer. They named their company Maidenform (a play on a rivals company called ‘Boyishform’ which was still developing bras for the Flapper period where bras tended to flatten the breasts in to a more boyish figure. At the sam time health professionals realised that flattening the breasts had a negative impact on lactation and so encouraged the use of garments that supported the breast more naturally.
The early 1930’s saw the labelling of breast size from A – D, originaly by S H Camp and Comapany other companies soon followed suit but it wasn’t until the end of the 1940’s that catalogue companies stopped using the designations small, medium and larg. During the 1930’s band size was also introduced. From the 1960’s to 70’s bust size started increasing and the most commonly bought bra size in 34B to 36C. With 27% of UK sales were for D or larger.
During the second world war with material shortages many manufacturers had to make tents and parachutes as well as bras. The government was concerned with the amount of steel used in corsets and made one of the first surveys on the number of bras a woman owned (average 1.2 bras – with housewives owning 0.8 and agricultural workers 1.9). (Now the average is 9 bras).The post war babyboom created a need for maternity and nursing bras.
The 1950’s brought a demand for different materials, patterns and styles. Bras that were more stretchy and had more padding were introduced and later mastectomy bras.
From then on bras have evolved to fit the fashion of the day – whether lifting up, flattening or with plunging necklines. Unfortunately manufacturers have started to concentrate more on fashion than on comfort , fit and functionality.
Fun bra history fact: the 1968 demonstration by radical feminists at the Mis America Pageant did not include any bra burning. “The bras were symbolically thrown into a bin” says Susan Brown Miller author of American Feminine. “At the time draft-cards were burnt and it is thought that the bra burning myth was created by a smart headline writer because it sounded insulting to the then mew women’s movement.”