Ask any woman what one of the most difficult pieces of clothing to get a good fit is, and she’ll tell you, a bra. In comparison to the first bras of the twentieth century, we have it a lot easier. The
dramatic change in the shape, style and material of which undergarments have undergone is amazing! From rib-crushing bodices and corsets, to push-up strapless and whipped silicone, women through the century have seen it all.
The beginning of what is now referred to as a bra, or a bust bodice prior to that, was first reported in Vogue Magazine in 1907. The term brassiere was the most widely used, as it meant support in French. Between about 1910 and 1914, designers were promoting a simple breast-retaining garment that was better for the simple, straight dress styles of the time. They were similar to the camisole tops we have currently, without much definition, and had no support.
A woman named Mary Phelps-Jacobs soon replaced the simple brassiere of the time with her own design. She was frustrated by the fit of her corset, and fashioned a new style using two handkerchiefs and some ribbon. After all her friends asked for their own, she decided to patent her invention under the name Caresse Crosby. In 1915 Mary sold the rights to her bra to Warner, and a few years later the company was valued at over fifteen million.
All the way up to the 1930’s not much changed in shape or style, only that the name was widely dropped from brassiere to bra. During the thirties a textile company, Dunlop, had chemists that transformed latex into a reliable elastic thread. This thread was made into yarn, and then knitted into a stretchy fabric. As the thirties moved on with elastic fabrics, so sprung most of the well-known names in lingerie. This is also when companies were manufacturing bras with separate cups using lace and net for the first time. In 1935 Warner’s introduced cup sizing, with four sizes, A, B, C and D, and bosoms were abolished as the two separate breasts were acknowledged.
During the depression and wartime era, everything that could be utilitarian was, including the bra, which meant that they were made from minimal fabric and were usually ordered, not made in advance. It was common to see a marked tag specifying it as a utilitarian brassiere. This continued up through the 1950’s, when it became popular for women to make their own bras from paper patterns, using parachute silk and old wedding dresses. As the United States entered the late 50’s, glamour was the new fad, as women watched movie stars wearing trendy clothes after being deprived during the war.
The sixties is one of the more memorable decades for the bra, as it was the bra-burning era. As new sheer, light fashion was introduced, some companies proposed the idea of not wearing a bra at all. Somehow, this was twisted into a feminist move; take off the bra and be free. Though some women chose to do this, the majority of women did not abandon their bra, but did start to realize it was not required to sleep in a bra to keep breasts supported. As bras moved into the 70’s, many had a fine layer of foam latex rubber attatched to the fabric that gave the appearance of a firm, pointy shape. This design was combined with a slip, and commonly called the bra slip, because it was nothing more than a bra and slip combined into one undergarment. These were great for the new short, skimpy dresses of the time. The other major bras of the time were seamless, essential to wear under t-shirts to give a no-bra natural look. Manufacturers were also become more exploratory, offering patterned and flesh-colored options.
As the decade came to an end, and the 80’s began, sequin and Day-glo “boob tubes” became the popular craze after the disco scene. These were brightly colored simple, stretchy and strapless; perfect for tube tops. This was a short fad, and soon gave way to the bodysuits, teddies and camisoles of the mid-80’s. The teddie/bra combination became popular, especially for the now body-conscious women, because it lifted and supported, but was also comfortable and flattering for the explosion of surgically enhanced breasts.
The 1990’s brought interest to the bra; it was the return of cleavage. As actresses and movie stars became bolder, so did the popularity of the severely cone-shaped breasts made popular by Madonna. It was a combination of several decades’ designs, and though not comfortable, it was definitely trendy. This was also the birth time of the Miracle Bra, one that could transform any smaller-sized woman into a busty goddess. These were heavily padded, and designed to lift and bring the bosom together. On the opposite end of the spectrum, was a company called Bioform Bra. These bras were suited for all sizes, but for the first time cup sizes up to G were included. These became, and still are, very popular because of the comfort and reshaping abilities of the new bra for large breasted women.
The trends have changed some since the 90’s, but most styles seem to be very similar to those today. With the addition of breast enhancement by ‘whipped silicone’, and braless bras, our undergarment options have not changed too much since the middle of the last decade.
Though the changes seem dramatic and ever changing, when the bra is examined over a hundred-year period the idea has remained the same. Two cups, a couple straps and support is all a bra really is. As trends come and go, so will the different shapes and styles of women’s undergarments, but whether it be handkerchiefs and ribbon, or lycra and silicone we will probably always see the existence and transformation of bras.
Mothers of Invention, Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek
William Morrow and Company, INC. New York, copyright 1988
Inventing Beauty, Teresa Riordan
Broadway Books New York, copyright 2004
Fashion For Era, Pauline Weston Thomas
Casche Publishing New York, copyright 1997