Bra History: Minimal innovation in 60 years!
A brassière – or bra – is a form-fitting undergarment mainly designed to cover and support a woman’s breasts for practical and/or aesthetical reasons. It’s a clothing accessory that every woman is familiar with, even if they choose not to wear one.
Ok, most people already know what a bra is. But do you know how this item came to be? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, you never thought about it, right? I’ll be honest, neither did I until I started working on Infiniti Bra. So let’s dive deeper! 😊
Let’s go way back
Women have been covering and supporting their breasts for ages. The first bra may well date back to ancient Greece, where women would wrap bands of wool or linen across their breasts and tie or pin them in the back. But the modern history of bras only started in the 16th century, and is inextricably intertwined with the social history of women’s status, especially the changing views of the female body and the evolution of female fashion.
The first bra’s ancestor appeared in France in the early 1500s and was called a corset. This garment covered most of a woman’s torso, giving support and lift to her breasts, while cinching in her waist and hips giving them a smooth and curved shape, one that was very popular for that era. Corsets were often strengthened with actual whale bone. Ugh, I don’t know about you girls, but its description alone gives me a backache!
As you can imagine, the corset was very difficult to put on and take off, was extremely uncomfortable and made it hard to breath. That being said, this body-cinching device remained popular for the next four centuries.
Shift from corsets to the girdle
In the late 19th century, we finally saw a shift from corsets to an early form of what we now call the girdle. The corset’s weaving and busk (the rigid element of a corset) moved from the back to the front, forcing the torso forward and the hips to jut outward, making a woman’s figure more of an “S” shape.
In Europe, the declining popularity and evolution of corsets and girdles was driven by two mains factors. The first being major physical concerns, highlighted by health professionals, about the cruel, constraining effects that the corset and girdle had on the female body. The second was the emergence of the clothing reform movement driven by feminists (like the Rational Dress Society) which saw that greater participation of women in society would require emancipation from corsetry.
From these constricting contraptions the brassiere was imagined.
Who invented the brassière?
There are considerable differences of opinion as to who invented the modern brassière. A large number of European patents for bra-like devices were actually granted through the 19th century, but many researchers and historians seem to agree on the corselet gorge, later called le bien-être (the well-being), as being the first modern bra. Herminie Cadolle, its French creator, had the wonderful idea to cut the traditional corset in two: the lower part was a waist corset and the upper part supported the breasts with added shoulder straps. She patented her invention in France and showed it at the Great Exhibition of 1889 (the centennial year of the French Revolution). By the time Cadolle refined her invention for another exhibition in 1900, and again in 1905, the top part – known as the soutien-gorge which literally translatesto throat supporter, and is still the name for bras in France, was being marketed on its own. The bra was born!
In the meantime, in 1893, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, another Europeanwoman named Marie Tucek received a U.S patent for her breast supporter. This bra like device included separate pockets for the breasts and straps that went over the shoulders and fastened by hook-and-eyes. This invention more closely resembled what we now call the bra, and was a precursor to the underwire bra.
More support for bras
Over the years, bras got more and more support -no pun intended- around the world, but they were still considered an at-home undergarment. At the end of the 19th century, for the high society in the U.S. for example, the corset was still the only acceptable intimate clothing, even with its indelicate whalebone.
Not for long though… In 1910, Mary Phelps Jacob, a 19-year-old New York socialite was invited to a ball. She purchased an elegant evening gown for the occasion but Mary had a slight problem: she had large breasts and the whale boned corset visibly poked out of her plunging neckline and was noticeable under the sheer fabric. Dissatisfied with this look, she worked with her French maid to fix two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord to carry her breasts. Her innovation drew immediate attention that evening and, at the request of family and friends, she made more of the item and decided to start a viable business. In 1914, she was issued a U.S. patent for the Backless Bra, a device that was lightweight, soft and comfortable, and separated the breasts – the total opposite of the corset.
Crosby later sold the bra patent to the Warners Corset Company for the equivalent of $22,452 in today’s money. Warners manufactured the Crosby bra for a while, but it did not become a popular style. They made a few changes and over 30 years, they earned more than $15 million from the patent.
What’s in a name?
But why is it called brassière, you wonder? The term brassière is thought to have originated with the American lingerie company DeBevoise who used the term in advertisements for its whale-bone-supported camisoles at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then as it still does now, the French language had a certain je ne sais quoi with English speaking customers. For those who expect a glamorous explanation, this is the moment when I get to disappoint you… a lot. The French word “brassière” comes from the older French word “bracière” (exact same pronunciation) which was a type of military armor worn over a soldier’s chest.
The “brassiere” later referred to a type of shirt that a little child would wear and then it was used to describe a type of undershirt that used to support the breasts, and then, to what would generally be known as the modern brassiere, or bra. Vogue also began talking about brassieres in 1907. And, in 1911, the word merited an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Battleships or bras?
Bras quickly became more common and widely promoted over the course of the 1910s, aided by the continuing trend towards lighter and less containing corsets, and in large part because of World War I which shook up gender roles for the first time by putting many women to work in factories while wearing uniforms. In 1917, at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in WWI, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This was said to have saved some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships while enhancing the bras development. The same request was made all around the world and the bra became an international item, but had very little to do with fashion.
In the 1940s, women wanted to accentuate their femininity since they were working in factories and manual labor jobs, which were traditionally masculine occupations. Frederick Mellinger, the man behind the famous brand Frederick’s of Hollywood, had the marvelous idea to develop and introduce the first padded bra, which increased comfort and style. In 1948, he released the first push-up bra which allowed women to flaunt their breasts with a little extra lift. This changed the face of fashion and what was considered sexy and feminine for years to come. During this time Mellinger also designed the front-hook bra and differing colors and styles. Mellinger’s contributions to the evolution of the bra helped to transform the bra from a utilitarian garment, to a stylish piece of clothing that could also function as lingerie.
In the 1950s, the cone-shaped, spiral-stitched bullet bra with its axis perpendicular to the breast was popularized by Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner. But its popularity, along with its exaggerated look, quickly faded away in the 1960s, partly because of the newly popular feminist philosophy which believed that bras were a sexist tool placed on women by men. Women started burning their bras, or threatening to do so, and began going bra-less. Also during this time, new bra designs emerged, including lighter and softer bra cups. In addition, in 1964, the Canadian company Canadelle created the first Wonderbra, just in time for the sexual revolution. It promised to lift and enhance, letting women experiment with their cleavage.
The evolution stopped
Since then, bras haven’t evolved much. Uh? You disagree? Okay, let me explain.
No longer exclusively a never-to-be-seen undergarment, bras do come in elegant shapes, fabrics and colors. We have sport bras, maternity bras, push-up bras, underwired and non-wired bras, convertible bras, strapless bras, and so on. But the bra system itself and its design haven’t changed much!
100 years ago, a bra was a one-piece garment that your body needed to adapt to, and still in 2020 it is the same! In that sense, bras haven’t evolved much, have they?
At Infiniti Touch™, we want to change this approach and we are reinventing the bra to create one that adapts and grows with your body and not the reverse! Although bras have been around for over a century, one huge thing that also needs to be improved is their fit. It’s hard, because like women, breasts are unique, and developing a simple economical series of bras that fit well remains a huge challenge. Well, it’s a challenge we are taking at Infiniti Touch™!