Here at Lingerie Stylist Blog we’ve discussed several histories, that of the corset, the peplum and even the nipple tassel but today we take on the big one. The foundation for many of our outfits, the beginning of our lingerie draws and the centre of the lingerie world – the bra. Normal as it may seem to us now, the bra is an incredible piece of engineering, made up of no less than 51 individual pieces on average, and is at the centre of a hotbed of debate about it’s origins. Let’s investigate.
The Ancient World 1600 BC – 1485 AD
Ancient Greece became the leader in many fashions we take for granted today. Although the bra as we know it today was a long way off, breast bands were very common and used for different purposes, hence by different names. The strophion for example, was more like a belt. Worn over or underneath the breasts, it accentuated them and can be seen to its best effect in classical statues, such as that of Artemis.
In addition to Artemis, figurines of the Snake Goddess can be seen with a garment supporting, emphasising and exposing the breasts. More like a corset in form, it is unknown how regularly these would have been worn by real women and if they were for style or practicality.
On a more functional level was the aposdesmos, a scarf type garment that fitted around the breasts and was tied or pinned at the back. These can be seen used for sport in wall paintings from the Minoan civilisation in Crete.
Later Romans adopted these garments, both for sport and the restricting of women’s breasts. In this case the aposdesmos would be made from leather and would be worn tightly, the women hoping it would prevent overly large or sagging breasts.
Running alongside these popular incarnations were other variants in different civilisations. In India a kanchuka was a fitted bodice and was worn by women for support as well as children beginning to develop. These are known as far back as 606 AD and gained huge popularity from 1336 at the start of the Vijayanagara Empire.
In China from 1368 a dudou was worn by wealthy women. Although translated as ‘belly cover’ they sometimes had cups and would cover the breasts, tied at the back. These days similar looking versions are worn as fashion tops, rather than functional bras and are considered part of the Chinese heritage.
In July 2008 during reconstruction of the Lenburg Castle in Austria, four linen examples were found of bras dating as far back as the year 1390. What was so exciting about this discovery was that unlike the banded bra types mentioned above in the ancient world, these featured distinct separate cups. This made them the most like the lingerie we know and love today, 500 years before we knew it existed. Some even featured embroidery. The closest referral to them is thought to be ‘breast bags’ (a slightly less flattering term!). Henri de Mondeville, a surgeon in France wrote “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.”- Cyrurgia, 1312.
Later in 2010 another exciting discovery was made in the storage facilities at the Science Museum – a push up bra dating back to the 1800s! What was incredible about this find is that it is padded and shaped – so not just for supporting the bust but very definitely enhancing it. Also it coincides with the time period corsets were still the norm – accounting for the bra type void between the ancient world and the 19th Century.
Around the beginning of the 19th Century, after the clothing reform and popularity of sports among women there were a variety of patents going forth from different individuals in different countries, but seemingly for different tasks to do with adorning the breasts!
Here are some examples:
1859 – Henry Lesher, USA. ‘Breast Pad and Perspiration Shield’
Purpose – to even the breast sizes with inflatable pads (‘to give a symmetrical rotundity’) and absorb perspiration.
1887 – Unknown, UK.
Purpose – Made of wire and silk it is possible it would have been for both support and shape assistance.
1889 – Herminie Cadolle, FRANCE. ‘Le Bien-Etre’ (The Well Being)
Purpose – A two piece set – the lower to support the waist, the upper to support the breasts with shoulder straps. Eventually in 1905 the upper half was sold on its own as a breast support.
1891 – Hugo Schindler, AUSTRIA
Purpose – An industrialist, he planned to replace the corset with this more practical invention. He wasn’t aware of other similar items but the patent was granted.
1893 – Mary Tucek, USA. ‘Breast Supporter’
Purpose – to support the breasts for empire dresses. It was to be made of cardboard or metal shaped to the body and covered with silk.
1914 – Mary Phelps Jacob, USA, ‘Backless Brassiere’
Purpose – her corset showed through her evening gown in 1913 so she made her own bra with ribbon and handkerchiefs. By 1914 she had it patented and began to sell it.
Whoever you assign the credit to, in 1907 the term brassiere was used in Vogue. This well and truly launched the bra in it’s own right and by 1911 it was in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Then at the time of war in 1917 the US War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to reduce the use of steel. It is estimated 28,000 tonnes of metal were saved.
Varying bra fashions followed – the Flappers of the 20’s liked to flatten the breasts, and it wasn’t until 1922 cup sizes were introduced. Then there were the bullet bras of the 1940’s & 50’s, push up bras of the 60’s, natural ‘nipple show’ bras of the 70’s, back to the ‘lift and separate’ styles of the 80’s and 90’s to today.
Today anything goes – from minimiser bras to 2 sizes bigger bras, lace only bras to gel and memory foam bras, strapless, backless, the choice is yours.
It can also be what you want it to be – an everyday support existing purely as a foundation or part of a racy lingerie set enhancing your sensuality. The bra has as many guises as the varieties of women who wear it.
So let’s see what the next century brings for this everyday and yet incredible piece of kit.
What was your favourite time in bra history?