The bra has had a fascinating history through the centuries, often indicative of society and fashion of the time. Want to know how a woman's figure was revered in the Victorian era? How about what was fashionable during the Ming Dynasty in China? Whatever your query is, you can usually look to the bra for answers.
Bras in Ancient Times
In ancient times, most women went bare-breasted. One historical account of the bra dates all the way back to India, during the rule of king Harshavardhana in the 1st century CE. These brassieres were tight-fitting bodices worn by women and girls alike.
Greece may be the birthplace of the restraining bra movement, as corsets were used to support the breasts, but not cover them up. This, however, was outerwear and not underwear. In Classical Greece, women wore a band of cloth to bind the breasts in order to exercise and compete in women's sports.
Bras During the Renaissance
Fast forward to the Renaissance. In the 16th century, corsets were widely used among women to promote form, thrusting the breasts up and nearly out, flattening the torso. The corset persevered hundreds of years later, flourishing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. While the style and placement fluctuated with women becoming more involved in physical activities, it still remained a popular undergarment for obtaining the ideal silhouette.
But that would change as more women came forward, advocating reform of the Victorian dress. One major argument against the traditional dress was tightlacing and its harmful effects. Doctors and health professionals did not recommend its use. Journalists and reformers bashed it, condemning women for sacrificing their health for vanity.
Bras In the 19th Century
By the 19th century, the bra emerged. It wasn't an invention by one person, but rather a gradual evolution made possible by several different people around the same time. In 1859, a bra-like device was patented by Henry S. Lesher. This undergarment made the breasts appear full and symmetrical. Four years later, Luman L. Chapman patented another bra marketed as a corset substitute. But the modern bra wouldn't be invented until 1889 by Herminie Cadolle. It basically split the corset in two partsone for the waist, the other for the breasts. It was the latter that really caught on as it supported the breasts using shoulder straps. By 1905 this upper part was being sold separately.
Not to be outdone, Marie Tucek received a U.S. patent for her version of the bra in 1893. This model more closely resembled the modern bra of today with its separate pockets for each breast, metal support, shoulder straps, and hook-and-eye closure. Unfortunately, it didn't catch on. Another American woman patented her bra in 1914. Mary Phelps Jacob was her name, and she fashioned her lightweight, comfortable brassiere out of two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. While the idea had potential, it too never quite got off the ground. She later sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company.
Bras In the 20th Century
The birth year of the bra is generally considered to be 1907. In October of that year, the word 'brassiere' was first used in a Vogue magazine ad. Since then, the bra has been through quite a lot, feeling the effects of World War II, changing the way women look at their bodies through the 1950s, surviving the backlash and burning of the counterculture movement. Today, the bra is a common article in nearly every woman's dresser. Some question whether it will go the route of pantyhose and garter belts, but for now, it remains a popular and comfortable method of support.