Fashion + Lingerie

A history of the bra

While many of us are spending more time at home and swapping our wired bras for a sports bra, or even no bra, we take a quick look back at the history of the bra.

September 13, 2020

Table of Contents

Of all the items in our wardrobes during quarantine, it’s fair to say that the bra has not been top of our daily attire. Indeed the piece of underwear, normally wired, is probably gathering dust at this rate as many of us favour something a little less constricting and more comfortable. The slower pace of life for many of us, as we work from home or get out and about, means that we can, in essence, get away with not wearing a bra, or certainly not the conventional, wired one anyway. 

I’ve ended up throwing out two underwired bras and am now down to three black ones, as I find myself reaching for my comfy, familiar sports bra. While I do like wired bras, I hate the marks from them and the general quality of some of them. I have sports bras that are three years old and still in perfect condition. Is there something to be said for forgoing the wired bra? I’m certainly thinking about it. 

With all this in mind, I’ve taken a look back on the history of the bra. After years of watching period dramas like Pride and Prejudice, I was curious to find out more. 

Over the years, bras have been evolving, changing and adapting as they are influenced by fashion, culture, and sexual tastes of the times. Whether it was Madonna’s iconic Jean Paul Gaultier Cone Bra or Britney’s iconic looks, there was the rise of all things Fifty Shades and the long-anticipated opening of Victoria’s Secret in Dublin.

The 16th Century saw the rise of the corset, originating in France. The aim of the corset was to help give women, what was considered back then, to be the perfect figure. This inverted cone shape, almost hourglass-like. They were made with a long piece of wood or whalebone sewn into the casing.

The early corset pushed the breasts up and together, causing the tops of the breasts to spill out of the tops of dresses for a shelf-like bust effect. The corset would live on as a popular woman’s undergarment for nearly four centuries.

In 1889, French designer Herminie Cadolle created The Split Corset by cutting a corset in two which created two separate undergarments. The top section supported the breasts by means of straps, while the lower piece cinched and shaped the waist.

Moving to the early 19th century, the term “Brassiere'' came about, with American Vogue, referring to the top section of Herminie Cadolle’s split corset. 

As things progressed, 1914 saw the creation of the first modern bra by New York City socialite Mary Phelps Jacob. It was created using two silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. Also called the “backless bra,” her invention was lightweight, soft, comfortable, and naturally separated the breasts. The idea for the bra came about as Mary was tired of wearing tight-fitting corsets when she was out socialising at parties and balls. 

Four years later, in 1918, we began to witness the fall of the corset as World War I caused a steep decline in corset use in the United States. The U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up the metal for war production. Reportedly, this saved about 28,000 tons of metal, which was then used to create two battleships. Women were also entering the workforce in great numbers at the time and the stiff and constricting corset wasn’t considered practical or appropriate to wear to work.

The roaring 1920s saw the introduction of the bandeau trend which was aimed at small-chested and spend-figured flappers who graced the fashion scene. The aim of the bandeau tops was to flatten breasts and give women a more “boyish” silhouette. Bandeau tops are still about today, but might be commonly known as a “boob tube”. 

Finally, in 1930, we heard the term “bra” for the first time as brassieres were now known as bras. The idea of cup-size also came about from S.H. Camp and Company who created the first cup sizing scale, which correlated the sizes of women’s breasts to different letters, resulting in the A, B, C, D scale, still used today. This allowed bras to evolve from one-size-fits-all to a better fit and accommodate and cater to more women. This is something, that perhaps, we still haven’t got quite right, particularly for those women on either end of the scale. Other new innovations added to bras in the 1930s included adjustable straps, padded cups and hook-and-eye closures.

As we head for 1947, we get our first push up bra and the concept of cleavage is born. Frederick Mellinger, the man behind the famous brand Frederick’s of Hollywood, introduced the first padded bra. About a year later, he released the first push-up bra. Ultimately, this completely changed the face of fashion and what was considered “sexy” for years to come. 

Moving into a new decade, the 1950s saw the first Bullet Bra. After World War II, bra manufacturers began creating bras using different fabrics, colours, patterns, and shapes. It was during this decade that Hollywood starlets like Patti Page, Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner popularized the cone-shaped, spiral-stitched bullet bra. The early 1960s came along and so did the Wonderbra! Designer Louise Poirier from the Canadian company Canadelle created the first-ever Wonderbra in 1964. Although it was created in 1964, it didn’t really become popular until the 1990s.

Lastly, in 1977, as fitness became more popular, women needed a bra with more support. And so, the first sports bra, also known as the “Jogbra” came on the scene. Now known as the sports bra, it caters for women of all shapes and sizes. 

Our final stop on the history of the bra is the grand entrance of the Memory Foam Bra. 

The Smart Memory Bra, the first memory foam bra, was created in 2009. The cups of this bra are made from high-tech memory foam that conforms to the shape of your chest and reacts to body temperature and moves as you move.

In 2018, we saw the world first compostable zero-waste bra and underwear company set up The Very Good Bra. Created by Sydney based lingerie designer Stephanie Devine, The Very Good Bra is made of eucalyptus Lenzing Tencel that is knitted and dyed in Melbourne; organic, sustainably-farmed tree rubber from the Philippines that is knitted and dyed in Austria and organic cotton from India for the hook and eye.

What’s next? As we emerge out of lockdown, will we go back to our old wired bras of the past? Or could this be the rise of the bralette? Or maybe even a return to bralessness?

Dáirne is a marketing professional from Dublin. She's passionate about making small sustainable changes to her lifestyle that can be kept up long term. Little changes add up. She loves to run, the outdoors, and relaxing with comedy.

Dáirne Black

Dáirne is a marketing professional from Dublin. She's passionate about making small sustainable changes to her lifestyle that can be kept up long term. Little changes add up. She loves to run, the outdoors, and relaxing with comedy.