The History And Evolution Of The Bra
Bras may be a big part of your everyday routine -- who among us hasn’t counted down the minutes to when we can take off our bras? -- but have you ever wondered about the who, what, when, and why behind the modern bra? From the dreaded corset to the iconic bullet to the seemingly endless designs we have today, read on to discover everything you need to know about the history and evolution of the bra.
Who Invented The Bra And Why?
While some people may credit a specific person for inventing the bra or pin its invention to a certain time period, there is no single, definitive answer as to who invented the bra. In fact, there are multiple inventors. Bras date back centuries: From the rudimentary, simple piece of cloth to full-fledged push-up bra, each generation has offered its own spin on these supportive undergarments. Beyond support, bras represent different fashion styles, expressions of sexuality, and the culture of that particular era.
What Was Used Before Bras?
What was used as a bra before the modern bra was invented varies by culture, geographic location, and era, among other factors. While some early cultures didn’t wear bras at all, others took cloth in the shape of a bandeau and wore it around their breasts. Over time, women began to wear corsets and girdles designed more to shape their bodies (uncomfortably at that) than to support breasts, although they did provide lift. While these early relics may not be what we think of when we think of bras today, their use paved the way for the modern bra and all its iterations.
Evolution Of The Bra By Decade
Bras have come a long way over the years -- well, more like centuries. From a one-size-fits-all cloth to the development of the “cup,” you could say things have changed drastically over time. Read on to discover what bras were popular during specific time periods and how they’ve evolved.
14th Century: The Bandeau
During the 14th century, many women would go braless under their dresses. However, when it came to sports and certain outings, women would wear a cloth over their breasts, similar to a bandeau top. The purpose of this cloth was to support and to flatten their boobs, rather than enhance or lift. Furthermore, during this time period, wearing bras wasn’t a common thing like it is today. They were only worn to support the bust during sports or used to reduce their appearance, not for everyday dressing.
Source: Getty Images
16th Century: The Corset
The 16th century is well known for the invention of the corset. While the corset wasn’t technically a bra, it did shape and raise women’s breasts, although they still flattened boobs much like the 14th-century “bandeau” style cloth.
The 16th century corset was shaped like a cone and often outfitted with a long piece of wood, whalebone, or buckram (a glue-stiffened canvas) to give it body. Importantly, corsets weren’t widely regarded as uncomfortable during this era; that notion stems from the waist-cinching trends that emerged in later centuries.
What changed most of all was the purpose of the bra during this era. While the 14th century focused on hiding breasts, the 16th century corset was all about accentuating them! Importantly, the corset marked a transition in fashion where women attempted to change their body shape to fit the fashions of the time, including gowns with lower necklines that accentuated the bustline.
1869: The Split Corset
In 1869, the first “official” bra was created by the French designer Herminie Cadolle. He created this bra by splitting a corset into two parts: A top to support the breasts and a bottom to shape the waist. The top consisted of two straps to hold up the breasts, in what became the first iteration of the modern day bra. During this time, the split corset was sold in two parts; it wasn’t until 1905 when the bra was sold separately.
Source: Runway Magazine
Victorian Era (19th Century): Corsets
“Rigid” was the name of the game when it came to Victorian-era clothing. The corset responded in kind, with designs that cinched waists as small as they could possibly go to accommodate the popular gowns of the time. This corset design typically didn’t leave much room for boobs to breathe. They also created a “monoboob” look, offering no lift and shape to accentuate breasts.
Edwardian Era (early 20th Century): Girdle
During the Edwardian Era, women stepped away from the stiff board corsets in exchange for girdles. The early iterations of this garment consisted of weaving a fabric tie in and out from a woman's butt to her breasts (but not covering her breasts), creating an “S” silhouette. In fact, this design was spearheaded by a doctor, who believed that this shape would be better for a woman’s health without impacting the desired look of the era. It took until the Roaring 20s for the corset to be abandoned altogether in favor of the modern bra.
1907: The "Brassiere"
In 1907, Vogue called Cadolle’s bra design (the top half of the split corset) the “Brassiere,” giving this garment its modern name for the first time. This term was added to the Oxford Dictionary by 1911.
1910: The Modern Bra
Although Cadolle invented the first bra piece, the design still lacked comfort. It wasn’t until 1910 when New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) came up with the first modern bra design. Her bra consisted of two silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon, creating a comfy backless design that didn’t poke out of her dress. She patented her design and eventually sold it to the Warner Brothers Corset Company.
1932: Cup Sizes Are Introduced
It wasn’t until the 1930s when mass production of bras amped up and the term “brassiere” became “bra.” Beforehand, bras were manufactured on a limited scale.
In 1932, S.H. Camp and Company created the first sizing scale for bra cups. Instead of using the old one-size-fits-all, the company created sizes using letters representing different women’s breast sizes. The letters consisted of A, B, C, and D, the same scale we use today. Before cup sizing, many manufacturers relied on stretchy fabric to accommodate different sizes.
1940s: Torpedo Style
The torpedo style was first introduced in the 1940s when women began to transition from staying at home to working in factories and in other laborious jobs during World War II. When they worked in the factories, these women found a need for a bra that contained more padding and protection. The Torpedo bra featured thick straps, heavier padding, and full coverage to offer that protection and support.
The 1940s also brought with it the invention of the padded bra, introduced in 1947 by Frederick Mellinger of Frederick’s of Hollywood fame. He also created an early iteration of the pushup bra, although that didn’t take flight until the 1960s -- more on that later.
1950s: The Bullet Bra Makes Its Iconic Debut; Underwire And Strapless Bras Gain Steam
After World War II, bras of all different fabrics, shapes, patterns, and designs began to emerge. By the 1950s, the iconic “bullet bra” made its debut. Made famous by bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, this bra used spiral stitching to create a torpedo-like appearance at the center of each breast.
The bullet bra had a similar structure and feel to the 1940s bra, but added a more, shall we say, defined appearance. Its pointy design was praised as a great bra for women of varying breast sizes, while women with smaller chests celebrated the not-so-drastic enhancement the bullet bra gave them.
The 1950s also brought with it the rise in the underwire bra. While it had been invented decades earlier in the 1800s and became more widely available in the 1930s, the ‘50s was the first decade during which underwires really gained popularity.
With the rise in strapless gown prevalence came an uptick in strapless bra sales as well. While this bra had also been invented decades earlier, the fashions of the time shaped the need for a different type of undergarment that didn’t show.
1964: The Pushup Bra Makes Waves
While women liked the accentuated look of the bullet bra, it didn’t provide the “oomph” that we now associate with push-up bras. Canadian designer Louise Poirier created the first pushup bra and patented its design through Wonderbra. This deep plunge bra was designed to lift and push breasts together, creating unforgettable cleavage and starting a new era of undergarments. For women with smaller breasts or ones who wanted a little lift, this invention was a game-changer, bringing back the pushup effect of the corset without any of the discomfort or impracticality.
1977: The First Sports Bra Entered The Market
For all the advantages the modern bra brought, there’s one area that didn’t come along for the ride: Bras designed for movement. As more women participated in sports and started workout routines, designers realized that women were in need of a bra that was restrictive and supportive, yet comfortable. The sports bra traces its origins to the theater, where the prototype was made from two jock straps sewn together. The “jockbra,” as it was jokingly called, was renamed “jogbra,” and the sports bra was born.
Made with stay-in-place elastic, this bra provided full coverage and a high degree of support to keep breasts secure during movement. Nowadays, you’ll see sports bras of all styles and levels of comfort.
2000s and 2010s: New Designs Make Their Way Onto The Scene
Clearly, bras have come a long way throughout the decades. While many of the first bras were invented before the 2000s, it wasn’t until then when bras began to carry more design options. Here are two to start:
- Memory foam. In 2009, the first memory foam bra was created. The high tech memory foam used in this bra provided never-before-experienced shaping and contouring while keeping the wearer cool during movement. The memory foam came in varying designs, shapes, and styles for every need.
- Bejeweled. Adorned by stars, musicians, and runway models, bejeweled bras turned underwear into a statement piece for performance and art. Coupled with push-up designs, some of the most expensive bras ever made -- including the famous $1 million Swarovski crystal bra that walked the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2018 -- were an unforgettable, bejeweled sight to see.
- Modern mastectomy bras. Since their invention decades earlier, mastectomy bras were rigid, medical, and overall “blah” looking. Searching for alternatives and coming up empty, enterprising breast cancer survivors like Dana Donofree set out to design their own line of appealing and desirable mastectomy bras that offered soft, underwire-free fabric that wouldn’t rub against scars, pockets to hold breast forms, and a high degree of adjustability. Finally, a new era in mastectomy bras was ushered in.
The 2020s: Comfort Is Key
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting uptick in more time spent working from home and spending at home has encouraged the rise in comfort over everything. Underwires and tight straps were exchanged for bralettes and soft bras, which saw an uptick in sales during the pandemic. Caresse Crosby was onto something more than 100 years earlier -- people want to be cozy and don’t want to feel restricted by their clothing.
The Bras Of Today Are Inclusive And Comfortable
Today’s bra market is unrecognizable from its earliest days. Now, many bra designs, styles, and lines are inclusive of folks of all gender identities and experiences and those who’ve had life changes that dramatically reshaped their boobs. The bra once again is designed to support the wearer, and not to accommodate for the clothing and fashions of the time. At AnaOno, we’re proud to be at the forefront of this “boob inclusive” movement!