A lot of us probably wear bras just about every day. (Except weekends, because nobody has time for that.) Whether you feel like bras are wonderful or awful probably has a lot to do with how recently you got a new one and how well it fits. Yesterday, I would have said bras were the devil and we should all start burning them for real. Today my order arrived from ASOS and now I have nothing but good things to say about my new bra and its magical boob-sweat-curing properties.
But where did bras come from? Read on for a brief, only slightly padded history of the brassiere…
The world’s oldest bra:
For a long time it was assumed that bras were a relatively recent invention, and that our foremothers wore corsets, smocks, and linen undergarments, but were bereft of supportive undergarments with cups for the breasts. But recently archaeologists in a castle in Austria found linen undergarments with “distinctly cut cups” from the mid-15th century.
19th century developments:
In the 19th century there were many garments that looked like what we would consider bras. There were structured “bust improvers” meant to fill out the silhouette over a woman’s corset, some of which were heavily padded. Dress reformers, who objected to corsets, could wear bust supporters that actually looked quite a bit like bras. Olivia Flynt of Boston patented one in 1876:
“The garment fitted to the form prevents the bust from descending uncomfortably low, or below that position on the body requisite to conform the outline of the bust to the true artistic outline of the human frame, the garment preserving and producing a more comely outline and comfortable feeling than a corset.”
1907: It gets a name!
The first known use of the word “brassiere” turned up in American Vogue in 1907.
1914: The first official bra
American socialite Mary Phelps-Jacobs patented the first bra in 1914. It was just two handkerchiefs sewn together with ribbon straps, but it made a more fashionably slim silhouette under her slinky, teens-era gown than the boned corset she was trying to wear.
“The result was delicious,” she said in her autobiography. “I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”
Phelps-Jacobs eventually sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. They made millions.
Ida and William Rosenthal and Enid Bissett sold women’s dresses, but they thought the flat-chested flapper look was unflattering as heck. (Boobs don’t disappear just because they’re out of fashion.) So they invented a cupped model called the “Maiden Form Brassiere” to go under their dresses. Everyone liked the new two-boob silhouette so much the company eventually stopped making dresses and just made the bras.
Frederick’s of Hollywood has always been about sexy, even at the beginning. Owner Frederick Mellinger is credited with being the first person to start padding brassieres and constructing them to push breasts up and together. (Though those early “bust improvers” could be pretty heavily padded themselves.) Mellinger is also credited with introducing the thong in the U.S. in the 80s.
1977: The sports bra.
We all know why sports bras are necessary today, but they’re a relatively recent development. The “Jogbra” was invented in the late 70s by two women who were sick of trying to go jogging in regular bras. According to Neatorama, the first prototype was made of two jockstraps sewn together. It’s now in the Smithsonian.
1990s: The Wonderbra
Wonderbra was a big deal in the 70s, and it made a big comeback in the 1990s. This really was my favorite bra in the 90s, but when I go back and watch old TV shows from that era I can tell from the silhouettes that everyone is wearing one. It’s a little distracting.
2000s: The Water Bra
For a brief period in the 2000s, everyone was obsessed with these water-filled bras. They were supposed to enhance the bust in a way that was more appealing or advantageous than just cotton or Kleenex. Really, everyone just wandered around in desperate fear of pins.
2014: No bra.
(Photos: Giphy, WENN)