The history of bras is inextricably intertwined with the social history of the status of women, including the evolution of fashion and changing views of the female body.
Women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, reveal, or modify the appearance of breasts. Bra or bikini-like garments are depicted on some female athletes in the 14th century BC during the Minoan civilization era. From the 14th century onward, the undergarments of wealthier women in the West were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 19th century, women experimented with various alternatives such as splitting the corset into a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso and transferring the upper part to devices suspended from the shoulder.
In the late 19th century, bras replaced the corset as the most widely-used means of breast support.
By the early 20th century, garments more closely resembling contemporary bras had emerged, although large-scale commercial production did not occur until the 1930s. Since then bras have replaced corsets (although some women prefer camisoles) and a minority go without. The metal shortages of World War II encouraged the end of the corset. By the time the war ended, most fashion-conscious women in Europe and North America were wearing bras. From there the bra was adopted by women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, although we have no information about what arrangements, if any, immediately preceded the adoption of the bra across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
During the 20th century, greater emphasis has been given to the fashion aspects of bras. The manufacture of bras is a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by large multinational corporations.
Like other clothing, bras were initially sewn by small production companies and supplied to various retailers. The term “cup” was not used to describe bras until 1916, and manufacturers relied on stretchable cups to accommodate different sized breasts. Women with larger or pendulous breasts had the choice of long-line bras, built-up backs, wedge-shaped inserts between the cups, wider straps, power Lastex, firm bands under the cup, and even light boning.
In October 1932, the S.H. Camp and Company correlated the size and pendulousness of a woman’s breasts to letters of the alphabet: A, B, C and D. Camp’s advertising featured letter-labeled profiles of breasts in the February 1933 issue of Corset and Underwear Review.
In 1937, Warner began to feature cup sizing in its products. Adjustable bands were introduced using multiple eye and hook positions in the 1930s.
There is an urban legend that the bra was invented by a man named Otto Titzling (“tit sling”) who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Bra (“fill up the bra”). This originated with the 1971 book Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra and was propagated in a comedic song from the movie Beaches.
In ancient Egypt, women were generally bare breasted. The most common items of female attire were the skirt and the sheath dress, also described as a tunic or kalasiris, a rectangular piece of cloth that was folded once and sewn down the edge to make a tube. The kalasiris might cover one or both shoulders or be worn with shoulder straps. While the top could reach anywhere from below the breast to the neck, the bottom hem generally touched the ankles. A variant was a single cross strap, partially over the left breast. The shorter kalasiris was mostly worn by common women or slaves, to be more comfortable when working.
Although the majority of female figures in ancient Indian sculptures are devoid of a blouse, there are several instances of ancient Indian women wearing bras. The first historical reference to bras in India is found during the rule of King Harshavardhana (1st century AD). Sewn bras and blouses were very much in vogue during the Vijayanagara empire and the cities brimmed with tailors who specialized in tight fitting of these garments. The half-sleeved tight bodice or kanchuka figures prominently in the literature of the period, especially Basavapurana (1237 AD), which says kanchukas were worn by young girls as well.
Wearing a specialized garment designed to restrain a woman’s breasts may date back to ancient Greece. Wall paintings in Crete, the center of the Minoan civilization, show a woman performing athletics in what has been described as a “bikini.” Minoan women on the island of Crete 3,000 years ago apparently wore garments that partially supported and also revealed their breasts; the best known example of this style is the Snake Goddess. Their clothing looked somewhat like modern fitted and laced corsets or a corselette. The support device was worn outside other clothing and supported and exposed the breasts, pushing them upwards and making them more visible. The succeeding Mycenae civilization emphasized the breast, which had a special cultural and religious significance, associating the mature figure with fertility and procreation.
Women in Classical Greece are often depicted loosely draped in diaphanous garments, or with one breast exposed. Women wore an apodesmos (Greek: ἀπόδεσμος, later stethodesmē (Gr: στηθοδέσμη), mastodesmos (Gr: μαστόδεσμος) and mastodeton (Gr: μαστόδετον), all meaning “breast-band,” a band of wool or linen that was wrapped across the breasts and tied or pinned at the back.
A belt could also be fastened over a simple tunic-like garment or undergarment, just below the breasts or over the breasts. When the apodesmos was worn under the breasts, it accentuated them. Another word for a breast-band or belt was strophion (Gr: στρόφιον). A further term was kestós (Gr: κεστός, Latin: cestus), used specifically for Aphrodite’s charmed girdle in the Iliad, whose power was to make every woman who wore it irresistible to men. In view of its association with the love goddess, this type of garment probably had an erotic connotation because of its effect to accentuate the breast.
The basic item of classical Greek costume was the peplos, later the chiton (two rectangular pieces of cloth partially sewn together on both sides, with a 30 to 38 centimetres (12 to 15 in) overfold or apoptygma), which evolved into the chemise, the most common item of underclothing worn by men and women for hundreds of years (also variously known as a smock or shift). In Sparta, women usually wore the chiton completely open on the left side.
Women in ancient Rome adopted a form of the Greek apodesme, known as the strophium or mamillare. Since the Romans regarded large breasts as comical, or characteristic of aging or unattractive women, young girls wore breast bands (fascia) secured tightly in the belief that doing so would prevent overly large, sagging breasts.
The so-called “bikini girls” mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale (4th century AD) shows women performing gymnastic or dance routines while wearing a garment similar to a strapless bra and briefs. Other primitive iterations of a bra are depicted earlier in wall paintings preserved at Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Sometimes in the most sexually explicit Roman paintings, the breasts are kept covered by the strophium. The settings in which the paintings are found indicate that the women depicted may be prostitutes.
In China, a loose silk bodice tied at the waist and tied or looped around the neck called the dudou (lit. “belly cover”) came into fashion among wealthy women during the Ming dynasty of the 14th–17th centuries. It remained popular under the succeeding Qing dynasty (17th–20th centuries). It was adopted into Vietnamese culture as the yếm and remains in traditional use among the two cultures.
In Europe, in the Middle Ages it was exceptional for women to restrict or support their breasts and if they did, they probably used something like a cloth binder, as is suggested in descriptions of the time. A widely-quoted statement is that an edict of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire, dated 1370 states, “No woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or by tightened dress.”[dubious] An archeological find circa 1390 to 1485 revealed that women did in fact support their breasts in the Middle Ages. Four lace-decorated bras were found among 3,000 textile fragments during a renovation project in an Austrian castle. By the time of Charles VII of France (1403–1461), a gauze drape was used over the bust.
Generally, in the Middle Ages the breasts were minimized in dresses with straight bodices, full skirts and high necklines, designed primarily for function rather than emphasis on form. Late medieval dresses are fitted precisely and snugly to the body and function as breast support. Depictions of women in 14th- and 15th-century art show a high, rounded breast silhouette on women old and young, full-busted and small. This look is not possible without support. The 15th-century ideal form was small-breasted and full-figured, symbolizing abundance of fertility.
By the time of the Renaissance, décolletage became very fashionable. There was some status to firm breasts in upper class women, who did not breast feed. Infants were given to wet nurses to breast feed, since nursing was considered bad if a woman wanted to maintain an ideal form. Among the wealthier classes, the corset was beginning to appear by the mid-15th century.
Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589, wife of King Henry II of France) is widely, and wrongly, blamed for the corset. She was reported to have prohibited wide waists at court in the 1550s, legend suggesting she made them wear steel framework corsets.
Elaborate constraints placed on women’s figures over the years were not universal. Corsetry made it virtually impossible to work, so simpler functional garments were worn by women who worked inside or outside the home. Support for the breasts was often provided by a simple tie under the breast line, in the bodice.
Early corsets of the 16th century consisted of paste-stiffened linen and a primitive busk at the front but later included iron supports at the side and back. The emphasis now was on form, with compression of the breasts forcing them upwards to the point of almost spilling out, so a considerable part of the breast was exposed. The ideal form was a flat torso, which inevitably pushed the breasts upwards and out. The labouring class by contrast wore a simple front-lacing cotte.
During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, any garment associated with the aristocracy was frowned upon, including those with visible décolletage. The breasts were often supported by a tie below the bust, and extant bust-support garments ranged from soft stays to wrap-front items similar to sports bras. In 1814, the court and the corset returned.
Empire fashion originated during the Directoire period, popularized by women such as Joséphine de Beauharnais. “Inspired by the mania for the Graeco-Roman, with its connotations of artistic excellence and political liberty, fashionable women discarded corsets and adopted sleeveless transparent tunics. Embracing the classical silhouette, in Britain this period was known as the Regency. During this era, “fashion-conscious women … pored over fashion journals like Le Journal des Dames et de la Mode, the era’s version of Vogue, in order to see what Josephine was wearing and attempt to copy her style. The most popular chest support in this period were short stays, a type of lightly boned corset.
In the Victorian era, despite contemporary ideas about morality, women’s clothing was paradoxically designed to emphasize both the breasts and hips by tightlacing the waist. Victorian women were encumbered with many layers of clothing, including a chemise with a drawstring neckline, usually drawers, then the corset and corset cover, the under petticoat, the hoop skirt, the over petticoat, and finally the dress. According to the social expectations of the times, even the lowest-cut evening gown should dip no lower than three finger breadths below the clavicles.
By the Edwardian era, with some increase in women’s physical activities, the corset started to retreat southward again, becoming more like a girdle and accompanied by the appearance of a separate upper garment, the Bust Bodice, or BB. For those who instead wore a one-piece undershift (unionsuit), this separated into the camisole and drawers. These were not designed for support but merely coverage.
Women’s dress emphasized an “S” shape, with an indrawn stomach giving prominence to the posterior and bust. In the late 19th century and early 20th century the bosom could still be displayed. “The high-water mark of modesty would ebb after sunset some six inches!” Corsets remained the main form of support, but war and its impact on lifestyle and materials meant that its future was uncertain.
The evolution of the bra from the corset was driven by two parallel movements: health professionals’ concerns about the cruel, constraining effects of the corset, and the clothing reform movement of feminists who saw that greater participation of women in society would require emancipation from corsetry. Prominent amongst these were the Rational Dress Society, the National Dress Reform Association, and the Reform Dress Association.
Although there were a number of voices warning about the considerable health risks of corsets, health professions were generally muted, and women ignored “unfashionable” advice. The health professions concentrated more on psychosomatic complaints, which were in fact probably related to corsetry. Ill health was considered synonymous with femininity, and a pale and sickly demeanor was normative. (Fictional heroines often died from tuberculosis, or “consumption.” This made them pale and kept them immobile.) Corsets were supposed to provide both physical and moral support.
Some physicians ignored colleagues who felt corsets were a medical necessity because of women’s biology and the needs of civilized order. The physicians who raised the alarm pointed to nausea, bowel disturbances, eating disorders, breathlessness, flushing, fainting, and gynecological problems. Bed rest was a common prescription for the “weaker sex,” which of course implied relief from corsetry.
Women’s interest in sport, particularly bicycling, forced a rethinking, and women’s groups called for “emancipation garments.” Elizabeth Stuart Phelps urged women to “burn the corsets!” in 1874. Indirectly and directly, sports empowered women in other social climates.
Not surprisingly, corsetieres fought back, embellishing their products to be frilly and feminine in the 1870s. Advertising took on overtones of erotic imagery, even if in practice they acted as a deterrent to sexuality, especially when they started appearing in men’s magazines, stressing cleavage and bare arms (then taboo). Dolls assumed the corseted image, implanting an image of the “ideal” female form. Corsets certainly reinforced the image of a weaker sex, unable to defend themselves, and also made it a challenge to disrobe.
In practice, early bras made little market penetration. They were expensive, and only educated wealthy reformers wore them to any extent.
American women who made important contributions included Amelia Bloomer (1818–1894) (“When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off”) and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919).
There are considerable differences of opinion as to who “invented” the modern brassière or bra. Patent dates indicate some of the landmark developments; a large number of patents for bra-like devices were granted in the 19th century. However, what is regarded as the world’s oldest push-up bra was discovered in storage at the Science Museum in London. Designed to enhance cleavage, the bra is said to be from the early 19th century.
A bra-like device that gave a symmetrical rotundity to the wearer’s breasts was patented in 1859 by Henry S. Lesher of Brooklyn, New York. In 1863, a “corset substitute” was patented by Luman L. Chapman of Camden, New Jersey. Historians refer to it as a “proto-bra.”
In 1876, dressmaker Olivia Flynt was granted four patents covering the “true Corset” or “Flynt Waist.” It was aimed at the larger-breasted woman. Reformers stimulated demand for and probably purchased these early garments on “hygienic” grounds because of their concerns about the corset goalkeeper gloves in india. Initially Flynt’s garments were only available by mail order, but they eventually appeared in department and clothing stores and catalogues. Her designs won a bronze medal at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in 1878, at the Cotton Centennial Exposition in Atlanta in 1884–5, and at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
According to Life magazine, in 1889 Herminie Cadolle of France invented the first modern bra
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. It appeared in a corset catalogue as a two-piece undergarment, which she originally called the corselet gorge, and later le bien-être (or “the well-being”). Her garment effectively cut the traditional corset in two: The lower part was a corset for the waist and the upper part supported the breasts with shoulder straps. Her description reads “designed to sustain the bosom and supported by the shoulders.” She patented her invention and showed it at the Great Exhibition of 1889. The company, still family-owned, claims today that Herminie “freed women by inventing the first Bra.” By 1905, the upper half was sold separately as a soutien-gorge, the name by which bras are still known in France. She also introduced the use of “rubber thread” or elastic.
In 1893, Marie Tucek received a U.S. patent for a device that consisted of separate pockets for each breast above a metal supporting plate and shoulder straps fastened by hook-and-eye. This invention more closely resembled the modern bra known today, and was a precursor to the underwire bra.
Home-sewn garments competed with factory-made, ready-to-wear garments. The bra was at first an alternative to the corset, as a negligée or at-home wear, or worn by women with medical issues stemming from corsets. After the straight-fronted corset became fashionable in the early 20th century, a bra or “bust supporter” became a necessity for full-busted women because the straight-fronted corset did not offer as much support and containment as the Victorian styles. Early bras were either wrap-around bodices or boned, close-fitting camisoles (both worn over the corset). They were designed to hold the bust in and down against the corset, which provided upward support.
Advertising of the times, typically in periodicals, stressed the advantages of bras in health and comfort over corsets and portrayed garments with shoulder supports in a mono-bosom style and with limited adaptability. Their major appeal was to those for whom lung function and mobility were priorities, rather than outer appearance.
The first modern bra was patented by the German Christine Hardt in 1889. Sigmund Lindauer from Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Germany developed a bra for mass production in 1912 and patented it in 1913. It was mass-produced by Mechanischen Trikotweberei Ludwig Maier und Cie. in Böblingen, Germany. With metal shortages, World War I encouraged the end of the corset. By the time the war ended, most fashion-conscious women in Europe and North America were wearing bras. From there the bra was adopted by women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In 1910, Mary Phelps Jacob (known later in life as Caresse Crosby), a 19-year-old New York socialite, purchased a sheer evening gown for a debutante ball. At that time, the only acceptable undergarment was a corset stiffened with whalebone. Mary had large breasts and found that the whalebone visibly poked out around her plunging neckline and from under the sheer fabric. Dissatisfied with this arrangement, she worked with her maid to fashion two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord. Her innovation drew immediate attention that evening and, at the request of family and friends, she made more of her new device. When she received a request for one from a stranger, who offered a dollar for her efforts, she realized that her device could turn into a viable business.
On November 3, 1914, the U.S. Patent Office issued the first U.S. patent for the “Backless Bra.” Crosby’s patent was for a device that was lightweight, soft, comfortable to wear, and naturally separated the breasts, unlike the corset, which was heavy, stiff, uncomfortable, and had the effect of creating a “monobosom.”
Crosby managed to secure a few orders from department stores, but her business never took off. Her husband Harry Crosby discouraged her from pursuing the business and persuaded her to close it. She later sold the bra patent to the Warners Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500 (roughly equivalent to $21,462 in current dollars). Warner manufactured the “Crosby” bra for a while, but it did not become a popular style and eventually was discontinued. Warner went on to earn more than $15 million from the bra patent over the next 30 years.
Bras became more common and widely-promoted over the course of the 1910s, aided by the continuing trend towards lighter, shorter corsets that offered increasingly less bust support and containment. In 1917 at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War I, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This was said to have saved some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships.
It has been said that the bra took off the way it did in large part because of World War I, which shook up gender roles by putting many women to work in factories and uniforms for the first time. The war also influenced social attitudes toward women and helped to liberate them from corsets. But women were already moving into the retail and clerical sectors. Thus the bra emerged from something that was once discreetly tucked into the back pages of women’s magazines in the 1890s, to prominent display in department stores such as Sears, Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward by 1918. Advertising was now promoting the shaping of the bust to contemporary fashion demands, and sales reflected this.
As the corset became shorter during the later 1910s, it provided less support to the bust. By 1920 the corset started at the waist, and bust containment yielded entirely to the bra. A low, sloping bustline became more fashionable. Brassieres from the late 1910s and early 1920s were merely slightly shaped bandeaus (bandeaux) style, holding the bust in and down by means of a clip attached to the corset.
This culminated in the “boyish” silhouette of the Flapper era of the 1920s, with little bust definition. The term (which in the mid-1910s referred to preteen and early-teenage girls) was adopted by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the 1920s for their younger adult customers. The androgynous figure then in style downplayed women’s natural curves through the use of a bandeau bra, which flattened breasts. It was relatively easy for small-busted women to conform to the flat-chested look of the Flapper era. Women with larger breasts tried products like the popular Symington Side Lacer that, when laced at the sides, pulled and helped to flatten women’s chests. Yet some “bras” of the early 1920s were little more than camisoles.
In 1922, Russian immigrant Ida Rosenthal was a seamstress at the small New York City dress shop Enid Frocks. She and her husband William Rosenthal, along with shop owner Enid Bissett, changed the look of women’s fashion. They noticed that a bra that fit one woman did not fit another woman with the same bra size. With $4,500 invested in their new business, they developed bras for all ages. Their innovation was designed to make their dresses look better on the wearer by increasing the shaping of the bandeau bra to enhance and support women’s breasts. They named the company Maiden Form, a deliberate contrast with the name of a competitor, “Boyishform Company.” Maiden Form routed Boyishform by 1924, accenting and lifting rather than flattening the bust. In 1927, William Rosenthal, the president of Maiden Form, filed patents for nursing, full-figured, and the first seamed uplift bra.
These fashion changes coincided with health professionals beginning to link breast care and comfort to motherhood and lactation, and campaigned against breast flattening. The emphasis shifted from minimizing the breasts to uplifting and accenting them. Women, especially the younger set, welcomed the bra as a modern garment.
While manufacturing was beginning to become more organized, homemade bras and bandeaux were still quite popular, usually made of white cotton, but they were little more than bust bodices with some separation.
The word “brassiere” was gradually shortened to “bra” in the 1930s. According to a 1934 survey by Harper’s Bazaar, “bra” was the most commonly used expression for the garment among college women. The bra was becoming more sophisticated, and home-sewn versions vanished in the 1930s. In October 1932, the S.H. Camp and Company correlated the size and pendulousness of a woman’s breasts to letters of the alphabet, A through D. Camp’s advertising featured letter-labeled profiles of breasts in the February 1933 issue of Corset and Underwear Review. In 1937, Warner began to feature cup sizing in its products. Two other companies, Model and Fay-Miss, began to offer A, B, C and D cups in the late 1930s. Catalog companies continued to use the designations Small, Medium and Large through the 1940s. Adjustable bands were introduced using multiple eye and hook positions in the 1930s.
As with other women’s products, consumer adoption was encouraged by successful advertising and marketing campaigns. Saleswomen played a key role, helping clients find the right garment, as did the changing role of women in society. Much of this marketing was aimed at young women.
Bras rapidly became a major industry over the 1930s, with improvements in fiber technology, fabrics, colours, patterns, and options, and did much better than the retail industry in general. Innovations included Warners’ use of elastic, the adjustable strap, the sized cup, and padded bras for smaller-breasted women. In the US production moved outside of New York and Chicago, and advertising started to exploit Hollywood glamour and become more specialised. Department stores developed fitting areas, and customers, stores and manufacturers all benefited. Manufacturers even arranged fitting training courses for saleswomen. International sales started to form an increasing part of the U.S. bra manufacturer’s market. Prices started to make bras available to a wider market, and home-made competition dwindled. Other major manufacturers of the 1930s included Triumph, Maidenform, Gossard, (Courtaulds), Spirella, Spencer, Twilfit, and Symington.
The culturally preferred silhouette among Western women during the 1930s was a pointy bust, which further increased demand for a forming garment.
The Second World War had a major impact on clothing. In the United States, military women were enlisted for the first time in the lower ranks and were fitted with uniform underwear. Willson Goggles, a Pennsylvania firm that manufactured safety equipment for manual workers, is believed to have introduced the plastic “SAF-T-BRA”, designed to protect women on the factory floor. Advertising appealed to both patriotism and the concept that bras and girdles were somehow “protection”. Dress codes appeared – for example, Lockheed informed their workers that bras must be worn because of “good taste, anatomical support, and morale”.
Military terminology crept into product marketing, as represented by the highly structured, conically pointed Torpedo or Bullet bra, designed for “maximum projection”. The bullet bra was worn by the Sweater Girl, a busty and wholesome “girl next door” whose tight-fitting outergarments accentuated her artificially enhanced curves. Underwire began to be used in bra construction. Actresses like Jane Russell appeared in photographs wearing the new bras that emphasized the “lift and separate” design, which influenced later bra design. For the movie, The Outlaw, which features actress Jane Russell, the producer and airplane designer Howard Hughes constructed the Cantilever bra for Russell to wear in the movie. Hughes constructed the bra so that it would fit and support Jane Russell’s breasts. Hughes created the bra on the basis of bridge building. After seeing Jane Russell and her bust in the movie, women sought to recreate the look on their own chests.
The war presented unique challenges for industry. Women’s occupations shifted dramatically, with far more employed outside the home and in industry. Severe material shortages limited design choices. Advertising, promotion, and consumerism were limited but started to appear directed at minorities (e.g., Ebony in 1945) and teens. Many manufacturers only survived by making tents and parachutes in addition to bras. American industry was now freed from European influences, particularly French, and it became more distinctive. Again there was concern about the use of badly needed steel in corsets and the British Government carried out a survey of women’s usage of underwear in 1941. This showed that “on average, women owned 1.2 bras (housewives 0.8 and agricultural workers 1.9)”.
Following the Second World War, material availability, production and marketing, and demand for a greater variety of consumer goods, including bras. The baby boom specifically created a demand for maternity and nursing bras, and television provided new promotional opportunities. Manufacturers responded with new fabrics, colours, patterns, styles, padding and elasticity. Hollywood fashion and glamour influenced women’s fashion choices including bras like the cone-shaped, spiral-stitched bullet bra popularized by actresses like Patti Page, Marilyn Monroe, and Lana Turner, who was nicknamed the “Sweater Girl”. Bullet bras allowed women to add a cup size to their bust.
Bras for pre-teen and girls entering puberty were first marketed during the 1950s. Prior to the introduction of training bras, young girls in Western countries usually wore a one-piece “waist” or camisole without cups or darts.
The 1960s and 1970s reflected increasing interest in quality and fashion. Maternity and mastectomy bras began to find a new respectability, and the increasing use of washing machines created a need for products that were more durable. While girdles gave way to pantyhose, the bra continued to evolve. Marketing campaigns like those for the “Snoozable” and “Sweet Dreams” promoted wearing a bra 24 hours a day.
Cultural changes in the 1960s had a potentially negative effect on the market for bras. These included the emergence of counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement, the concept of free love that emerged in the United States, new swimsuit and bra fashions, and a resurgence of feminism evidenced by the publication of two pivotal books, The Female Eunuch and The Feminine Mystique.
On June 4, 1962, Rudy Gernreich’s single-piece, topless monokini swimsuit received worldwide media attention. In its December 1962 issue, Sports Illustrated remarked, “He has turned the dancer’s leotard into a swimsuit that frees the body. In the process, he has ripped out the boning and wiring that made American swimsuits seagoing corsets.”
Gernreich followed that in October 1964 with the “No Bra”, a soft-cup, light-weight, seamless, sheer nylon and elastic tricot bra in sizes 32 to 36, A and B cups, manufactured by Exquisite Form. His minimalist bra was a revolutionary departure from the heavy, torpedo-shaped bras of the 1950s, initiating a trend toward more natural shapes and soft, sheer fabrics. He also designed an “All-in-None” design with a deep, plunging front, and a “No-Back” long-line version, which featured a contoured stretch-waistband that allowed a woman to wear a backless dress.
The Wonderbra was created in 1964 by Louise Poirier for Canadelle, a Canadian lingerie company. It has 54 design elements that lift and support the bustline while creating a deep plunge and push-together effect. First-year sales for the Wonderbra were approximated at US$120 million. They repositioned Wonderbra as a romantic, fashionable and sexy brand.
In the 1960s, some of the emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism. Feminist author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. In her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer wrote: “Bras are a ludicrous invention, but if you make bralessness a rule, you’re just subjecting yourself to yet another repression.”
Feminists charged that items like bras, hair curlers, false eyelashes and others were oppressive and patriarchal, reduced women to sex objects. Some women publicly disavowed bras in an anti-sexist act of female liberation. A pivotal moment in popular culture was the feminist protest held during the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant. About 400 women from the New York Radical Women organized a demonstration outside the Atlantic City Convention Hall. On 7 September 1968, a “Freedom Trash Can” was placed on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and filled with high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, Vogue and Playboy magazines, corsets, girdles, and bras.
For some women, the bra is a symbol of restrictions imposed by society on women: “The classic burning of the bras … represented liberation from the oppression of the male patriarchy, right down to unbinding yourself from the constrictions of your smooth silhouette.” Her book resonated with many women who had been questioning the role of the women in society and their status relative to men. It became associated with the so-called “bra burning movement” because she pointed out how restrictive and uncomfortable a bra could be.
A similar protest was held in 1970. At least one actual public bra-burning is documented steel water bottle online, at a feminist rally in Lower Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, CA on 2 June 1970, where a 38-C bra was included among a number of items (including birth control pills, nylon-stockings, and a copy of Redbook) that were ceremonially burned in a wastebasket with a fire extinguisher handy.
In the 1970s, like other garment makers, bra manufacturers moved production offshore. The evolution of the bra reflects the constantly changing idea of what an “ideal” woman should look like – flat, round, pointy, conical, or even “natural”. The contemporary bra also reflects advances in manufacturing and availability of fabric types and colours, enabling it to be transformed from a utilitarian item to a fashion statement, countering the negative attitudes some women had about bras. Designers have also incorporated numerous devices to produce varying shapes, cleavage, and to give women bras they could wear with open-back dresses, off-the-shoulder dresses, plunging necklines, and the like.
Throughout the 1980’s fashion led the way in the look and feel of bras. Western TV shows featured classy, powerful and well-formed ladies, usually donning low cut tops to show an enhanced chest with an equally classy matching bra.
The onset of classy and stylish Teddy suits also encompassed this decade and sales of silicone increased the need for bigger and more supportive bras.
Models and celebrities all donned fashionable and extravagant bras, showing these off at red carpets events become the norm.
Manufacturers’ marketing and advertising often appeals to fashion and image over fit, comfort and function. Since about 1994, manufacturers have re-focused their advertising, moving from advertising functional bras that emphasize support and foundation, to selling lingerie that emphasize fashion while sacrificing basic fit and function, like linings under scratchy lace.
With the growing popularity of jogging and other forms of exercise, it became apparent that there was a need for an athletic garment for women’s breasts. In 1977, Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith and Hinda Mille invented the first sports bra in the costume shop of Royall Tyler Theatre at the University of Vermont. One of the original Jogbras is bronzed and on display near the costume shop of the theatre. Two others are housed by the Smithsonian and another by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Two design challenges that bra manufacturers face at present seem paradoxical. On the one hand, there is a demand for minimal bras that allow plunging necklines and reduce interference with the lines of outer garments, such as the shelf bra. On the other hand, body mass and bust size is increasing, leading to a higher demand for larger sizes. Over a 10-year period, the most common size purchased in the UK went from 34B to 36C. In 2001, 27% of UK sales were D or larger.
The 2000s brought two large design changes to the bra. The molded one-piece, seamless bra cup became ubiquitous. They are heat-molded around round forms of synthetic fibers or foam that keeps their rounded shape. This construction can include padded bras, contour bras and so-called T-shirt bras. Also new and ubiquitous in the 2000s was the popularity of printed designs such as floral or patterned prints.
Bras are a billion-dollar industry ($15 billion in the US in 2001, £1 billion in UK.) that continues to grow. Large corporations such as HanesBrands Inc. control most bra manufacturing, Gossard, Berlei and Courtaulds with 34% of the UK market. Victoria’s Secret is an exception.
In 1964, Danish Fashion historian Rudolf Kristian Albert Broby-Johansen wrote that the topless look, which liberated breasts from bras, should be treated seriously. He asserted that it was a way for a new generation of women to express themselves. In 1969, he wrote an article titled “Obituary for the Bra” in which he predicted the imminent demise of bras.
Brassieres are worn by the great majority of women in Western society. Estimates about what proportion of Western women wear bras varies, but most surveys report from 75% to 95%. About 90% of Australian women wear a bra as of 2006. There are now an unprecedented array of styles and models, including full-coverage bras, balconette cup bras that expose the aerolas and nipples, and sports bras that can sometimes be worn as outerwear. Women, health professionals, feminists and fashion writers appear to be increasingly questioning its place and function, and asking whether it will go the way of pantyhose, garter belts and stockings.
It is now commonplace to see models and other celebrities who do not wear bras in public, including Britney Spears, Claire Danes, Lindsay Lohan, and Nadine Coyle Many outergarments like sundresses, tank tops, and formal evening wear are designed to be worn without bras. Fashion writers continue to suggest alternatives to bras or ways of dressing without bras, emphasising that wearing a bra is a matter of choice and not a requirement. Given the discomfort women experience with ill-fitting bras, an increasing number of women, once they are home, are switching to undershirts, jogbras, or nothing at all. Unhappy bra owners have donated thousands of bras to the Braball Sculpture, a collection of 18,085 bras. The organizer, Emily Duffy, wears a 42B and switched to stretch undershirts with built-in bras because standard bras cut her midsection.