Cultural History Of Bra

Cultural History Of Bra

Cultural History Of Bra


Since long time ago, Bra has defined fashion and beauty among women. The history of Bra is linked to social history of the status of women which entails both the evolution of fashion and the changing views of the body of a woman. Since time immemorial, women have used various garments and devices to cover, elevate and restrain the breasts. Over a period of time the emphasis of bras has changed from the functionality point to fashionable point. This fact means that in current period bras are part of fashion of a woman.

Origin of the Bra

The origin of bra is believed to be in 2500 worn by the Minoan women who resided in the island of Crete in the ancient Greece. These women used to wear garments that looked like Bra whose aim was to lift up their breast and boost them. Since then, there has been tremendous change in the shape of the breast with different social meanings.

Evolution of Bras


The evolution of bra starts with the Corsetry which was worn by the Cretan Women. The Cretan woman stood with bare breasts and the waist and hip corset shown above the decorative part of her underwear. The aim of the corset among the Cretan women was as a symbol of beauty and was aimed at showing off the breast. It is believed that bare breast had a cultural and religious significance.

Panniers and laced stays

Many of the 18th century paintings illustrate ladies wearing free falling, pleated loose dress backs. This sack dress probably developed from the over gown that was worn in the 17th century. Under the pannier dress was perfectly crafted laced stays that were made of many pieces of whale bones. These stays were backstitched by hand and were very beautiful and decorative. The stays supported and raised the breast to a sharp point in the front as well as defining a slim outline. The stays always matched the dress as the bones in these stays were placed laterally across both the back and front shoulder blades to ensure that the front remained straight and an upright back.

Edwardian corsetry

During Edwardian era, Fashion favored mature women as it exploited the curves of a highly corseted shape. The young and the old women laced themselves so tightly that they distorted their figures to get am s shape associated with that period.

Health corsets were greatly favored in 1890s and 1900 and were designed with an aim of assisting the women in breathing. Aches Sarraute of Paris designed health corset with an aim of aiding health instead of endangering it. She introduced the straight fronted busk that left thorax free. It was also designed to support and raise the abdomen instead of forcing it downwards. She rightly aimed at reducing pressure on vital female organs dispensed with constricting curves at the waist which was a common feature among all corsets. Corsets after 1907 were straight as women’s obsession on small waist had reduced. The corsets of 1907 achieved a long slim figure. These corsets had had elastic gussets REPLACEs which were supposed to increase the level of comfort. The new longer styles of 1912, corsets increased in length reaching the knees making it difficult for women sitting down. These corsets were designed for beauty purposes as fashion played a major role in their development. (Workman, 1996)

Bras in 1907

The word Bra was developed and first reported in America copy of Vogue in 1907.The original French name of brassier meant a soldiers arm. The First World War contributed to evolution of bras where women abandoned corsets and started wearing bras. During this period, the term brassier started to appear in high profile women magazines and eventually appeared in Oxford English dictionary in 1912. (Elizabeth, 1976)

Mary Phelps-Jacob’s patented Bra 1914 & the Symington Side Lacer

It is believed that Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite, made a backless brassier from two silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon after discovering that the corsets were too restrictive when a woman was dancing in night clubs. Mary sold her patent to Warner Brother’s corset company for 1500 us dollars. After the year 1918, bras were made of lace bands with straps. The best bras at that time were the Symington side lacer which was a reinforced bodice. The side lacing was aimed at flattening the bust when it was tightened. It was at this time that the term bra changed from brassier. (Elizabeth, 1976)

Bras in 1930s

In 1930s the bra became more sophisticated and the home sewn version of bras started to diminish during this period. In 1928, entrepreneur William and Ida Rosenthal developed bra by introducing the cup sizes and bras for all the stages of a woman.

Warmers developed the alphabet bra which was made in a set of sizes that were corresponding to alphabetical letters. This is as a result of women gaining interest in the size of their breast and other women breast. The women interest in these types of bra was as a result of aggressive marketing and the changing role of women in the society. During this period, bras became a major industry and there was great improvement in fiber technology, patterns, colors and varieties of the bras. There was increase in innovation such as sized cup, adjustable strap, increased elasticity and padded breast for small sized breast. The marketing of bras during this period targeted the younger women as beauty was an important aspect in them. The desired feature in 1930s was a pointy bust and this further increased demand for a forming garment and bras fitted well for this function.

Bras in 1940s

Clothing was determined by the Second World War. During this period, advertisements of clothes were based on patriotism. The highly structured conical pointed bullet bras were used as protection clothes whereby in the military fraternity, the female soldiers were advised to wear them for anatomical support, good taste and for morale. During this period, bra enhanced the concept of the sweater girl. Sweater girls often wore bullets bras which contributed to the development of later brassieres. The war had an impact on the flow of materials as there was shortage of material which resulted into women producing their own bras from parachute silk and old wedding dresses. Commercially manufactured bras were made from minimum amount of material and hence bore the utility mark. This led to the emergence of utility bras.

Bras in 1950s

In this period, the bras were typical long line stitch and fashion was a major contributing factor towards the development of bras. The long line conical bra gave support silhouette for girls who wanted to be like film stars sweater girls like Jane Russell. The bras got better as use of nylon materials made them prettier, lighter and easier to wash.

Bras in 1960

This period was characterized with increased interest of quality and fashion of bras. There was increased demand for maternity and mastectomy bras and increase in the use of washing machines led to increase in preference for durable bras. There was increased marketing promotion such as wearing bras 24 hours a day. This period was marked with cultural changes which represented a great threat to bra market. These counter culture to bra production included civil right movement and feminism which greatly opposed women wearing bras. During this period, there was development in the form of bras which were seamless, flattering and sexy and were more appealing to teenage girls. The invention was referred to as wonderbra invention. These Bras tugged the breast together and pulled them forward and hence they were a means of attraction. They were marketed as a form of luxury. The material used became durable, light weight and elastic.

Bra burning

In late 1960s, bra and other feminity emblems became targets of feminist activism. The feminists viewed bras as objects which reduced women as sex objects. Some women started questioning the role of bra and this led to protest against 1968 miss American beauty pageant. For example, Germaine Greer stated that bras were absurd invention aimed at reducing the status of women. In 1968, they were a protest against Miss America beauty pageant by 400 women coming from New York Radical women in Atlantic City convention hall. The demonstration took place after Democratic national convention and the protestors placed bras, high heeled shoes, hairsprays and other beauty apparatus seen as symbols of oppression of women in a freedom trash can placed on the ground. This was a clear sign of protest against bra although no real burning of the bras took place. There was also another protest in 1970 which received wide coverage and was perceived as sexual liberation. This protest although seen by people as breaking of the law was somehow fruitful as many women stopped .This led to some stores such as Berkeley Roos closing Bra department due to poor sales. The protest led to development of ‘no bra’ by Rudi Gernreich in 1964. This bra was light, transparent stretch netting and had a simple shape. The bras had very fine layer of foam latex rubber bonded to the top lace fabric which made the cups to stand up on the end. (Pederson, 2004)

The original Wonder bra (1968-1990)

Gossard launched its wonderbra crusade in 1968.At first 36C was the top size of this innovatory under wired bra that was a necessity for V neck dresses of late sixties caftans which had ling necks were transformed by the cleavage from a wonderbra. In case where one was in need of larger bra, a bra replacement fastener was used as an extender. REPLACEs of extra wadding or foam rubber could be REPLACEed into little pockets in the wonderbra to increases the fullness where there was no bust. In 1990s, silicon implant scare caused the women to turn to bras as the best option of improving their breast size. The wonderbra became best seller in 1990s.

In 1916s there was the presence of bra slips which were common for short skimpy dresses. This mixed setup was made up of an under wired cleavage bra with a short small nylon slip all in one.

Return of the Cleavage (1990s)

In a blonde ambition tour, Madonna was sported wearing sported ice cream coned circular stitched cup on her Gaultier corset.Gaultier first made designs of breast that were based on the conical breasts of 1980s but received full approval after Madonna used it in various of her functions and hence sexy lace Bras came back into business. In 1990s there was the introduction of very plain tactel underwear slips which gave a good line beneath dresses making it possible to wear unlined dresses successful without static build up. Bra industry was further promoted during this period by the quest for women who had shed their breast in 1960s to have more figure control especially when wearing the straight sheath dress that were back in fashion. During this period, there was pursuit for cleavage by utilizing water, air and silicone pads and improvement in this development enhanced the sales of fashion companies in 21st century as they put more emphasis on breast management and improvement.

Today’s types of bra

Cleavage enhancer: These types of bras have a plunging neckline which is important for maximum cleavage. The pads add an additional lift and the bra fully characterize bust hence ideal for low necklines.

Minimizer: These types of bra reduce the bust projection from one inch to two and half inch. The bras shape and support the breast and hence reduce their bouncing.

Full coverage bras: These bras shape and offer complete support to the breast. The under wire is for enhanced support of the breast.

Convertible/strapless: These bras are multiple way wear. They go up to five ways on a strapless bra often having molded padded cups that offer support and shape to the breast. They have seam free cups that are not visible under clothes.

Sports bra: They are perfectly constructed to provide a maximum support, compresses the breast and hence minimizing bouncing by the breasts. The material fabric is important in drawing moisture away from the body hence keeping the body comfortable.

Wire free Bra: These are soft cup bras which the beast complete natural shape. They are soft and have a comfortable fit.

T-shirt bra: These bras have seamless contoured cups which is not visible under clothes. It is comfortable and ideal under fitted T-shirts and sweaters. They are perfect for everyday wear.

Silicone bra: This type of bra comes in different sizes from cup size A, B C; D. It does not have any strap. It is flexible and sticks tightly in conformity with the woman’s bust as it has self adhesive coating. It is made from high quality silicon gel. It is easy to wash, it has no strap and occurs in a range of colors and so the user has a wide choice of the colors she desires. This bra can be reused many times after laundering.

Push ups and inflatable brassieres: Was introduced in mid 1990s and added major sex appeal to the USA market. It was pioneered in 1960s by Fredricks of Hollywood .The look was classic pieces of soft cup inflated into a cone-shaped point. During this period, Singer and Dancer Madonna played a big role in making this bra to be famous. This bra has undergone much innovation such as volume adjustment systems, pairing of the sleek looking bra with air extricable padding. The bra has a molded cup and wireless lifts. It has a weightless padding which gives the cleavage a slight projection. It has barely three Bralettes. It is found in soft cup, Camisole like sheers as well as lacy under wire creations which exhibit double cleavage of their full cup counterparts. (Steele, 2001)

Sex openness among the correct time women

In 1950s to 1980s feminists played great role in trying to liberate women from oppression by men. They tried as much as they could in transforming the working and business environment to suit women and this resulted in many of them getting jobs and becoming more liberal especially in their sexual lives. In the past, feminists opposed beauty apparatus which they considered as being tools which reduced women as sex objects. This did not get support from all the women as beauty was still valued b women and so they continued using beauty apparatus and fashion determined what they wore. Currently the society has changed greatly and as a result of empowerment, women have become more liberal and hence more open to sixths is depicted by the clothing they put on which more is revealing than in the past years. Also increase in innovation by fashion industries has played a major role as these companies strive hard to market products which are said to make women look sexy. Improved technology especially in the entertainment sector has contributed a lot to women becoming more sexual open as they mostly emulate the lifestyles of the entertainment stars. (Kunzle, 2004)


Innovation has played a major role in shaping the fashion in different time span. Bra comes out clearly as a major fashion tool and from its evolution, it can be concluded that it has played a central role in women fashion and enhancing beauty among the women.

Reference List:

Ewing, Elizabeth. (1976). Underwear: A History. New York, NY: Theatre Arts Books

Kunzle, David. (2004). Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body –Sculpture. Thrupp, UK: Sutton Publishing Limited

Pedersen, Stephanie. (2004) Bra: a thousand years of style, support and seduction. Newton Abbot: David & Charles

Steele, Valerie. (2001). The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Workman, Nancy. (1996). “From Victorian to Victoria’s Secret: The Foundations of Modern Erotic Wear. Journal of Popular Culture. 30.2, 61-73