100 Years of Brassieres: The Historical Evolution of the Bra
Delve into the history of the undergarment through its changing style and purpose over the decades.
A lot has changed since ancient Greece, which is the first record of women binding and supporting their breasts, and most of that has occurred within the last 100 years. Today, brassieres come in a seemingly endless stream of shapes, colors, styles and price tags —some of which can reach upwards of $30 million — but the modern bra as we admire it now has humble beginnings that stem back to 1889 in Paris.
The French inventor Herminie Cadolle is credited today with the invention of the modern bra after she first presented her corselet gorge, which translates to “corset divided in two,” at a Paris fashion exhibition in 1889. Also, the first to use elastic in lingerie, Cadolle wanted to make a garment that allowed for functionality, not just appearance — and for good reason. The aches and pains that came from a lifetime of corset-wielding, which was the practice for more than 100 years, weren’t just uncomfortable; the stifling contraptions had serious medical implications, including the deformation of ribs and misalignment of the spine in those who donned it for extended lengths of time.
By the time Cadolle refined her invention for another exhibition in 1900, and again in 1905, the top — known as the soutien gorge, or “throat support” — was being marketed on its own. Thus, the bra was born.
Things were happening over in the United States, too. The look in the ’20s was very much a flat one, and that’s for a few reasons. For one, the corsets that pushed up breasts and brought in waists was made of a lot of metal, which NPR reports was needed for ammunition and military supplies during World War I. In 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board reportedly asked American women to stop buying them altogether, and 28,000 pounds of steel was instead used to build two battleships.
Around the same time —1914, to be exact — New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs patented the first modern bra in America after sewing two pocket handkerchiefs and pink ribbons together so she could dance and move freely in her gown at a Manhattan debutante ball without her corset poking through. It was the talk of the party and she sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Co. for $1,500. It’s unclear if she got her inspiration from Cadolle.
They did have a taste for comfort in common, though. Jacobs reportedly said that when she first saw her invention beneath her clothes, the 19-year-old thought it “was delicious. I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”
The flapper fashion took her invention a step further, with some women actually taping down their breasts to appear more slim and boyish.
This decade is when cup sizes were invented, as bras were initially made from the one-size-fits-all style still observed in some bandeau tops today.
As for where the credit is due — there’s some dispute over whether it was William and Ida Rosenthal of Maidenform or the company S.H. Camp and Co. who actually developed the measuring system (and its corresponding letters), but it came just as underwire and clasps were introduced to the blossoming industry. You’d never know there was the Great Depression roaring on in the background with how successful it was shaping up to be.
You might recognize this torpedo style of bra because of Madonna’s famous Jean Paul Gaultier brassiere she wore during her Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990, but it was initially popularized because of the Second Great War.
Women were required to get to work on the production lines as their husbands, brothers and fathers headed off to fight, and it was claimed the points offered “extra protection” in the workplace. Some even required it as part of a uniform, or for “keeping up morale.” Unclear whose morale that was, exactly, but here we are.
The 1950s was the age of sweater girl glamour. The bullet bras of the ’40s were stitched longline to be conical and give even more of a support silhouette for women who wanted to look exactly like the leading ladies of their time — Lana Turner, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe — who turned the bra into a fashion item.
Not really popularized until the 1990s, the Wonderbra was actually invented in 1964 by designer Louise Poirier for the Canadian company Canadelle. While many today associate it with the sexy and full-form busts we’ve come to appreciate in many of today’s top models, the look was initially described in Europe as Pigeonnant, which means “pigeon-breasted” in French.
For being as widespread as it is, it may be surprising to learn that the sports bra was only invented in 1977 — and it was initially called the “jockbra,” so named because its first design was literally made from two jockstraps sewn together.
“Running for me became this joy,” creator Lisa Lindahl told WBUR. “I grew up with epilepsy and I had seizures regularly. So I was not really … friendly with my body so much until I started running. But there’s one problem. My breasts were just uncomfortable.”
When her sister also began running and called Lindahl saying her bra was “so uncomfortable,” the wheels started turning in Lindahl’s mind.
“I laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I know it really is. It’s just a terrible problem.’ She said, ‘You know, why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?’ And we just laughed uproariously. We thought that was so funny. When we hung up, I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, that’s not such a silly idea.'”
Not a silly idea at all.
This sporty, leggy look became mainstream as models and marketing campaigns embraced softer brassieres and a healthy lifestyle. There was also a lot of bustier-wearing, popularized by Madonna’s aforementioned bullet bra. Really, there was just a lot of experimentation with fashion all around during this decade, which we aren’t complaining about.
Welcome back, cleavage. Thirty years after it was created, the WonderBra finally had its moment, skyrocketing to popularity and popularizing the push-up still often worn today.
This is where things start getting really, really expensive. Victoria’s Secret began bedazzling bras in 1996 with Claudia Schiffer’s “Million Dollar Miracle Bra,” which is an ad we’re not trying to push out of our minds any time soon. Here, Giselle Bündchen models the $15 million “Red Hot Fantasy Bra,” which was the most expensive piece of lingerie ever created until 2006, when Susan Rosen designed a bra worth $20 million. Designs continue to push this dollar amount with the annual unveiling of the company’s Fantasy Bra, which has its very own history to explore.
Unlike a century earlier, comfort and sexiness can now coexist. Memory foam is often used in today’s bras to conform to the shape of each woman’s breasts, with underwire, lace, bustier, bullet or corset all optional.