It began with function, progressed into form and eventually became fashion — the history and evolution of bra design is a long and interesting one. Most developments are relatively recent, and perhaps one of the biggest turning points came when an enterprising 19-year-old shook the undergarment industry by making an impromptu DIY bra for her own debutante ball.
Let’s explore just how the modern bra came to be…
The Early History of Bras
Historical evidence suggests that dating as far back as 2500 BC, several primitive civilizations, from Egypt to Asia, India and the Roman Empire, had some rudimentary form of a bra. To compete in sporting events, Minoan women in ancient Greece wore a breast band for basic support, much like a modern-day bandeau top.
These early bras would bind the breasts tightly against the body, so that hold was achieved mainly via constriction. However, as fashion eventually began to play a larger role in societies, the corset was invented — cradling and pushing up breasts while slimming and flattening the waist to create a dramatically curvaceous silhouette.
The Italian-born Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, has been credited with popularizing the corseted look, which originated during the Renaissance and remained in vogue through the early 20th century. Victorian-era corsets of the 1800s drew in the waist to emphasize the curve of breasts and hips. Later, during the Edwardian era, corsets of the 1900s refigured a woman’s body into an “S” shape, accentuating the bust and filling out the derrière.
Eventually a major milestone occurred in 1889, when the French divided the corset into two separate undergarments. These more liberating silhouettes were driven by health hazards that resulted from corsets’ severe waist constriction as well as an increase in female participation in physical activities, such as bicycling.
The Evolution of Bras During the 20th Century
As bra design innovation continued into the 20th century, groundbreaking new shapes resulted from changing trends in fashion. As an added bonus, modern and thoughtfully constructed new silhouettes suddenly meant bras could also be comfortable to wear!
Mary Phelps Jacobs
In 1913, Manhattan socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs managed to reinvent the shapewear of her day while getting dressed for her own debutante ball. The story goes that her sheer evening gown’s plunging neckline and relatively large bust created fit problems that exposed her embroidered corset cover. As a quick-fix solution, Jacobs sent her maid out for handkerchiefs and some ribbon, which Jacobs assembled into a new kind of undergarment that was functional yet far less restrictive than traditional corsets. She patented the new creation and coined it the “brassiere,” a French term that had been used in contemporary magazine advertising and added to the dictionary in 1911.
1920s: The Introduction of Bra Sizes
At the start of the first World War, women were encouraged to join the metal and textile rationing efforts by not purchasing boned corsets. Around the same time, garment manufacturers began producing brassieres with stretchable cups, accommodating more women of varying breast sizes for efficiency’s sake. Letter-based A through D cup sizing, initiated by S.H. Camp and Company, was followed by other innovations from various brands, including adjustable hook-and-eye closures. These helped women extend their brassieres’ lifespan, enabling them to tighten the underbands which naturally stretched out over time.
The word “brassiere” was shortened to simply “bra,” which became commonplace by the early 1930s.
1940s: The Bullet Bra
By World War II, necessity played even larger roles in bra design, as the undergarments now became standard issue for women enlisting into the military. At the same time, Hollywood actresses who wore form-fitting sweaters, also known as “Sweater Girls,” bolstered the popularity of a new bra shape, featuring “bullet” or “torpedo” style cups. Padded bras, an invention of retailer Fredrick’s of Hollywood, also made their debut, as did training bras for adolescent girls.
1950s: Maternity and Nursing Bras
Not surprisingly, the post-war baby boom led to an upswell in the production of maternity bras designed specifically for pregnancy and breastfeeding. The first patented “nursing bra” was developed in 1943, but it wasn’t until 1991 when variable cup sizes and a one-handed unlatching method, invented by female designer Mary Sanchez, that the concept really gained steam. Specialized nursing bras have also been developed for mothers who pump, allowing them to do so hands-free.
1960s: The Wonderbra
The 1960s presented a true dichotomy for American women. On the one hand, the era saw a hippie-led bra burning rebellion and culturally defiant antiheroes going braless on stages and in protest marches. On the other hand, the Wonderbra was being developed — a plunging push-up style with over 50 functional elements that worked to lift and enhance the shape of the female bust dramatically. First invented in Canada in 1964, it rose to prominence again in the UK and US, thanks to a cheeky advertising campaign with the slogan, “Hello Boys,” some 30 years later.
1970s: The Sports Bra
Competitive sports were the original functional purpose of ancient breast bands, however, sports bras as we now know them weren’t officially developed until 1977. Three women working in the costume department of the University of Vermont’s theater program invented what they dubbed the “Jogbra,” to support active women in physical exercises. A little more than two decades later, US soccer star Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey in celebration of her World Cup winning goal — a memorable and controversial move that exposed her now-famous Nike sports bra.
Modern Era Bras
Bra designs of the 1980s took their cue from the era’s fashion scene, which was largely defined by excess and extravagance. Manufacturers eventually realized that a demand for larger sizes with purpose and support had been going unmet — so that by the early 2000s, it had become more important to consumers than ever. That’s when specialized features, including innovative textiles, molded cups and seamless construction gained popularity, turning comfort into a top priority in the production of modern-day bras.
We’ve certainly come a long way from breast bands and constrictive corsets. Today’s bras are lightweight yet supportive with styles varying from wireless to convertible and balconette to bralette. Comfort is key as bra makers are finally combining performance with design, proving that fashionable bras can also be easy to wear. Check out our super-comfortable lineup of bras or take our fit quiz for recommendations on the shapes and styles best-suited for you.