Going braless might be trending right now, but the brassiere that we know and (sort of) love today represented a major revolution in the world of women's undergarments. Gone are the days of restrictive and painful corsets, the advent of the brassiere brought a new kind of comfort and freedom to women that wasn't available to us historically.
Brassieres and other undergarments resembling it certainly weren't unheard of prior to the 20th century, but the history of the modern brassiere begun when one woman became sick of being poked by corset boning. Let's take a look at how a woman's quest for comfort turned into a $28 billion dollar industry.
Source: The Washington Post
First, a little background is necessary to fill in some gaps. Recorded instances of brassieres date back to ancient Greek civilizations, but for our purposes we will be focusing on the more modern iteration of the brassiere that not only came about later, but was created by a woman. We believe that women are the ones who know women's bodies best, but the modern brassiere's story does start with a man.
The first patent that resembled a brassiere, albeit under a different name, was issued to Luman L. Chapman in 1863. Chapman's version of the brassiere featured a metal front clasp, no boning, and "breast puffs" that offered a greater freedom of movement without losing support.
It didn't take long for a woman to revamp Chapman's iteration of the brassiere to better fit women's needs, and in 1889, the French designer Herminie Cadolle patented the split corset.
Cadolle separated the corset into two, keeping the shaping of the waist while also creating a separate garment that lifted and supported the breasts. She showed off her creation at the Great Exhibition in 1889, calling it the soutien-gorge, or "support for the throat."
Source: Runway Magazine
In 1907, the split corset got its modern name after Vogue coined Cadolle's creation as the "brassiere." After the word was added into the dictionary in 1911, the patent for the current brassiere followed shortly afterward.
The year was 1914. Mary Phelps Jacob, a prominent New York City socialite, was getting ready for a debutante event when she became frustrated with the boning of her corset poking her in her side. Her solution was to sew together two silk handkerchiefs with ribbon, and she danced the night away to the amazement of the other women in attendance. They asked her if she would sew them a brassiere, and after being offered money for her creation, she patented the "backless bra" within the same year before selling it for $1,500 to Warner Brothers Corset Co.
Her invention couldn't have come soon enough. The decimating efforts of World War I led to the government issuing a ban on corsets in order to use the metal to support the war effort. Corsets very quickly faded out of popularity, and the bra usurped its reign as the choice undergarment for women.
After Jacob's initial patent revolutionized women's undergarments, her design was soon adapted to fit the body craze of the Roaring '20s. Bandeau-style brassieres emerged as a result of women wanting to flatten their breasts to better fit the flapper aesthetic, keeping cleavage hidden to achieve a boyish figure.
Maidenform, one of the largest modern retailers of women's undergarments, was founded in 1922 in response to the boyish body standards favored during the flapper era. Run by husband and wife team Ida Cohen and William Rosenthal, alongside dressmaker Enid Bissett. The three introduced elastic materials into brassiere production and designed different kinds of brassieres to fit a wider variety of lifestyles, like the nursing bra.
The brand's most notable contribution to the brassiere was the creation of the modern sizing guide still in use today. The cup system, which classified breast size using an A, B, C, or D cup letter, offered yet another area of comfort for women in having a more customizable fit.
By the 1930s, the brassiere began to be colloquially referred to as the bra. Features that are commonplace today, such as adjustable straps, padded cups, and the hook and eye closure were introduced.
Even with these innovations, the first bra "trend" emerged during the 1940s: the bullet bra. No record can be found as to who created the first bullet bra, but this design sparked a trend of using a conical outline to accentuate the breasts. The unlined and unwired bra was all the rage, and really took hold during the 1950s when its recognizable concentric stitching dominated the market.
Companies like Fredrick's of Hollywood cemented the bullet bra's success in the 1950s by placing the silhouette on celebrities and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, Fredrick's of Hollywood is credited with producing the earliest push-up bra and shaping the way we view lingerie today; as something sexualized rather than something being worn out of necessity.
Source: History Daily
Bullet bras lost their chokehold on the market by the 1960s with the introduction of more comfortable materials like nylon. The pointy shape was soon replaced with a desire to accentuate the breasts through showing cleavage and creating the illusion of larger breasts. In 1964, Canadian designer Louise Poirier patented the Wonderbra, which offered different levels of padding and support to further customize the look of the breasts to the wearer's comfort. The Wonderbra didn't catch on until the 1990s.
At the time of their invention, brassieres were viewed as liberation from the corset. During the hippie movement of the 1960s, bras took the place of corsets and were instead viewed as a patriarchal tool designed to suppress and limit women. The second wave of the feminist movement was brought on in 1968, when activists gathered to protest the Miss America pageant in New Jersey. Although organizers of the protest say that bra-burning never occurred, the "bra-burning feminist" moniker remained.
Source: Wayne State University
The complaints that bras were uncomfortable were heard loud and clear in the 1970s, and the health kick of this decade led to the invention of the sports bra in 1977. Originally called the "Jogbra," the name was inspired by creator Lisa Lindahl's husband joking about how there wasn't a female equivalent to a jockstrap.
Her, alongside Linda Mille and Polly Smith, sewed together two jockstraps to create the first version of today's sports bra. Women suddenly had a more comfortable alternative to the traditional underwire bra, and one that allowed them to be active without any pain.
Victoria's Secret may have been founded in 1977, but the brand's popularity soared in 1982 when Les Wexner acquired the brand. The original owner wanted to create a lingerie store centered around men's vision of lingerie, but Wexner wanted to create affordable lingerie for women that looked and felt luxurious.
The brand quickly became one of the top-selling lingerie brands worldwide, and in 1995, the iconic Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was born. The show initially began with a tame showing of slips and cardigans, but soon blossomed into the spectacle it is today, introducing wings on the runway in 1998.
Source: Business Insider
Shortly thereafter, the "Victoria's Secret Angel" title was born, which was initially used to describe their core group of models featured at their annual show. The "Fantasy Bra" was released as the show fully transitioned from being a sexy spectacle instead of a showing of new collections, with price tags ranging in the millions of dollars.
In November of 2019, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was cancelled amidst harsh criticism that the brand promoted unrealistic body standards and was out of touch with consumers. The body positivity movement further exacerbated the brand's fall as more inclusive brands like Savage X Fenty Skims, and Aerie dominated the market by offering comfortable lingerie alongside sexier options.
Source: Teen Vogue
Although the movement started in 2000, Free the Nipple has regained traction in 2023 following years of blissful bralessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our modern bra history, the wide range of brands and greater freedom of choice in style allows women to choose the bra (or forego it altogether) that is most comfortable for them. We've come a long way from two handkerchiefs sewn together, and we're ready to see the continuation of the newfound freedom of women's bras.