The History of the Bra

The History of the Bra

We’re ushering in the next era of the blog with a new blogger, Sam, joining ab167 as another resident historian of fashion.

It’s a convenient enough beginning, so here we go: the bra as we know it is a century old.

Obviously, women have been hoisting up, holding in and otherwise supporting their bosoms for much longer – in fact, even the word “brassiere” is older than the bra, entering the English language via the French for “child’s vest” in the late 1800s. Corset makers borrowed the term, and the word had made it into Vogue by 1907. But the first official patent for a brassiere was granted in late 1914 to an American socialite.

Mary Phelps Jacob had a new evening gown. Its silhouette did not work with the whalebone corset she was meant to be wearing, so she used two handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon to rein in her bust for the evening. This makeshift undergarment proved immensely popular, and with some encouragement from her first husband, the idea was patented. Unfortunately, she wasn’t much of a businesswoman, and she ended up selling her patent for $1,500 to the Warner Bros. Corset Company, who made several million in the over the next few decades.


Vintage bra advertisement, via

The First World War contributed to the brassiere’s popularity, as the U.S. War Industries board placed a ban on corsets in 1917. Corset frames at this time were primarily made of metal, and the corset ban is credited with saving 28,000 tons of metal – enough for two warships.

At the same time, women’s fashion as a whole was moving away from the “monobosom” trend of the 1910s, and by the following decade, emphasis had decidedly shifted to the legs. Women in Europe and North America were first granted the vote in the years following WWI, and women’s fashion reflected this changing role. Women wore bandeaus if they were already small-chested, and the more well-endowed resorted to vests called “boyish forms” and undergarments like the Symington Side Lacer in order to flatten their chests.

While this is clearly more comfortable than wearing a corset, anyone who has attempted to wear a too-tight sports bra for more than a few hours can tell you it isn’t really that fun. In reaction, dressmakers Enid Bissett and Ida Rosenthal enlisted the aid of Ida’s husband William to create a “Maiden Form” brassiere. Demand for this garment rose, and the trio founded the Maidenform Brassiere Company in 1929.

The 1930s were a more welcoming era for breasts, as a softer and less-rectangular silhouette became popular. Cup sizes were invented – though it is unclear by whom, since at least three companies are currently taking credit. The first falsies are sold, under the name “gay deceivers.” Adjustable straps, elastic and the short form “bra” all appear.

Wartime shortages of both materials and male workers mean that women enter the workforce in the 1940s with increasingly less-restrictive undergarments. Many companies promote brassieres as good for both health and morale. Longline bras and strapless bras enter the picture, and fuller chests are increasingly desired. The average bust measurement for Miss America winners in this decade is a full two inches larger than it was in the 1920s.


 Vintage bra advertisement, via

This sets the stage for the 1950s and the rise of the bullet bra. These brassieres lift, separate, and add volume with minimal need for additional padding. Playboy enters the scene in 1953, and the “sweater girls”, curvaceous stars including Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, rise to stardom. This decade is, I kid you not, referred to as “mammary madness” by scholars.

However, eventually one can get enough of a good thing, and curves started to lose their popularity. In the 1960s, Twiggy and Shrimpy usher in the mini-skirt and fashion cycles back to a more androgynous silhouette. Bras are thinner than ever before, thanks to the invention of Lycra, and some women choose to go without. Yves Saint-Laurent debuts a sheer blouse in 1966 – the model does not wear a bra. Manufacturers begin making skin-tone bras in response. The Miss America protest of 1968 forever links feminism and bra-burning.


 Vintage bra ad, 1972, via

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Wonderbra is invented in 1964. No one really cares. There is a licensing problem, and they’re not even sold in the United States, though they are somewhat popular in Europe.

The slender figures of the 1960s transform into the natural, svelte figures of the 1970s. The braless look is still popular, I guess, because this was a thing.

The first sports bra is invented in 1977, when two jockstraps are sewn together. This comes in handy, because the 1980s are the era of the hardbody. Everybody’s working out. Women are rocking shoulder pads, the power suit is in. Underneath this tough exterior, though, sexy lingerie begins trending. Things get frilly, silky, lacy. Underwear as outerwear has its moment in the sun, with Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 1982-83 collection featuring silky bras over sweatshirts, and Gaultier begins working with Madonna in 1987 (leading to the iconic cone bra of 1990).
Camisoles are increasingly recommended as a basic top for underneath suit sets.

In the 1990s, models become waif-life, and “heroin chic” is in – but this is also the decade for Pamela Anderson, breast augmentation, and Baywatch. Brassieres in the first half of the decade aren’t especially noteworthy – though if you have ever watched a Friends rerun, you can see that network television clearly had no issue with visible nipples. Underwear as outerwear continues in the form of exposed bra straps, which a 1999 Boca Raton article blames on the fashion industry’s “gibberish about how visible bra straps are so déclassé as to be hip and cool in a girl-rocker, Lilith Fair sort of way.”


Wonder(ing where they are) Bras, via

Thirty years after its creation, someone in the United States finally notices that the Wonderbra exists. When it and the Miracle Bra hit the markets in 1994, they account for less than 3% of the U.S. bra market. By 2000, they were up to 10% and the number kept climbing. By the end of the next decade, the silhouette provided by a push-up bra is fairly ubiquitous. T-shirt bras are the norm. While rounded, full bosoms and generous cleavage are everywhere, nipples are no longer welcome on television. Clear bra straps and gel-filled push-up bras both make short-lived, ill-advised appearances. By 2014, nearly 85% of the bra models sold at Victoria’s Secret have some form of padding.


Year of the Nipple, via Getty

Now, however, the pendulum is starting to swing back, with red-carpet looks featuring more side-boob and plunging necklines, less pushed-together cleavage. The braless look returned to runways in fall 2014, prompting Elle to declare that 2014 was “the year of the nipple”. My guess? Yes and no – while bralettes and unlined bras are becoming more popular at all price points, average bra sizes are continuing to climb and I think it’ll take a bit more time for the natural look to come back in.

Shopping List

Bras_1 Bras_3 Bras_2
Long Line Bras


Bras_4 Bras_5 Bras_6


Sports Bras


Bras_8 Bras_9 Bras_7


Lacey Bras


Bras_11 Bras_12 Bras_10


Vintage/Retro Flair


Bras_14 Bras_15 Bras_13


Alternative Bras



I think we’ve found the Wonderbras, via 


Strix (Sam) | Author
Ab167 | Editor
Bhoka | Graphics
LadySyrupp | Shopping


Intro Image via Flickr

“2014 is the Year of the Nipple”.

“The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1801 to the Present”. Jill Condra, ed. 2008. Excerpts online at

“Enid Bissett, Ida Rosenthal & William Rosenthal – An Uplifting Idea”. Entrepreneur. October 9, 2008.

Dyas, Brie. “The Nipple Bra is the 1970s Most Confusing Contribution to Lingerie History”. Huffington Post. August, 2013.
Givhan, Robin. “Blame exposed bra straps on the fashion industry”. Boca Raton News. August 23, 1999.,2487176

Kaufman, Leslie. “Ideas & Trends; And Now, a Few More Words About Breasts”. New York Times. September 17, 2000.

Licata, Elizabeth. “10 Great Moments in Bra History”. June 13, 2014.

Mazur, Allen. “U.S. Trends in Feminine Beauty and Overadaptation”. The Journal of Sex Research. August, 1986.

Pandinka, Melissa. “Bra History: How a War Shortage Reshaped Modern Shapewear”. August 5, 2014.

Seigel, Jessica. “The Cups Runneth Over.” New York Times. February 13, 2004.

Spivack, Emily. “The History of the Flapper, Part 3: The Rectangular Silhouette” February 9, 2013.

Robinson, Tianna. “Yves Saint Laurent, Rembembering A Fashion Legend.” August 1, 2013.

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This article was written by'

I’m Sam, an avid lover of both clothing and trivia. When I’m not hunched over my keyboard, working on my thesis or finishing a translation… I am probably still hunched over my keyboard, searching for an ebay find or where the word “cardigan” comes from. I’ll be popping in from time to time with a gleeful overabundance of information on the things we wear.

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