Bra. Brassiere. Bustier. Over-the-shoulder boulder-holder. Call it what you want, but there’s no denying the impact the bra has had on our culture. Most women know the bra intimately, and most men wish they could get their hands on more of them.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re showing some historical respect for the breasts’ biggest supporter. From whalebone corsets to bejeweled nipple covers, bras have seen a wide array of shapes, sizes and uses.
The evolution the bra:
From handkerchiefs to jockstraps
Remember that scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean” when Keira Knightley’s character struggles to speak while her maid laces up her corset? She later passes out and falls off a building because it’s so tight that she can’t breathe. While that isn’t a strictly accurate portrayal of 19th century fashion, women did wear those monstrosities at one time. Maybe that’s where the phrase “beauty is pain” comes from.
Corsets were made of cloth and a kind of stiff boning — often metal — to keep their structure. They were laced up very tightly in order to make a woman’s waist look trim. It’s no wonder those girls had such good posture — they probably couldn’t have slouched if they wanted to.
The corset was essentially the starting point in women’s undergarments. It did not have support for breasts in its first incarnation, but that changed in 1863 when Luman L. Chapman invented a modernized version with “breast puffs” and straps. His patent is widely regarded as the start of breast support.
Fast-forward to 1907 when the word “brassiere” first appears in none other than Vogue magazine. It’s added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1912.
Two years later, Mary Phelps Jacob patented the first “real bra,” using two handkerchiefs and a ribbon for straps. It was extremely innovative for the time because it didn’t have a midsection. It might surprise some, but Jacob’s bra was popular because it flattened the breasts, which was fashionable for the flapper style associated with the 1920s.
The flattening brassiere wasn’t widely successful for long because it didn’t fit all shapes and sizes. Eventually, someone decided the flat-chested look wasn’t the most fashionable.
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, bras were made by Maidenform to accentuate the female shape and enhance cleavage with shapes that lift and separate.
After that, bras turned into something much more familiar to the styles we see today, when it was realized that measurements for the bust and breasts should be on separate scales. Form Fit used three different cup sizes — small, average and full — for each band size in 1932. Letters A through D were assigned to cup sizes by S.H. Camp and Company soon after, and major manufacturers followed suit.
It was an important addition to the garment, because one size certainly did not — and still doesn’t — fit all.
Stacey Fox, owner of Stacey’s, a formalwear store in Urbandale selling bras and lingerie, said women today are still often wearing the wrong size of bra.
“About 80 percent of all the women coming into our store are not wearing the right bra,” she said. “Women should be changing their bras and having a new bra fit every eight months or so.”
This surely wasn’t the case in the 1930s, when accessories such as multiple fasteners and D rings to adjust band sizes and shoulder straps began to appear, making bras to fit a variety of shapes and sizes.
Was that the end of the bra’s evolution? Of course not. Marilyn Monroe helped introduce a different shape: the pointed cup. It’s called the “Belle Poitrine,” and it created a cone-shaped silhouette — think Madonna’s golden getup in 1990.
The bra didn’t see any major new styling changes until the 1970s when Frederic Mellinger’s store, Fredrick’s of Hollywood, introduced sheer black lingerie.
And though sex appeal is a big selling point for the undergarment, it’s also a necessity for athletic women trying to find comfort while working out.
Fitness took off in the late 1970s, and the demand for seam-free, comfortable support grew. Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith and Hinda Schreiber designed the first “jockbra” by sewing together two jock straps, later renaming it the “Jogbra” and selling it to Playtex in 1990.
In the 1980s, push-ups and demi cups ruled the undergarment world, making “sexy” an everyday term thanks to the booming growth of Victoria’s Secret. Push-ups and lingerie became more popular than ever, leading to the hugely popular Wonderbra, which was first introduced in the 1960s but gained national attention in the ’90s.
One of the stranger inventions in bra history was in 1997 with the Water Bra, which is exactly what it sounds: a bra filled with water and designed to enhance the breasts while making them look more “natural” than a standard padded bra.
Today’s bras are the most varied in the fashion’s 100 years of history. From tiny pieces of transparent lace to heavy-duty nylon and spandex, the choices are seemingly endless.
There’s even a bra that really isn’t a bra. For instance, one can now choose self-adhesive cotton or silicone cups to accompany backless or strapless outfits. Thought underwire was uncomfortable? Try peeling one of those sticky cups off your nipple.
And, for those women who like to keep fashion interesting, there are glitter-encrusted and sequin-patterned nipple coverings to add a bit of decoration to an otherwise boring transparent top.
“The biggest trend (currently) is that bras have become apparel,” said Fox. “People are wearing (bras) as clothing instead of under clothing.”
And then there are those women who would rather do without — like Rihanna, who’s taken to wearing nothing under her see-through ensembles on occasion.
After more than a century of innovative designs and ever-changing styles, the bra has seemingly come full circle.
Feminism and the ban on bras
Though perhaps the most famous, Rihanna isn’t the first person to turn her back on the bra. Back when women started their fight for equal rights in the late 1960s, the ban on bras and “bra burning” became synonymous with feminism.
The concept of bra burning began with a Miss America Pageant protest in 1968. On Sept. 7, about 400 protesters gathered with items signifying how the male-dominated culture held women in strict ideas of beauty. They threw fake eyelashes, girdles, heels and feminine products into a trash can on the Atlantic City boardwalk in New Jersey.
The protestors burned those and other symbolic items in what they called a “freedom trash can” — because starting a fire on the boardwalk itself was illegal. No bras were actually burned, although some reports say there may have been exclamations to do just that.
In an article called “Bra-Burning Feminists: NOT,” Jone Johnson Lewis, a women’s history expert, explains the misinterpretation of facts and quotes that led to the misperception.
“One report has The New York Times quoting Robin Morgan (political theorist and activist) saying that bras would be burned. There is a New York Times article from Sept. 8, 1968, in which Morgan promises that nothing dangerous like burning bras will be done, ‘just a symbolic bra-burning.’ Symbolic,” wrote Lewis.
There is no evidence of any bras being burned at early feminist demonstrations at any point in the 1960s, even after the Miss America protest. The fact that the connection still has merit is infuriating and offensive to many feminists today.
“I think when you reduce the movement to what might be viewed as a stunt in order to get people to laugh at what the movement was about, it’s not helpful to the movement,” said Sally Frank, a law professor at Drake University.
The demonstration at the 1968 pageant was a critique of the modern culture meant to shed light on the bigger issue of beauty and the expectations for women.
Pamphlets produced by the protesters said contestants exemplify the “Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol” and compared it to a 4-H county fair, where animals are judged based on their grooming.
Frank acknowledged that the Miss America Pageant has changed in that it now advertises about its scholarships more, whereas in the 1960s it didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was — a beauty pageant.
Several protesters bought tickets to the pageant and held up a bed sheet from the balcony that read, “Women’s Liberation,” while shouting the same phrase. Cameras didn’t show it, but the media still covered it, and “women’s liberation” became a household term.
The protest started a revolution that eventually changed the lives of women through “changes in rape laws to women’s abuse laws, apparel, pants — you don’t see girdles anymore,” Frank said.
Banning — not burning — bras was one of the first ways to take a stand as liberated women. Bras were often restricting and uncomfortable, and they were yet another thing worn by women to enhance their feminine figures and attract the male gaze, similar to the makeup and heels added to the freedom trash can at the Miss America Protest.
“Women did protest about bras, girdles, undergarments that affected women’s ability to breathe and women’s freedom and comfort,” said Frank. “And about whether the purposes of the undergarment were for the woman or for the men looking at her.”
A large number of women joined the rebellion. As Lewis stated in her article, “Going braless felt like a revolutionary act — being comfortable above meeting social expectations.”
The bra wins
But the bra manufacturers wouldn’t let themselves be so easily forgotten.
Designers recognized that, regardless of whether or not women claimed to be anti-bra-wearing feminists, they still needed support. But this time around they gave it to them without so much “restraint,” creating more flexible styles, and Rudi Gernreich presented the “No Bra Bra,” which was nude-colored and soft.
“(Victoria’s Secret has) gotten a little less racy and a little more broad in appeal,” said Frank. “So not everything is sexualized there; they’ve broadened their stock.”
And so the bra wins out.
Why wear a bra?
The bra was invented for support, and it’s still the main purpose for wearing bras — but it’s far from the only one.
Bras and underwear give clothes a better fit and make them more flattering, according to Fox, who knows function comes before fashion when it comes to undergarments.
“As pretty as bras and undergarments are, many people stick with the functional,” she said. “Bras that make your clothes look good are the biggest sellers. It drives me crazy when people spend a ton of money on their clothes and then don’t focus on the foundations.”
That’s why it might come as a surprise that, in shopping for the right bra, it’s not always about which one looks the best on the hanger or shows the most cleavage. While “bigger is better” might be one of the most popular bra-styling mottos in modern times, it’s not necessarily true for everyone.
“Overall, right now, comfort is key,” said Fox. “People pick items because they are comfortable.”
But some women disagree. Frank, who grew up during the early stages of the women’s rights movement, thinks bras and similar undergarments are about expectations.
“For many people, it’s not about comfort,” she said. “Even small-breasted women who don’t need any kind of support feel the need to wear a bra because that’s what society tells them and what men want.”
Back in the days of corsets, women’s fashion centered on holding everything in — a good figure meant a tiny waist, not necessarily big breasts. That might be hard to imagine in today’s world of Playboy bunnies and Kardashians.
But it’s true: All the way through the flapper era, girls strived for a “boyish figure” — a big-chested woman’s nightmare.
That trend didn’t last forever — although we’re seeing less emphasis placed on push-ups and overflowing cleavage as the fashion world takes another turn on the merry-go-round of what’s in and what’s out, as Fox knows all too well from owning her own store.
“Trends change, and bras go along with that,” she said.
When the world decided flat was out, bras received a major overhaul that allowed for optimal cleavage. Cue the Wonderbra, which pushed the breasts up and in, in addition to the padding that increased the overall size of a woman’s boobs.
Alas! All the small-chested girls who wanted the results of a boob job without the monetary investment could finally “grow.”
After seeing women’s chests get bigger and rounder, girls everywhere were hoarding boxes of Kleenex and attempting to get the same results while hoping and praying their parents didn’t notice.
Movies and sitcoms ran with this phenomenon, creating countless scenes in which adolescent boys flocked to the girls whose chest bumps suddenly turned into mountains overnight. Adolescent girls became mortified when their secret — tissues — came out but it did show the down side of DIY boob jobs before millions of young ladies raided their sock doors and faced the inevitable humiliation themselves.
Bra stuffing is nothing new, though. Women were wearing bras filled with tissues and socks decades ago thanks to the enviable bosoms of stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
That led to the term “falsies,” which described extra padding that could be stuffed into a bra to enhance the size even more. Falsies come in multiple shapes and materials and are basically unnoticeable under clothes — the threat of embarrassment doesn’t start until the layers come off.
There are also the kinds of falsies that lift the breasts, much like the girlfriend-tested, boyfriend-approved push-up bra. It’s not enough that boobs look big and round — they have to sit high and proud, like two trophies atop an invisible shelf.
Probably the most well known display of push-ups is the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. But women of all cup sizes can attest to the fact that there’s a time and place for such decorative brassieres.
As Elisabeth Squires once said: “First rule of cleavage: It’s not how low you go, but where and when you show.” CV