Updated: May 8
Underwire, push-up, strapless, tube, padded… Walk into any lingerie store and you'll find a wide array of bras. The modern bra we know today, though seemingly simple and little as articles of clothing go, went through many centuries of evolution and iterations. Strap in for a quick history of the support this undergarment has been providing women through the ages.
14th Century: Proto-bras
As early as the 1300s, Minoan art depicted women wearing a bandeau-like band of cloth to support their busts. This article of clothing is said to be called an apodesmos, which was wrapped in front in the bust and fastened with pins in the back. Though, it is believed that these were uncommon and that women in the rest of the Greek world were generally au naturale under simple sheath dresses.
16th Century: The Corset
In the 1500s, women’s undergarments began shifting into what was known as the corset, which was the essential shaping garment for fashionable women in the western world from the Renaissance period through to the early 20th century. At first, women wore a linen underbodice as a soft body shaper, but over time the corset evolved into stiffer and more rigid pieces as women aimed to achieve the perfect female figure. Though this sounds uncomfortable, corsets remained a popular fashion statement for the next few centuries.
1869: The 1st Modern Bra
In 1869, a French lady named Herminie Cadolle presented her corselet gorge, or “corset divided in two”, at a Paris fashion show. It separated the bottom waist-shaping half of the corset from the top half that had sewn-on straps. Cadolle refined her invention over the next few years and soon the top part became known as a "soutien-gorge", which literally translates to “throat support,” and was being sold separately from the corset.
1914: The Brassiere
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob used two pocket handkerchiefs and some ribbon to fashion something akin to a halter top bikini. This was greeted with much amazement by the ladies of Manhattan society who were wearing uncomfortable whalebone corsets. She continued to tinker with her design until she filed a patent for her “backless brassiere” on 12 February 1914.
1930s: Cup Sizes
By the 1930s, the term “brassiere” was shortened to “bra”. Large-scale production began and the concept of cup sizes was introduced: A-cup represented 8 ounces; B was 13 ounces, C was 21 ounces, and D cup was 27 ounces. Wearing bras became less about squashing the bust down and more about making them shapely. In addition, adjustable elastic straps, eyehooks and underwires also became more common.
1964: The Pushup Bra
Designed by a Canadian lingerie company, the “Wonderbra” was specifically created to simultaneously lift and push the bustline together with the help of padded inserts. When this became a popular look, bras also became more colourful and flashy, with designs such as leopard-print patterns and lacy bras.
1977: The 1st Sports Bra
In response to the need for a bra that provided more support during their fitness routines, Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller and Polly Smith banded together to invent the "Jogbra", originally known as the “jockbra”, by sewing together two men's jockstraps and some fabric.
With the turn of the 21st century, the fashion industry saw the rise of new, fancier, colourful, bolder and sexier bra designs. Bras are no longer strictly undergarments, but can be part of outerwear fashion. Women now have the choice to pick their bra based on need, style, comfort, utility, design or attractiveness.