Strapped in: the origins and evolution of the bra

The brassiere became an essential foundation garment during the early 20th century, but its origins may be traced back more than 1,500 years...

By The Museum at FIT

Early brassiere (Late 14th century to second half 15th century)The Museum at FIT

Fashion firsts

Determining “firsts” in fashion history is challenging, and the invention of the brassiere is no exception. Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale, dating to the early fourth century AD, famously houses a mosaic depicting women athletes wearing bra-like garments while throwing the discus, lifting weights, and playing ball games...

At a 2008 excavation at Austria’s medieval Lengberg Castle, archaeologists found 4 linen proto-brassieres.

Two resembled modern brassieres, with shoulder straps, cups for the breasts, and lace embellishments. Radiocarbon dating reveals that they were made between the late 14th century to the second half of the 15th century.

Fashion plate (1778 (reprinted 1912))The Museum at FIT

Despite the existence of proto-brassieres, corsets became the essential foundation garments for fashionable women in the western world, from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

Corsetry shaped the breasts and the waist, and sometimes the hips.

During the 18th century, corsets were made with whalebone or similar materials, to mold women’s bodies into an inverted cone shape, emphasizing a narrow waist.

Surviving corsets from the era were not made with separate cups, and fashion plates show how they pushed the breasts up and together.

Corset (c. 1815)The Museum at FIT

By the 1790s, high-waisted neoclassical gowns that accentuated the breasts came into fashion.

This silhouette carried into the early nineteenth century, and led to the development of new corsetry styles.

The bust was sometimes highlighted through contoured cups were divided by a busk - rigid material in a center front pocket that ran the length of the wearer’s torso.

Some foundation garments from the early 1800s, referred to as “bust bodices,” eliminated the fabric over the waist entirely.

Corset (c. 1905)The Museum at FIT

An hourglass silhouette dominated fashion during the second half of the 19th century.

By the early 1900s, a new straight-front corset style rested low on the bosom and extended over the hips.

The resulting shape was an “S” curve that pushed the breasts forward, pressed in the stomach, and arched the back.

Although this silhouette was sinuous and alluring, the corset style necessary to achieve the shape was highly constricting.

Debates about the perils of corsetry – already a topic of deliberation among physicians, fashion designers, and dress reformers, among others – intensified during this time.

Patent (1863)The Museum at FIT

The straight-front corset had less bust support than previous styles, so some women also adopted proto-brassieres or bust supporters.

Bust supporters became more common during the early 20th century, but inventors had regularly filed patents for such garments as early as the 1860s.

Luman L. Chapman’s intriguing 1863 patent had fabric “breast puffs,” “elastic shoulder-brace straps,” and whalebone under the breasts.

He tried to eliminate the friction between fabric and skin, boasting the design could be “worn by all females at all times without either inconvenience or injury.”

Bust supporter (c. 1905)The Museum at FIT

Bust supporters took various forms. This one is heavily boned at front and back, shaping the breasts into the fashionable early-20th-century “monobosom” silhouette.

Rigid bust supporters were gradually eclipsed by softly constructed designs that became known in the United States as “brassieres.”

Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) patented the most frequently referenced modern brassiere in 1914, after making one from two handkerchiefs to wear under an evening dress.

Although her design was not a huge commercial success, the “bra” was established as an essential underpinning by 1917.

Brassiere (c. 1924)The Museum at FIT

By the 1920s, most bras bore little resemblance to the bust supporters worn earlier in the century.

The fashionable body type was increasingly slender, and many bras were intended to de-emphasize the bosom.

One common bra style, the bandeau, was designed to cover and contain the breasts, rather than support them.

The simplicity of the bandeau’s design could be easily mass produced and even made by women at home.

Brassiere and petticoat (c. 1949)The Museum at FIT

In the mid-20th century, the bust returned as a focal point, enhanced by various bra styles.

Overwire bras arched over the breasts, rather than supporting them from below.

This emphasized the bosom's shape and eliminated cleavage - ideal for women wearing evening gowns with plunging necklines.

A return to the hourglass silhouette — most famously associated with the couturier Christian Dior’s New Look — necessitated a return to corsetry.

These more modern corsets often featured underwire cups and flexible boning combined with elasticized panels.

Brassiere and half-slip (c. 1965) by Rudi GenreichThe Museum at FIT

The rigidity of foundation fashions in the 1950s subsided during the following decade.

In 1965, the designer Rudi Gernreich took the trend for softer undergarments to its most extreme when he introduced his “no bra” bra.

Made from sheer nylon and devoid of structure, this garment served as a testament to the acceptance of the “natural,” braless look in fashion, while also offering a subtle barrier between the wearer’s skin and her clothing.

Lingerie ensemble (Fall 2013) by Chantal ThomassThe Museum at FIT

Innovations in bra design throughout the 20th century continue to play an important role in today’s lingerie market.

Countless options to women may be dictated by body type, occasion, and personal preference - rather than to a single prevailing fashion.

While the aesthetics of many bras take their cue from past styles, manufacturers continue to improve fit and function.

Body-scanning technology can precisely measure a woman’s bust, offering guidance for purchasing the correct bra size or providing dimensions for a custom-fit bra.

3D-printing may potentially produce more comfortable and supportive replacements for underwire.

Credits: Story

Author: Colleen Hill

Special thanks to Beatrix Nutz, researcher at the Institute for Archaeology at University of Innsbruck, and Karen Trivette, Head of Special Collections and College Archives at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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