News & Politics

A Social History of the Bra

One hundred years ago, Vogue coined the term 'brassiere' and launched a billion-dollar industry that changed the way women dress forever.

The bra was invented by an engineer of German extraction called Onto Titzling in 1912. He was living in a New York boarding house, and one of his neighbours, a voluptuous opera singer called Swanhilda Olafson, complained that she needed a garment to hoist her vast bosom aloft every evening -- so Titzling obliged, using some cotton, elastic and metal struts. Unfortunately, he failed to patent the device and, in the early 1930s, a Frenchman named Philippe de Brassiere began making a suspiciously similar object. Titzling took him to court, but the unscrupulous Frenchman won the day. And that's why the garment all the ladies are wearing is called a brassiere, not a titzling.

Bette Midler sang about this court case in the film Beaches, so obviously it's true, isn't it? Don't be ridiculous. It's a total fabrication, based on a spoof 1971 history by Wallace Reyburn, and is just one of a thousand tales and myths that punctuate the history of the small double-dome of cloth that encases the female chest.

The bra is a thing of wondrous variety. It has been called the Hemispheres of Paradise and, less flatteringly, the Over-the-Shoulder Boulder Holder. Its function has been, paradoxically, both modest concealment and brazen revelation. It has been praised as a revolutionary garment that freed women from constriction, and has been (allegedly) burnt in public as an emblem of oppression.

It's available in a riot of forms, including lacy, push-up, sporty, plunge-line, strapless, pointy, Cross Your Heart, conical, and Wonder. It's a billion-pound industry in the UK, and a $15bn mega-industry in America. No other garment has so closely shadowed the history of the status of women. No other garment has had the power to reduce intelligent, rational men to drooling boys and awestruck slaves.

Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1907, the word "brassiere" was used in Vogue for the first time. But its evolution goes back three millennia. Historians have found that, while Roman women sometimes wore a band of cloth over their breasts, to restrict their growth or conceal them, the Greeks favoured a less uptight approach. Some enterprising designer realised that such a belt worn under the breasts might accentuate them, to pleasing effect. (In the hierarchy of ideas that have made the world a better place, this is up there with light bulbs and indoor plumbing.)

The brazen Minoans were streets ahead of the Greeks, however: women in Crete wore material that both supported and revealed their bare breasts, in emulation of the snake goddess -- 3,000 years before the invention of glamour modelling.

While the French Revolution freed women from the corset (it was outlawed because of its fatal association with the aristocracy), elsewhere its rule continued. The big change came in the early 20th century, as women played more sport, and the corset divided into the girdle and the "bust bodice" , like a really scary bikini.

Early feminist organisations, such as the National Dress Reform Association in America, had warned against the health risks of corset-wearing and called for "emancipation garments". By 1900, several proto-bra experiments had been conducted. Henry Lesher of Brooklyn offered ladies a rigid metallic structure, like a dustbin, to hold their bits in place. Clara P Clark's "improved corset" came up with shoulder straps in 1874. Olivia P Flynt's "bust supporter" offered to hold each breast in a "fabric pocket" supported by wide straps.

In 1885, Charles Moorhouse romanced lady customers with his "inflatable breast-enlarging garment," with its rubber straps and cups. And in 1889, Herminie Cadolle invented the "soutien-gorge" (the name meant "throat-support") as part of a two-piece undergarment, patented her idea and showed it off at the Great Exhibition. It was 1905 before she thought of selling the upper section separately.

The word "brassiere" was once a military term meaning "arm protector" (le bras being French for arm), and, by extension, " breastplate". It was first used in the sense we understand it during the 1890s. Manufacturers used it in 1904, but it took a mention in the pages of Vogue in 1907 to make it a milestone in fashion history. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911. In that year, Britain's new king, George V, visited France with his queen, Mary. Because of her small stature beside the king, she was known to hilarious Parisians as " La Soutien-George".

Credit for the first brassiere usually goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, a 19-year-old girl-about-Manhattan who, in 1910, bought a sheer evening gown for a party. The whalebone corset that was supposed to define her figure actually poked out of the plunging fabric. What was a girl to do? She and her maid dug two silk hankies out of a drawer, sewed them on to a length of pink ribbon, added some string and tucked her breasts in place. Girlfriends asked if she would make a similar device for them. Then somebody paid her a dollar to do so, and she took the hint.

The "backless brassiere" was patented on 3 November, 1914. Ms Phelps Jacob (who later married Harry Crosby, founder of the Black Sun Press, which published works by D H Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway and Pound) didn't do well out of her invention. Disappointed by sales, she flogged the patent to the Warner Bros Corset Company for a measly $1,500. It was later valued at $15m.

The First World War saw more and more women abandoning corsets, as they found themselves, for the first time, in uniform and factory garb. The bra began to take off -- not that the fashions of the time gave it much to work with. The flat-chested "flapper" look required breasts to be flattened and bound rather than lifted and defined.

The next bra revolution was the Maidenform breakthrough in 1922. In a New York shop called Enid Frocks, a seamstress, Ida Rosenthal, spotted that women with the same chest size didn't necessarily look right in the same bra, because the breasts were different shapes; and so cup size was born. In accentuating and lifting the bosom, rather than trying to flatten it, they bade farewell to the flapper, and paved the way for the future glamourpuss.

In the next two decades, a combination of Hollywood starriness, ever-bolder advertising, and the lure of department stores saw a colossal boom in women's products; and the bra was, so to speak, at the forefront. Maidenform was joined by Gossard, Triumph, Spirella and Teilfit, manufacturers who fought tooth and nail to invent refinements: better fabrics, patterns, straps, cups, fibres, padded sections. As the technology became more abstruse, the garment's name was simplified, in the 1930s, to "bra" .

The Second World War helped, with the Forces' insistence that low-rank military women should wear bras and girdles "for protection" -- especially the ludicrously conical "Torpedo" or "Bullet" bras. Step, or rather wiggle, forward the Sweater Girl, whose tight jumper was meant to show off the artificial jut of her breasts, like twin artillery shells.

The Fifties saw the pointy bra give way to a more shapely, maternal look (probably helped by the huge post-war baby boom), and the market rose exponentially, with ever-greater choices of bra, new styles, paddings, even functions: the zip-up nursing bra was born, and the 24-hour "Sweet Dreams" model.

The Sixties saw the biggest upset in the history of the garment, when Germaine Greer declared, "Bras are a ludicrous invention," and her sister feminists insisted that they reduced women to sex objects. The key moment was the 1968 demonstration by 400 women against the Miss America beauty show at Atlantic City Convention Hall. Somebody put a "Freedom Trash Can" on the ground and encouraged protesters to throw into it girdles, nylons, bras, curlers, high-heeled shoes and other emblems of enslavement. When the can was full, someone suggested setting fire to it, but no one could obtain a permit, and the plan was, rather weedily, dropped. But the idea of "bra-burning feminists" remained a potent image in the public mind -- on a level with students burning their draft cards in protest against the Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s, the head of the Canadian Lady Corset company died and his son, Larry Nadler, a Harvard-educated MBA, conducted some intense market research. Women, he discovered, didn't hate their bras as symbols of oppression. Rather, they considered them a means to looking beautiful. Nadler targeted the bra market with something new: it would be seamless, sexy and flattering, and would appeal to teenage girls. His invention was called the "Dici (by Wonderbra)" -- of the two names, the former was later ditched, and the latter went on to change the world.

In underwear history, the Wonderbra was the Great Liberator. Bras would no longer lurk unseen behind a lady's blouse. They would no longer be " unmentionable," nor be a defence against prying male eyes. On the contrary, they'd be the main attraction. Rather than "lift and separate" (the Playtex tag line), the Wonderbra would yank the breasts together and shove them in your face. Rather than a purely functional garment, they would be seen as a means of attraction, marketed as a luxury item.

In 1974, its TV commercials took the unprecedented step of showing a woman's torso wearing only a Wonderbra, with the tag line, "We care about the shape you're in". By 1980, sales in Canada alone hit $30m.

In 1991, Gossard took on the brand under licence and hit a wave of popular uplift. British women in the early Nineties became fixated by plunging lines and spilling cleavages. Vogue carried articles on the return of the padded bra, Vivienne Westwood brought out a range of outrageous corsetry, and Jean Paul Gaultier began his cheeky experiments with lingerie worn as outerwear -- a trend that reached its apogee with the conical breastplate worn by Madonna on her Blond Ambition tour.

The Wonderbra, now owned by Sara Lee, the parent company behind Playtex, scored a bull's-eye with its 1994 poster campaign showing the model Eva Herzigova gazing at her pushed-together breasts, and the words "Hello Boys". In major conurbations across the UK, cars mounted the pavement or crashed into bollards as motorists tried -- and failed -- to drag their eyes away from Ms Herzigova's perky frontage. The image was later voted No 10 in a "Poster of the Century" contest.

Rigby & Peller, corsetière to the Queen since 1960, opened its flagship store in London in 1994. It is prized by its well-heeled clients for its expert fitting service -- it claims that 80 per cent of women who walk through its door are wearing the wrong size and fit of boulder-holder (and need constant refittings, every six months or so). The company has had a huge influence by insisting that a bra is far from a one-size-fits-all clothing item -- that it's something unique to the individual, like a second skin.

In the 2000s, the market has expanded (ahem) to bursting point. The arrival over here of Continental brands such as Lejaby and La Perla, and newer brands such as Under Cover and Elle Macpherson Intimates have established bras as a self-indulgently luxury purchase, while the Agent Provocateur and Myla houses have opened up a lucrative market in sexy products for women who like to remind themselves of the wanton seductress that lurks beneath their sensible business suits.

The top-of-the-range modern bra is a semi-visible item, heralded by a pretty, pastel-coloured shoulder strap that hints, a little saucily, at the colour of its wearer's matching bra and pants down below. It's a long way from the days when underwear was about concealment, flattening and the furtive "structuring" of female breasts. While sales of functional Marks & Spencer cotton bras are still high -- and the world bestseller remains the sturdy Triumph Doreen, as worn by millions of ladies over 50 -- many women are happy to spend £100 on a pure-silk number as a caressing indulgence.

It has to be silk, though -- not cotton, or lace, or nylon or polyester. Strangely similar, in fact, to the twin silk handkerchiefs sewn together with some pink ribbon by Mary Phelps Jacob's enterprising maid, a whole century ago.

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