For centuries, women have been wearing garments that were designed to retain, shape or support their breasts. Some did the job, some didn’t. And if you look at sketches of the contraptions our ancestors wore, you will quickly become thankful for the options we have today.
The Uncomfortable Corset
The bra as we know it has evolved from corsets stiffened with whale backbones and steel rods that were tightened with laces and pulleys. These devices not only restrained or enhanced breasts, depending on the era, they also were known to simultaneously squeeze the size of an adult woman’s waist to an unnatural and unhealthy 13 inches or less. Yikes!
We must all give thanks to a woman named Mary Phelps Jacob, who in 1913 was headed to a social event. She bought a silky, sheer evening gown to wear, but the lines of her whale-bone corset were visible through the dress. So, as the story goes, “two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon later,” Mary had designed an alternative to the corset.
The Rise of the Brassiere
Mary’s new design for the brassiere (derived from the French word for upper arm) was a hit and complemented the fashions at the time. She had the design patented in 1914, but the socialite did not enjoy running a business, so she sold her patent for a light weight, soft garment to the Warner Brothers Corset Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., for $1,500. During the next 30 years, Warner Brothers Corset Co. reportedly made more than $15 million from the patent.
In the early 1930s, designers began creating bras with “cups,” and in the mid-1930s, U.S. designers introduced bras with different cup sizes A, B, C and D. Starting to sound familiar?
It’s worth noting that there was an actual shortage of bras in the 1940s, due to the wars. Women had to order bras and wait until manufacturers could get fabric to make them. If they couldn’t wait, women often made their own bras using parachute silk or satin taken from their wedding dress.
It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. Bras are now available in any style, shape and color you can imagine, and you can buy them at almost any store you enter. Kinder, gentler corset-style bras are still available and popular for brides and special occasions, like prom.
We’re lucky in so many ways, and we often take things for granted. That’s why we must remember that even though we still “suffer for fashion,” at least we don’t have to use laces and pulleys to tighten a whale-bone corset every day before we head out the door. And we can thank Mary Phelps Jacob for that one.