The (Short) History of The Bra

In this day and age, it’d be very hard to find someone who doesn’t know what a bra is. But do you know just how much the bra has changed over the years? We’re talking a transformation bigger than Justin Bieber’s. Take a walk through history with us to see the bra’s major glow-up, and trump everyone at trivia night with your fashion knowledge.

The idea of holding your chest up with fabric isn’t a new one. Even going as far back as Roman times, there are mosaics of young women playing sport in an ancient “bikini”. This was common practice for many young women in ancient Greece and Rome who were athletic or had an ancient on-the-go lifestyle. What can we say – ancient boobs needed support, too.

Going back even further, archaeologists found a leather “thong” dating back to the first century AD. Scandalous! Who knew thongs could be London Museum worthy? 

Photo: Jos Dielis.

Whether you love it or hate it, the bra as we know it today gets its origins from the corsets of the 1800s – complete with boning and all. It provided the lady of the time the extra bit of lift, back support, and padding she needed to spin yarn, churn butter, or whatever else they did back then.

The corsets of the time had a more natural shape than previous centuries. They were made of natural fibres to allow for comfort over a chemise, as it distributed the weight of structural outer garments. The design even allowed women to put on their corsets by themselves! Yep, your historical dramas lied to you; not everyone can afford to have a maid and be ‘tight-laced.’ We’re looking at you, Rose from Titanic.

Photo: Getty Images

You might find you have more in common with a Victorian young adult than you think! One of the reasons people think corsets are uncomfortable in modern times is thanks to ‘tight-lacing’ satire. Just like how your grandparents make jokes about your holey jeans, young Victorian women dealt with the press and society making fun of their clothing choices! This included writing many satirical articles about how ladies’ lacing was so tight they would faint. Oh, the frivolity of these vain women! While some women did tight-lace their corset, it was highly uncommon.

But as they say, some things really never change – like making fun of young adults for their fashion choices. So next time Nan asks where the rest of your top is, just remember she probably copped some similar teasing back in her day (after all, tube tops became popular in the ‘70s).

Photo: The British Museum

Taking a step forward, the split corset – created by French designer Herminie Cadolle (yeah, the girls!) – is closer to what a modern bra looks like. Vogue, having always been on trend, coined the term “Brassiere” in American Vogue back in 1907 to describe the top segment of the split corset, with the Oxford English Dictionary even adding the word to its vocab list in 1911. The big change happened in WW1 as the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for manufacturing. Ugh – the sacrifices we make. Surprisingly, they were able to build two battleships with the 28,000 tonnes of metal saved. With the rise of women in the workforce, lots of women opted for a less emphasised look, which suited a subdued bra.

With the roaring 1920s over, Hollywood started making big waves with the introduction of popular ‘sex symbols’ wearing pointy bras in film. It also created the more recognisable bra we know today with cups, elastic and straps. And most importantly, specific cup sizes to allow for better fit! Can you imagine if we were still rocking a one-size-fits-all system? No, thanks.

The 1950s saw the rise of the infamous bullet bra with popular celebrities like Marilyn Monroe sporting them in many films. American servicewomen were also issued bras as part of their uniform, which led to bras being taken up by many middleclass women. Hey, a gal needs some support to get through her 9 to 5. During this time, the aesthetic was based around glamour and elegance, as bras were typically still advertised with a girdle. This was more something your mother would wear to look like a Hollywood starlet. These days we just over-line our lips, slap on a filter, and call it a day.

In came the swinging 1960s and 1970s with “Youth Culture”, and a big buzz around catering for this new demographic rose in the fashion world. Think the beginning of mini-skirts and a general style anarchy with young people leading the way! Ah, to be a babe in the ‘60s. Hey Siri, play Twist and Shout by The BeatlesComfort and function became the key important details in clothing and bras. Although there was also backlash about the bra being a symbol of female subjugation for the male gaze (yay early feminism!), many continued to wear bras for practical reasons. Bra styles started varying greatly, with the first sports bra introduced to the general shopper in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Angelika Kallio at the first Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,  1995.

Step into the 1990s and 2000s with us – the decades of slip dresses and low-rise jeans. The bra’s sex appeal returned in full force in the ‘90s with Victoria’s Secret having its first runway in NYC in 1995. Iconic. They started paving the way for brand power that was felt into the noughties. With the rise of style magazines, brands such as Dita Von Teese, Agent Provocateur and Calvin Klein became hot commodities – even becoming popular outerwear items for the daring fashionista. Hello, Paris Hilton. Honestly, who didn’t have a corset moment in the ‘90s?

That brings us to 2021, where we have unlimited choices for style, shape, and cut. Fancy a bit of a boost? Push-up bras have your back (and your front). Want something a little more low-key? Delicate lace bralettes are a popular choice. Whether you wear your bra as a statement outerwear piece or as a bit of structural support, the bra is definitely sticking around!




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