If you’re like me, you might be questioning who invented bras after spending the last two years not interacting with the public (certainly not a woman in quarantine). With a rise in the popularity of going braless and more clothing brands moving to a comfier bralettes like a hemp bra, you might even be wondering when was the bra invented? And what is a bralette?
While some may find them a fun way to accessorize and others a torture device (looking at you, underwire), there’s actually a fascinating history of the modern brassiere.
Like many types of women’s clothing, the evolution and innovation of the modern bra mirrors societal beliefs and values around the feminine body. Follow me as I travel through history to find out who invented bras. Just call me the Ms. Frizzle of undergarments.
THE ANCIENT HISTORY OF BRAS
First stop on our tour is the Minoan civilization on the beautiful island of Crete. Way back in 2000 BC they invented the mastoeides—a cheeky little garment that supported the breast underneath while leaving the nipple and everything else out. Hey, I get it. If I was on a Greek island, I would be all about #freethenipple, too!
These mastoeides were mainly used by female athletes to support their breasts during exercise. As a person who can’t run without wearing the tightest sports bra in the world, I can’t fathom exercising in just an under-boob band, but to each their own.
THE USE OF BREAST BAGS
In medieval times (think 5th-15th centuries), women wore what can only be described as “breasts bags”. Instead of memory foam cups, people essentially stuffed their boobs into two separate bags and then tied them up to give some support.
Some had a bit more engineering to them with straps attached or were sewn into their dresses. They were mainly used to keep the girls in place and were definitely an improvement on the barely there boob-band of the Minoans.
THE INVENTION OF THE CORSET
Despite a burgeoning popularity thanks to the likes of the Kardashian sisters, the corset, a laced torso piece with steel boning for structure, has a long history. It was most popular from the 16th to the early 20th century, mainly used by upper-and middle-class women to emphasize the desired shape of the feminine body at the time.
In the 1800s, corsets were made to emphasize the breast and hips (think Bridgerton). Then, in the late 1800s, the corset moved to help boost the bust, accentuate the waist, and fill out the backside (a very Kardashian look). In the early 1900s, the corset actually covered from bust to the middle of the thigh, creating a very straight and narrow silhouette.
They fell out of fashion during the First and Second World War because of textile shortages and more women working outside of the home. I mean, who could blame them? Doing anything in a corset, like building a ship, seems completely impossible, if you ask me.
BRAS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
After the fall of the corset, there had to be something else to cover a woman’s breast! Surely they can’t just wear a shirt without a bra, how scandalous! The 20th century is when the biggest developments were made to the modern bra. It’s also a century full of iconic bra-fashion moments from a debutante having a fashion emergency to a soccer star revealing her sports bra after a game winning goal.
WHO INVENTED THE BRASSIERE?
Many consider 19-year-old Mary Phelps Jacob to be the inventor of the modern bra.
As she got ready for her debutante ball in 1913, she discovered that her corset was visible under her gown—the horror! So, like any girl is wont to do, she called for her maid to bring her handkerchiefs and ribbons, which she then fashioned into a comfortable undergarment, resembling the modern bra.
Pretty cool that a 19-year-old with a fashion emergency is who invented bras as we know them today. She later patented the garment and called it a brassiere.
THE FLAPPER BRA
During the 1920s, the U.S. War Industries Board requested that women not wear corsets to save metal for war materials—can you imagine that? The government trying to control women’s bodies? Soooo 1920s!
That helped influence societal notions of what women should wear over their breasts. Instead of heavy duty corsets, women turned to more androgynous bra that provided very little breast definition or shape. In fact, they were meant to flatten breasts to the chest and create a uniboob look.
This look was popular especially during the Flapper era with bandeau bras. However, the look was hard to pull off for larger busted people and uncomfortable for most.
THE MAIDEN FORM BRA
Russian immigrant, Isa Rosenthal, noticed the discomfort and ill-fitting nature of the bandeau bra and decided to do something about it. That something ended up being the MaidenForm company.
Instead of boob flattening and smashing, their bras were designed to support and flatter breasts. This created more comfortable bras for especially larger breasted people and quickly took over as the most fashionable look.
The supportive bra came at the right time, too. Doctors and other health professionals were starting to discover the importance of breast health for breastfeeding mothers in the 1930s. They warned women not to flatten breasts for their health.
THE PADDED BRA
In 1947, Frederick Mellinger invented the padded bra. He was the creator of the iconic lingerie brand, Frederick’s of Hollywood. Not only is he credited with the first padded bra, but he took it to the next level with the push-up bra a year later.
All I’m going to say is that it’s a little too on the nose that a man created the push-up bra.
As for the engineering marvel that is the Wonderbra, Louise Poirier first created it in 1964. However, it didn’t gain popularity until the 1990’s when the less well-endowed members of the feminine population discovered the magical effects of the bra.
THE BULLET BRA
Most people in today’s world are most familiar with the bullet bra thanks to Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier, but it was first made popular in the 1940s by the “sweater girls” including Marilyn Monroe and Patti Page.
One step further than the padded bra, they were worn as a sort of fashion middle finger to the good girl persona that society and the media desperately wanted all women to be. Instead of hiding their boobs away, they would wear these over-the-top conical bras under tight sweaters.
Bullet bras gained popularity during World War II as they were a favorite look amongst soldiers and sailors who had pin-up girl posters hung in their barracks—quite the morale booster.
They lost popularity along with the padded bra in favor of more natural looking bras that became popular with the more hippie fashion of the 60s and 70s.
As mentioned, after Madonna scandalously debuted her bullet bra look in 1990, it became synonymous with the pop star. However, not many people try to emulate the look nowadays. Instead, people tend to prefer a more natural shape and feel for their bras.
THE SPORTS BRA
Now for the history of my favorite bra style: the sports bra. Despite the first bras being used by female athletes way back in 1200 BC, there weren't dedicated developments to an athletic bra until 1977. And thank goodness for those developments—otherwise we might still be stuck with the tits-out style of the Minoan civilization.
The first sports bra in modern history was created by three costume designers who were inspired by one of their husbands goofing off. He had put his jock strap over his head and worn it like a bra. The women decided it wasn’t just hilarious, it might just be the perfect solution to painful breasts when exercising.
They eventually sold their “Jogbra” to Playtex in 1990, which made the sports bras much more widely available.
One of the most iconic moments in sports bra history is Brandi Chastain’s World Cup celebration. In a controversial move at the time, Chastain had ripped her shirt off after scoring the winning goal against China, revealing her Nike sports bra.
I mean, how dare an athlete remind us she’s a woman at a time like that! I’d like to see her critics score that kind of goal, but that’s another matter.
BRAS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
As 1999 turned into 2000, the bra seemed to be ready to sail off into the sunset, finished with reinventing itself. However, with more sustainable fabrics available, the #freethenipple movement, and many women looking for bra alternatives to the underwire, the bra wasn’t done evolving just yet.
Now, athleisure brands market sports bras as not just for exercise. Plus, the move towards more sustainable fashion has reimagined what the bra could be. In the 21st century, we may even see the bralette become more popular than traditional bras.
For my fellow enemies of underwire, the triangle bralette has been a godsend. They’re wireless, more comfortable and breathable, and a lot cuter than a padded satin bra, in my humble opinion.
There are many reasons the bralette has gained popularity in recent years, such as the #MeToo movement, the trend of women dressing for themselves instead of the male gaze, and COVID-19 isolation periods. Who’s wearing underwear if they’re not leaving the house, including uncomfortable bras?
Cute bralette outfits can be anything from wearing a bralette as a top, shown off under sheer blouses, or worn as an undergarment. Their versatility is just another facet of their appeal.
SPORTS BRAS AS EVERYDAY BRA
With athleisure becoming more and more popular for everyday style, sports bras are becoming more and more everyday bras.
Some sports bras are heavy-duty, perfect for high-impact exercise, but not too comfortable for lounging around the house. However, many athleisure brands are blurring the lines between sports bras and bralettes with lighter support and a looser fit.
Many people, myself included, now wear a racerback bralette everyday because they typically provide more coverage and avoid the dreaded underwire of a regular bra. Have I mentioned that I hate underwire?
They’re also comfy, but supportive for people who have sore breasts from pregnancy, breastfeeding, injury, or surgery.
BRAS MADE FROM SUSTAINABLE FABRICS
One of the best things to have happened to fashion in the 21st century is a trend towards more sustainable materials and production processes.
Sustainable materials like hemp are breathable, antibacterial, and way softer than your old scratchy polyester bra. They’re also organic and eco-friendly, using a lot less water than your standard cotton.
Sustainable fashion is great for all pieces, but especially undergarments that are worn on some of the most sensitive areas of the body. Wearing bras made of organic materials ensures your boobs aren’t rubbing up against chemically treated fabric all day.
WHO INVENTED BRAS? THE TLDR LOWDOWN
WHEN WAS THE BRA INVENTED?
The bra we all know and have mixed feelings for today was first invented in 1913. However, some version of a bra has been in existence since at least 2000 BC.
WHO INVENTED THE BRASSIERE?
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob first invented the modern bra, made out of handkerchiefs and ribbons during a true fashion emergency.
We have a 19-year-old and World War II to thank for not being forced into a corset everyday. I’m thankful for a lot of things in life, but being able to wear wireless bralettes might be in my top 5 things I’m most grateful for.
If you had to choose to spend 24/7 for one whole year in an underwire bra, bralette, sports bra, or no bra, which would you choose?