Big or small, we all need a little support. Yet sometimes, it’s easy to forget the importance of a good foundation garment, none so important as the bra or brassiere! We ladies can very often ruin the look of a fantastic outfit simply by wearing the wrong shape or size of bra. As the saying goes, ‘a good friend is like a bra: rare, supportive and close to the heart.’
The bra has been around for centuries, in one form or another. In fact, throughout history, women have used various contraptions to enhance or alter their figures. The bra is probably the most powerful element in a woman’s wardrobe, serving both function and fantasy. Indeed, what other item of clothing inspires such devotion, yearning, frustration and delight?
In Roman and Grecian times, women wore simple tunics with no shaping required from undergarments. Things began to change towards the 13 and 14th centuries, by which time ladies wore a cotte – a stiff under bodice. This then developed into a body by the 15th century, or more appropriately, a pair of bodies, since it was made up of two pieces. As you can imagine, this wasn’t very comfortable! These iron maidens had softened by the early 17th century, and began to take on the shape of the corset. Interestingly, even though women were generally the main dressmakers of women’s clothing at this time, it was deemed that men should make the corset, since it required specialist skills that were beyond the capabilities of women!
As it was considered impolite to even suggest that a lady had a bosom underneath her clothing, it became the fashion during the early 1900s to take on the look of being mono-bosomed. Thanks to Herminie Cadolle, the bra took on a more supportive role in 1905, and became known as a soutien gorge, which literally translates to ‘bosom supporter’.
In 1913, New Yorker Mary Phelps Jacobs was preparing to go to a dance. Disliking the tight and restrictive corsets of her day, she used two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon to design the first model of what was to become the modern bra. She patented the design in 1914, but it did not sell very well and so she eventually sold the patent to Warner Brothers’ Corset Company for $1,500. The patent is now worth at least $15 million!
For a brief time during World War 1, the flat look became fashionable, with ladies going to great lengths to adorn breast binding garments of different designs. Thanks to film stars such as Mae West, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, the bra became popular once again. In fact, the American tycoon Howard Hughes even invented an underwired bra for Jane Russell in the film The Outlaw. The 60s saw a less voluptuous look in Twiggy of course, and during this time we saw the burning of the bra as a sign of female freedom and equality!
There’s also been Madonna with her conical bra, of course.
Little wonder then that, with all its history, this iconic garment provides an important role in female attire today. Nowadays, we can find bras in different shapes, colours and varied functions. The strapless bra, the T-shirt bra, the multi-way bra, the sports bra, the padded bra, the balcony bra, the invisible nude bra, the sexy must-have black bra… The list, it would seem, is endless. One thing’s for certain – we ladies need to look good under our clothes too!