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Brassiere-tine Empire: How Women Have Been Conscripted to Battle Gravitational Forces for Four Millennia

Brassiere-tine Empire: How Women Have Been Conscripted to Battle Gravitational Forces for Four Millennia


The history of the bra is a long and storied one. Going as far back as 2500 BCE during the early period of Minoan Crete civilization, women wore bra-like underclothing to support the breasts. One slight difference between the articles worn by our Mediterranean ancestors and modern underclothing is that the Crete women, apparently at the urgings of Crete men, wore bras that lifted their breasts above the neckline of their clothes, exposing them for all to see.

However, trends changed by 450 BCE, when Roman and Greek women started wearing bands across the chest to flatten the bust. By the time of the late Renaissance, women in some countries were required by law to cover their bosom, lest it offend some noble member of the aristocracy.

During the 1550s, the wife of King Henri II of France, Catherine de Médicis, enforced a ban on "thick waists" at court functions. Because she had considerable clout in determining the socially acceptable dress code, the corset ending up being the main undergarment worn by women for the next 350 years. And unlike their contemporary counterparts, the corsets of the de Medici era were designed to conceal the breasts, not to accentuate them.

The Industrial Revolution Brings With It a New Era of Reinforcement

By the middle of the 19th century, the corset was still in fashion. However, steel-reinforced corsets, the norm for hundreds of years, were beginning to be sold alongside corsets made from whale bones. This durable material has the ability to hold its shape, making it ideal for stiffening the confining undergarment.

By the end of the 19th century, women were beginning to express some discontentment toward corsets. The latest trend had women tightening the waist area to as small as ten inches, a practice that wreaked havoc on their ribs and internal organs.

In response, designer Susan Taylor Converse created a garment she called the "Union Under-Flannel" in1875. Despite its awkward moniker, the device had no eyelets, no laces, no pulleys, and amazingly, no whale bones either! In many ways, it was like a modern bra, and it paved the way for women to follow in her footsteps.

In 1889, corset maker Herminie Cadolle invented le bien-être, or the "Well-being." This two-piece garment eventually split ways, and the top portion, the soutien-gorge ("support for the breast" in old French), started to find a clientele. This Paris-born contraption supported the breasts by way of shoulder straps, and would almost blend-in with modern underclothing if you saw it on a shelf today.

Just four years later, Marie Tucek filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office for a "breast supporter." Tucek cleverly integrated separate pockets for each breast, and her invention had the hook-and-eye closures modern women are familiar with today. Although Tucek never her marketed her invention, the modern bra was finally beginning to take shape.

Full Speed Ahead Into the 20th Century

The early half of the 1900s saw marked improvements and developments in the continuing saga of the bra. VOGUE magazine first used the term 'brassiere' in 1907, starting a naming trend that would continue to this day. The term was derived from an old French word meaning "upper arm." Publication of the term in what is considered by many as the most respected fashion magazine in America helped it to quickly become a colloquial expression among the public. By 1912, the term was included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The year 1913 saw the invention of what can truly be considered the modern bra by a 22-year old New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob. Jacob had purchased a delicate, sheer dress for an upcoming night on the town, but to her dismay, she found that her whale-bone corset was quite conspicuous through the fabric. Her solution was simple, effective, and stylish as well. Jacob sewed two silk handkerchiefs together to form the support of the bra, and used pink ribbon to create shoulder straps. Her invention so impressed her female friends, that they started making requests for their own.

After more than a year creating these custom-made bras for friends, Jacob filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office under the business name "Caresse Crosby." But Jacob soon tired of the business, and eventually, she sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. Over the next 30 years, it is estimated that the Warner Brothers Corset Company made $15 million by selling her invention.

While the bra was gaining widespread popularity, the traditional corset was becoming a thing of the past. Between 1914 and 1918, the U.S. War Department urged women to halt their purchases of metal-reinforced corsets so that the metal could be used for the war effort instead. The Roaring Twenties only exacerbated the situation. The loose fitting "Flapper" styles of the 1920s resulted in dresses that eliminated the waist line, and bras that were made to flatten the chest.

By the 1930s, the corset was all but dead, replaced by the brassiere and elastic girdle. As the decade continued, Russian immigrant Ida Rosenthal and her husband came up with the idea for universal cup sizes, and the term 'bra' made it into the dictionary.

Despite these developments, one could argue that by the middle point of the 20th century, the history of the bra had come full circle. From the bras' breast-baring beginning in Crete, to centuries spent covering women's breasts, and back again - when the first bikini was introduced to the Parisian public in 1946!

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