Brassiere : A woman’s underbodice worn to support the breasts. A term used in America from 1907. In France this garment is called a Soutien-gorge breast supporter.
Years ago, the bra was unknown. In Ancient Rome and Greece, in the third and fourth centuries, women wore simple tunics with no shaping undergarments. This floppy tradition continued on into the twelfth century. Somewhere in the thirteenth or fourteenth century things began to change. A stiff underbodice called a “cotte” was developed and by the fifteenth century it was named a “body” or more appropriately a “pair of bodies” since it was made in two pieces. In Spain they added wire, steel, whalebone, and other forms of reinforcements. It was not a very comfortable garment to wear.
In the early part of the seventeenth century, these “iron maidens” became a little softer and more comfortable to wear, and they began to take the shape of corsets. Even though the profession of tailoring was not confined to one sex or the other, most women’s clothes were made by women. Except of course for the corset. The excuse was that the strength and skill needed to cut such garments was beyond the capabilities of mere women!
The popularity of such body shaping garments rose and fell over the ensuing centuries depending on the general moral attitudes of the times. Somewhere in the 1850’s another item was added to the lady’s wardrobe. It was a corset cover. It is unclear whether this was designed to protect the corset from the dress or protect the dress from the corset. This item eventually became known as a ‘camisole’, from the Arabic Kamis, meaning under tunic.
The women of 1901 to 1910 took on the look of being mono-bosomed. It was not considered polite to even suggest that she might have two breasts below her clothing.
About 1908, the bra took on its supporting role. Contrary to some popular beliefs, the bra was not invented by the German named Otto Titzling, but rather it came about through the efforts of the French seamstress and corsetiere Hermione Cadolle, Paul Poiret, and an American described as ‘Lucile’
In 1913, a New York lady by the name of Mary Phelps Jacobs was preparing to go to a dance. She disliked the tight and restrictive corsets of the day so 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 under the name of Caresse Crosby. Due to poor marketing or other causes, the product didn’t sell well, so she sold her patent rights to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500. Today the patent is worth at least $15,000,000.
During the time of WWI, the ‘flat’ look came into vogue. During this time, large breasts were a detriment to social standings. The well endowed woman tried breast binding clothing of different designs and even attempted to lose the extra bustline by dieting. One of the garments that was popular in those times was the Symington Side Lacer. It was a bust bodice that could be tightened to achieve the desired shape. It was popular from 1921 through 1925.
By the 1930’s the true female shape was becoming more popular and the diminutive word “bra” had come into more general use. After many centuries of hiding, the female breasts began to demand recognition. Jean Harlow, Mae West and other movie stars of the time began to show just “what they were made of” and they weren’t a bit shy about it.
About this time Rosaline Klin, director of the Kestos Corset Company, started experimenting with a pair of hankies, just like Mary Phelps Jacobs back in 1913.
Rosaline took two hankies, folded them crosswise and joined them into one piece with a small overlap in front. With these two triangles she sewed shoulder straps at the top points and secured the other ends of the straps at the back of the triangles. She then attached pieces of elastic at the back and they came around the front to fasten under each breast. This Kestos bra was popular through the 30’s, 40’s and into the early 50’s.
In 1935, The Warner Brothers company introduced cup sizes in bras. They seemed to be keen observers of the obvious when they stumbled onto the fact that women were different shapes and sizes. Warner Brothers introduced the “alphabet bra” in cup sizes A, B, C & D. This was a bit short sighted because, later, they introduced AA and DD. Today they are available in even larger cup sizes. The British were a bit slower to adopt this system and instead, preferred the nomenclature Junior, Medium, Full and “Full with Wide Waist”.
WWII caused a more austere look in underthings. Utilitarian was the way to go in order to support the war efforts. Fancy lace was dropped in favour of functional design (perhaps the lace was needed for the “Klingers” in the services). Even after the war ended, many women continued to make their intimates from strips of old nylon or silk parachutes. The magazine Stitchcraft printed in a 1945 issue, a pattern for a crochet bra. It was reported to be quite comfortable and agreeable to wear aside from the faint trellis pattern left upon removal.
The late 40’s and 50’s saw the bra again gaining in popularity. Lana Turner became known as the “Sweater Girl” with her cone shaped breasts becoming the most pinned up projectiles in the business. Jane Russel gained some notoriety by having her outstanding assets wrapped in a special garment designed by none other than that famous recluse Howard Hughes.
In the early 50’s, Maidenform began to market a successful line. Perhaps those more mature ladies among us will remember those lines. “I dreamed I went …(you fill in the words from your favourite ad here)…in my Maidenform bra”. I still remember seeing those ads in my mother’s copy of Redbook and other women’s magazines of the time.
The “Merry Widow” was produced to coincide with the 1952 film of the same name, starring Lana Turner and the original “Merry Widow” foundation worn by Miss Turner was a full length corselette. This was cut with attractive panels of black and white lace, incorporating slim panels of black elastic yarn net. A heavy duty zip was inserted behind a velvet backed, hook and eye flange and the whole garment was lined with nylon voile. Nine long spiral wires were cased in black satin. It was a terrific garment.
Lana Turner is reputed to have said, “I am telling you – the “Merry Widow” was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.”
To this day, “Merry Widow” is the generic for a corselette bra in the United States.
For those of us who are not so well endowed, there have been many attempts to enhance the figure. Back in 1799, a “Bosom Friend” was available. It included a quilted pad that tied around the bosom and it had a complete molded front made of wax. This obviously was not designed with the hot Phoenix summers in mind. Many other bust improvers of several designs were contrived over the years, such as the “Lemon Bosoms” in 1847, so named because it appeared to look like two lemons cut in half lengthwise. In 1905 the Neene Bust Improver was made from cup shaped perforated metal discs weighing only “3/4 oz. the pair”. From the looks of them, they could have doubled as tea strainers.
In 1947, Frederick Mellinger of the famed Frederick’s of Hollywood began marketing the new look. His firm was dedicated to fixing the flat and falling bosom. He introduced a foam rubber falsie and also designed an inflatable bra. From all accounts, the inflatables were not reliable, being apt to spring a leak, whistle air, or according to rumors, explode at high altitudes.
Today of course we have a much more sophisticated selection available to us. Bird seed, Jello, water, and various other kinds of fillers have been used to fill in those areas which are devoid of shape. The best still seems to be the mastectomy prosthesis if you can afford it.
As a closing note, Madonna should be mentioned. She has variously been described as a Barbie doll come to life, a woman who has stepped straight out of a comic strip. Her famous “cone” bra was designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. When she wore this bra on her “Blonde Ambition” tour in 1990. Her image and her bra were firmly etched into the mind of the public. The “bullet” was actually a design concept of the corsetieres, Rigby and Peller. It was based on an antique breastplate worn by Italian soldiers, intimidating and protective at the same time.
It has been said that every time fashion starts showing off the bosom, it heralds some catastrophic event or change in society. The onset of war, recession or political upheaval seems to bring out the breast in women.
Given the present political and economic situation, it seems that the bra manufacturers better start getting geared up for some really great sales years.