Friday, February 23, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #134: The History of Bras, Part 1

A few days ago I was watching something set in the Roaring Twenties and, of course, there were all these women walking around in flapper dresses. Naturally, my first thought was, I am way too busty for a flapper dress, but my second thought was, None of these women seem to be wearing bras. I wonder if they had bras back then.

My great-grandmother is long dead, which is a shame, because she wouldn’t have hesitated to regale me with stories of her old-fashioned undergarments and all the most exciting times she got to take them off, which is exactly why I wasn't allowed to sit in Grandma's room unsupervised when I was a kid. So, I had to turn to the Internet instead.

I’d remembered hearing or reading somewhere that, back in the day, women relied on their corsets to both squeeze the life out of them and support their breasts. The earliest bras date back to the Minoan civilization of ancient Greece, where, about 3,000 years ago, female athletes were said to compete whilst wearing garments similar to the modern bikini. Later, Greek women wore breast bands called apodesmos, which consisted of a strap of wool or linen that was wrapped around the breasts and tied at the back. Roman women adopted a similar garment, seen here depicted on a fresco at Pompeii:

However, these garments didn't always cover or hide the breasts; sometimes the breasts were left exposed, with the breast-band supporting and accentuating them from underneath, as seen in this statue of the Snake Goddess:

In the Middle Ages in Europe, women did wear garments to support the breasts. These linens, like the 600-year-old underclothes discovered during renovations of an Austrian castle in 2012, looked exactly like the wire-free bras women wear today, right down to the decorative lace. Prior to the discovery of these bras, it was thought that women did not wear bras in Europe during the Middle Ages, but instead relied on the structure of their gowns to provide support. By the Renaissance, corsets had become popular among upper class European women, and around the same time in East Asia, Chinese and Vietnamese women began wearing a dudou (Chinese) or yếm (Vietnamese), a square or diamond-shaped silk bodice worn in the manner of a halter-top.

A child-sized dudou on display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Image by Michelle Pemberton from Wikimedia Commons
The corset saw a temporary decline in popularity during the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, due to its association with the aristocracy, but enjoyed resurgence during the Victorian Era, when tightlacing became a popular way to emphasize the female form. By the 20th century, however, women’s increased interest in physical activity led to the development of more modern, supportive bra-like undergarments, and the production of shorter, more girdle-like corsets that served to control that age-old nemesis, tummy fat. The late Victorian period saw the emergency of the Clothing Reform Movement, driven by concerned health professionals and early feminists. Organizations such as the Reform Dress Association, the Rational Dress Society, and the National Dress Reform Association fought for women’s rights to breathe and move normally. As more women became interested in sports, especially bicycling, feminists like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps encouraged women to “Burn up the corsets!...Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”

Who invented the modern bra? That’s up for debate. Multiple bras were patented throughout the 19th century, although the credit for the first modern bra patent often goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, who dissatisfied with the interaction of her whalebone corset and her large breasts, fashioned a bra from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. 

 Jacob's bra, as pictured in her patent application.

When other women expressed interest in the bra and one offered Jacobs a dollar for the garment, she decided to try selling them, but had little success. Eventually, Jacob would sell her patent for the design to Warners Brothers Corset Company for the equivalent of $21,000.