The brassiere, more commonly referred to as "the bra," was one of the most influential pieces of women's apparel in the twentieth century. As an item of underwear that was never intended to be seen in public, it shaped women's breasts and presented them to the public in ways that responded to and reflected ideas about women's bodies and their roles in American culture. That the bra went through so many radical changes in design shows how important breasts themselves were in a culture that eroticized, idolized, and objectified them.
Until the first decade of the twentieth century, women relied on the corset as their main undergarment. Rigid, tightly laced to form a "wasp waist," and covering the area from the crotch to the shoulders, the corset was an oppressive article that made it difficult for women to breathe, bend over, or even sit down. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, breasts were liberated from the corset through the invention of a separate garment which would provide them shape and support. The brassiere, first sold in France in 1907, allowed women to be more comfortable but also meant that society began considering breasts more as objects—almost as separate entities from women's bodies themselves. The "ideal" breast shape changed with developing technologies, fashions, and perceived roles of women.
New York debutante Mary Phelps Jacobs patented the first bra in the United States in 1914, a device which supported the breasts from shoulder straps above rather than pressure from below, as the corset had done. Jacobs eventually sold the rights to her "Backless Brassiere" to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. In 1926, Ida Rosenthal and Enid Bissett, partners in a New York dress firm who did not like the 1920s flapper look that preferred flat chests and boyish figures, sewed more shapely forms right into the dresses they made, and eventually patented a separate bra "to support the bust in a natural position"; they went on to found the successful Maiden Form Brassiere Company.
By the 1930s the separate bra and underpants had become the staples of women's undergarments. In this same decade the Warner Company popularized Lastex, a stretchable fabric that allowed women even more freedom from their formerly constrictive underclothing. In 1935 Warner's introduced the cup sizing system (A through D), which was very quickly adopted by all companies, and assumed that women's bodies could easily fit into distinct and standard categories of size.
Rationing during World War II meant that women had to forego fancy bras of the latest materials, but after the war they reaped the benefits of wartime technology. Bras appeared in nylon, rayon, and parachute silk. In addition, they incorporated "whirlpool" stitching which formed the individual cups into aggressive cones. Maiden Form's 1949 Chansonette, more popularly known as the "bullet bra," became its most popular model, and was a clear example of how women's bodies were shaped by the aesthetics and mindset of the time. After the war, jutting breasts recalled the designs of weaponry like rockets used in the conflict, and also symbolized society's desire for women to forego their wartime jobs and retreat back into the homes to become capable wives and mothers. As if to circumscribe their roles even more, in 1949 Maiden Form also inaugurated its long-lasting "Dream" advertising series, which showed women in numerous situations "dreaming" of various accomplishments, clad only in their Maidenform bras. In the 1950s Playtex began the first bra and girdle advertising on television, but the bras were modeled on plastic bust forms. It was not until the 1990s that television allowed bras to be shown on live models.
While the shape and relative status given to women's breasts in the 1950s reflected women's domestication, their liberation in the 1960s equally expressed women's newly perceived freedom. More and more women saw their breasts as items packaged to suit men's tastes. Acting against this, many went braless and preferred the androgynous appearance of their flapper grandmothers celebrated in the waif-like look of models like Twiggy. Brassiere companies made consolations to accommodate this new sensibility as well. Their designs became relaxed, giving breasts a more "natural" shape than their pointed precursors. Rudi Gernreich, most famously known for his topless bathing suit, designed the "no-bra bra" in 1965, which was meant to support the breasts but to be invisible. In 1969 Warner's finally caught up with this trend, designing and producing their own Invisible Bra.
By the late 1960s the bra itself became an important political symbol. The first "bra burning" demonstration happened at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, when poet Robin Morgan and members of the Women's Liberation Party picketed the event and threw their bras in a trash can as a gesture against women's objectification. That they actually burned their bras at this demonstration was a myth started by a reporter who likened the event to flag-burning and other incendiary activities of popular protest. After that, bra burning became an overt statement of feminism and women's liberation, and "bra burners" a derisive label for activist women involved in the struggle for equal rights.
By the 1980s and 1990s, America saw a return to more delicate lingerie, hastened by the opening and rapid franchising of Victoria's Secret lingerie stores beginning in 1982. As in the 1950s, breasts were seen as something to display—status symbols for the women who possessed them and the men who possessed the women. In 1988 the push-up bra returned as a less-than-permanent alternative to breast enhancement surgery, which was just becoming popular. The value of large breasts during the late 1980s and through the 1990s was seen alternatively as a positive embodiment of women's new power and assertiveness in the business world and a backlash against feminism that continued to objectify women and their body parts.
Madonna encapsulated these tensions in her 1991 Truth or Dare film, a documentary showing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her performances. In it, she sported a pin-striped business suit whose slits opened to reveal the cups of a large, cone-shaped pink bra designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The juxtaposition of the oversized bra cups, dangling garter belts, and business suit presented a parody of traditional gender roles. Her use of these symbols best expressed the power of clothing—layers which could be seen and those which could not, equally—and the power of women to present their bodies in ways that either acquiesced to or subverted the current power dynamics between the genders.
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress, A History of Women's Underwear. New York, Drama Book Specialists, 1978.
Fontanel, Beatrice. Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Breast. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1997.
Few items of clothing have attracted as much attention—positive and negative—as the brassiere, or bra. Worn by women to support and protect their breasts, the bra has become a symbol of femininity, female sexuality, and womanhood. So closely is the bra equated with the role of women in society that acceptance or rejection of the bra can be a political decision as well as a fashion decision.
The bra was invented in 1913 by New York City socialite Caresse Crosby (1892–1970). Rebelling against the confinement and unattractive lines of the corsets (restrictive undergarments) that the fashion of the day dictated, Crosby directed a servant to sew together two handkerchiefs with ribbons to make a garment to wear over her breasts. Crosby was not the first to think of such a device, but she patented her invention and therefore was able to claim the rights to it. She sold the patent to Warners, a corset manufacturer, for $1500.
Bras have been used throughout the years to help women make their bodies look fashionable. In the 1920s, the bra was a tight band that allowed women to achieve a slim, boyish figure; by the 1930s, bras pushed women's breasts up and in to show off their cleavage (the visual line between the breasts). In 1935, Warners introduced the cup design with different sized cups for a better individual fit. The 1940s and 1950s featured
sturdy bras made of cotton and elastic. Big breasts became fashionable, and the 1950s saw the introduction of the padded bra and "falsies," small foam pads placed in the bra to enlarge the bustline.
In the 1960s, as women began to question their role in male-dominated society, men's obsession with women's breasts became a source of anger and dissent. The women's liberation movement accused men of viewing women mainly as objects of sexual desire, and made the bra a symbol of women's confinement to men's expectations. At the 1968 Miss America Pageant (see entry under 1920s—The Way We Lived in volume 2), feminists protested male beauty standards by throwing curlers, makeup, and bras into a garbage can. Although no bras were burned, the media exaggerated the event and "bra-burner" became a synonym for feminist.
Since then, women have continued to wear bras, whether as a social convention or a need for a supportive garment for their breasts. With forty-three separate component parts, the modern bra is an engineering marvel, and manufacturers are constantly working to improve the design. Sports bras have been designed that can be worn under a shirt or alone by female athletes. During the 1990s technological boom, bras were even designed to contain heart monitors, global positioning system locators, cellular phones, and cancer warning sensors. The lingerie company Victoria's Secret scored a marketing triumph with its sophisticated Wonderbra in the 1990s. The bra continues to reflect the tastes and conventions of American society in every era.
For More Information
Baldwin, Deborah. "Caresse Crosby and the Brassiere." Discovery.com.http://www.discovery.com/stories/deadinventors/dead980910/deadinventors.html (accessed January 15, 2002).
Dowling, Claudia Glenn. "Ooh-la-la! The Bra." Life. (June 1989): pp. 88–96.
Hawthorne, Rosemary, and Mary Want. From Busk to Bra: A Survey of Women's Corsetry. Cincinnati: Seven Hills Book Distributors, 1987.
Lindsay, David. House of Invention: The Secret Life of Everyday Products. New York: Lyons Press, 2000.
bra / brä/ • n. an undergarment worn by women to support the breasts. ∎ (also auto bra or car bra) a carbon-based cover that fits over the front bumper of a car, absorbing the microwaves used in police radar equipment to minimize the risk of detection for the speeding motorist. DERIVATIVES: bra·less adj.