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The Evolution of the Bra 

Written by Emily Pazel

 

Whether you’re ready or not, there comes a time in every girl’s life when wearing a bra becomes part of the journey into womanhood. The bra or “brassiere" has been around in one form or fashion for hundreds of years, supporting women (literally) through many decades.

So, how has the bra transformed overtime? If you’ve watched an old film from the 1950’s or 60’s recently, you might have noticed that women’s bras were shaped differently. Overtime, the bra has evolved with help from social influence and general functionality. 

Let’s take a look at the different ways the bra has evolved overtime. 

The evolution of the bra

For many women, the mere thought of roaming around in public without a bra seems foreign. But for women who lived centuries ago, this was a common thing. Thankfully, much has changed over the decades to what we have now. So, let’s start from the very beginning. 

  • 14th Century
    • As early as the 1300’s, certain ancient wall paintings have been found displaying women wearing bandeau-like tops while playing sports. Before this time, women were generally bare-breasted under simple sheath dresses. 
  • 16th Century
    • Skipping ahead to the 1500’s, women’s undergarments began shifting into what was known as the corset. In France, the corset helped women allegedly achieve the perfect female figure by flattening and pushing the breasts upward, half-exposing them at the neckline of their dresses. It’s believed that the shape of the corset came from long pieces of wood or whalebone that was sewn into the casing. Although this technique sounds painful, it remained as a popular fashion statement for the next few centuries.

corset

  • Late 19th Century
    • Near the late 19th century, women shifted from corsets to an early form of what became known as the girdle. This shape-shifting contraption forced the torso forward and the hips to jut outward, making a women’s figure into more of an “S” shape.
  • 1869: The bra is formed
    • In 1869, the first modern bra was created in France when Herminie Cadolle cut a corset into two separate undergarments. The top of the corset supported the breasts with sewn-on straps, while the lower part was the corset for the waist. In 1905, they began selling the top part of the separated corset by itself.
  • 1907: The “Brassiere” is Born
    • For the first time, Vogue uses the word “brassiere”, which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary four years later in 1911. 
  • 1910: The First Modern Bra
    • After the corset was split in two, there was still an issue with making the bra comfortable for women to wear. In 1910, a woman named Mary Phelps Jacob invented the first modern bra with a pair of silk handkerchiefs and silk ribbons. By 1920, the corset was almost ditched completely and instead, women opted for tight bandeau tops that flattened their breasts to give them more of a slender, small-chested shape.
  • 1932: Cup Sizes Emerge
    • By the 1930’s, the term “brassiere” was shortened to the “bra” and large-scale production began with cup sizes making an appearance. Companies began correlating sizes of women’s breast to letters of the alphabet (A through D), and adjustable bands and eyehooks also became a thing.  
  • 1940’s & 50’s: Bullet Bras
    • While the men were away for World War II, more women began working in factories, which is how the bullet/torpedo-shaped bra gained popularity. It was believed that by wearing this style bra, it offered added protection to women who worked on the production lines.
  • 1964: The Pushup Bra
    • Designed by a Canadian lingerie company, the “Wonderbra” was uniquely created to simultaneously lift and push the bustline together. After this became a popular look, bras also took on more colorful and flashy appearances, such as leopard-print patterns and lacy bras.   
  • 1977: First Sports Bra
    • As exercising became more popular throughout the 1970’s, women needed a bra that would be more supportive during their fitness routines. Thus, the first sports bra emerges called the “Jogbra”. 

sports_bra

  • Modern-Day Bras
    • Depending on who you talk to or, perhaps, the occasion, you might receive many different answers on which bra is best to wear nowadays. During the 2000’s, new bra designs hit the fashion industry such as strapless, one strap and even corset-type bras. Now, you can even purchase bras that have memory foam in the cups, which are designed to conform to the shape of your chest and provide comfort throughout the day.

Whatever style and design your choice is typically unique to your size and/or for the occasion it is being worn. But is wearing a bra ultimately good for your health? Or is it just some fashion piece that women wear because it’s socially acceptable? Next, we’ll discuss whether or not wearing a bra is good for your health.

Pros and Cons to Wearing a Bra

Unfortunately, little is known or researched about the long-term effects of women continuously wearing a bra on a daily basis. And as a woman, I can say with certainty that most women have a love/hate relationship with their bra. Leaving the comfort of your home without one on is usually not a socially acceptable option. However, once we have it on, we typically countdown the seconds before it comes off again. So, are there health-related reasons why we should wear them?

A French research project from 2013 published the results from a 15-year-long study on how wearing a bra affected a woman’s breasts throughout the years of her life. The study was conducted by Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon and ultimately found that wearing a bra did not prevent breasts from sagging with age and also that by wearing a bra at a young age, it might also increase the chances of sagging later in life. He concluded that this was because wearing a bra prevented the growth of tissue, which led to the deterioration of the muscles that support the breasts. 

However, the study was only conducted on about 300 women who were between the ages of 13 and 35, and Rouillon cautioned that going braless may not have the same benefits for older women, especially those who had already worn a bra for most of their lives. Overall, some scientists believe that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Rouillon’s theory to be true.

An additional theory about how bras can increase the risk of breast cancer has ultimately been debunked by the American Cancer Society. They stated that, “Internet and e-mail rumors and at least one book has suggested that bras cause breast cancer by obstructing lymph flow. There is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim, and a 2014 study of more than 1,500 women found no association between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.”

So, then why do we wear bras? Two reasons: comfort and aesthetics. 

Any woman who has played sports before knows that it’s practically impossible to do so without some type of sports bra on. A sports bra helps minimize the movement of your breasts, which helps reduce pain and discomfort caused by stretched skin and ligaments while working out. Especially for women with larger breasts, wearing a sports bra helps immensely to improve your comfort while running, jumping or any type of physical exercise.

And finally, the look or aesthetic of wearing a bra can help enhance the overall appearance of your bust and gives you that extra boost of confidence to make it through the day. But as far as medical or health benefits to wearing a bra? I think we can conclude that there’s not much.

As the years progress, maybe we’ll uncover new research that shows health-related benefits to wearing a bra other than supporting us both physically and mentally. Until then, let’s just hope that the “bullet bra” doesn’t come back in style.