The Modern History of the Bra

In 1913 the first modern bra was created by a woman named Mary Phelps Jacobs when she got tired of the bones in her corset sticking out around her neckline. To solve this problem she covered them with some silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon and attached it all together with some cords. Her friends were enamored with the idea and tried it out for themselves. With the popularity her idea was gaining, Mary received a patent on her new “backless brassiere,” and the modern bra was born.

In 1917 the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets in order to free up more metal for war production. This also helped the introduction of the bra take off. Not only for production reasons, but the war shook up gender roles and liberated women from their corsets. When women moved into the retail and clerical sectors, the bra went from something discreet, to proudly advertised in major department stores. Advertisements now promoted the shaping of the bust to contemporary fashion demands.

During the 1920’s the bra had more of a flattening effect to the bust. This, perhaps, was more useful while women were working. In 1922 seamstresses discovered that one bra size did not fit all, and the idea of a “cup size” was introduced. With this came the revolution that the bust be not simply flattened, but supported, uplifted, and accented. In the 1930’s the word “brassiere” was shorted to the term “bra.” In 1935 one company created what they called the Alphabet bra. They applied letters to each cup size, much like ones we use today. The bra rapidly became a major industry in the 1930’s with improvements in fiber technology, fabrics, colors, patterns, and was doing better than the retail industry in general.

In the 1940’s and 50’s the bra to on a symbol of protection because of the war. Another new image was the Sweater Girl who was busty yet wholesome. This lift and separate design would influence later bras. In the 1960’s the maternity and mastectomy bras began to find a new respectability. However, the 60’s also were full of cultural changes that included feminism and bra-burning as a liberation movement for women.

The 1970’s saw the production of more versatile bras. Bras were no longer seen as just a utility, but more so as fashion statement. Designers started incorporating numerous devices to produce varying shapes, cleavage, and to give women bras they could wear with open-back dresses, off-the-shoulder dresses, and plunging necklines, etc.

Though fashions will go in and out, it seems as though the bra is here to stay for quite some time. We have come a long way from the steel and whale-bone corsets from what now seems like the ancient times; and with fashion changing, plastic surgery growing, and other technology advancing, we will always have a long way to go.

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