In today’s world, bras have evolved to feature cutting-edge fabrics and well-engineered support systems. But their surprising history stretches back centuries. Join us on a journey to discover the fascinating origins of bras and their evolution into the modern undergarment we know today.
The Enigmatic Beginnings
The exact inception of the bra remains a historical enigma. While we can’t pinpoint when the first bra was invented, we can find early references in ancient Greek works. In Homer’s “Iliad,” we encounter descriptions of the goddess Aphrodite using an “intricately woven band” to support her chest, and in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” a woman mocks her husband by removing her strophion while avoiding intimacy. These are early hints of bra-like garments in antiquity.
Historian Mireille Lee notes that understanding what people wore beneath their clothing in ancient times is challenging. Only one artistic depiction survives, suggesting a woman wearing a strophion under her attire, despite its sexual and gender connotations.
A Medieval Revelation
In 2008, archaeologists made a significant discovery at Lengberg Castle in Austria. Among a pile of relics dating back to the 15th century, they uncovered four linen garments resembling modern bras. These garments, reminiscent of what some medieval authors referred to as “breast bags,” shed light on the existence of supportive undergarments during the Middle Ages.
Textile historians Rachel Case, Marion McNealy, and Beatrix Nutz explain that during this era, fashion did not favor prominent busts. Women wore supportive garments to reduce the appearance of their bodies and minimize gossip about their figures.
15th Century “Breast Bags”
The 600-year-old “breast bags” found at Lengberg Castle featured cup-like structures, designed to shape and support the breasts. These findings challenge the notion that cupped bras originated in the 19th century, as previously believed.
The evolution of what we recognize as the modern bra involved inventors and clothing reformers seeking innovative ways to shape and support the bust. However, the identity of the true pioneer remains a subject of debate. Was it Herminie Cadolle, the 1880s French retailer who divided the corset into the “soutien-gorge” or “throat support”? Or perhaps Olivia Flynt, the American tailor who patented the “Flynt band” in 1873, which aimed to replace the corset? Another contender is Caresse Crosby, who secured a patent for a “backless, transparent” fashion support in 1914, which would later be sold to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, still in operation today.
The Bra’s Triumph
By the 1930s, bras began to replace corsets, marking a significant shift in the lingerie industry. This era introduced standardized cup sizes and adjustable straps, making bras more accessible and functional. In 1968, bras had become so widespread and closely linked to ideals of female beauty and sexuality that feminist protesters in Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant threw them into trash cans (though they didn’t actually burn them, as popular culture sometimes suggests).
Intriguingly, the evolution of the bra mirrors the evolving perceptions of women’s bodies, fashion, and gender roles throughout history.
The history of the bra is a tapestry of innovation and societal change. From its mysterious origins in ancient Greece to its transformation into a symbol of modern femininity, the bra has been much more than a mere undergarment; it’s a reflection of cultural shifts and women’s liberation.