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The History of Bras

If you’re desperate to take your bra off at the end of the day, you’re probably wearing the wrong size bra. Sorry ladies, but it’s a fact that 75 percent of women wear the wrong size, forcing them to deal with unnecessary pain and uncomfortable breasts. After 700 years of evolution, we should DEFINITELY be past uncomfortable. So how did we get here and how can more women get the right fitting bra?

Girl In Fun Bra Celebrating

1300s - The First Bandeau

India, Greece and Rome

Bandeaus have been a staple for all women, going back to ancient India helping the working woman support her bust and protect her back as early as the 1300s. Typically, these “bandeaus” were made by wrapping fabric taut around the breasts to reduce movement. A downside to this however, is that women’s breast development was limited, causing all sorts of medical problems like muscle dystrophy in the chest.

1500s - The Whalebone Corset

Women from upper classes in English societies began to accentuate their feminine frame and tighten their waist with whalebone corsets. This trend lasted well into the 1800s, with many women favouring tight underbust lace up bodices that accentuated their breasts in low cut gowns. The corsets themselves were made by threading whalebone or cane through fabric to give rigidity and support. Many women experienced serious internal damage to their heart, lungs, circulation, breasts, stomach, liver, colon, uterus, gall bladder and various muscles due to tight-lacing which came into fashion around the 1700s. Suddenly, we’re a LOT more thankful for our bras!

1800s - The Metal Girdle & Corset Eyelets

The 1800s brought another significant shift in fashion, with women’s waistlines lowering into a more natural position, encouraging a shorter corset. Corsets became padded, easing their way into a more mainstream, mass produced stage. With the advent of mass production, whalebone became harder to find and therefore cosets became more expensive to produce. By 1850, mass produced corsets began to be boned with steel. With eyelets increasing in popularity, tight-lacing was the height of fashion increasing the health problems of many upper class women.

Girdles started to become a popular alternative to the heavy boned corset towards the end of the 19th Century. Girdles generally sat lower on the body and extended past the hips to maintain shape. These girdles were easier to wear and became elasticised towards the beginning of the 1900s. Girdles are significant in that they were the first garment that split the corset into an upper and lower section, the lower section being the girdle. The invention of the girdle enabled the development of the brasserie.

1907 - Vogue’s “Brassiere

The iconic 1907 article in Vogue Magazine coined the word “Brassiere” to describe the upper part of a split corset and the partner support garment to girdles. The word brassiere is French and derives from the word meaning “upper arm”. “Brassiere” wouldn’t be added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 1911.

1910 - The Modern Bra

Mary Phelps Jacob & The Backless Brassiere

As a young, healthy, affluent young woman, Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) was a regular in the debutante ball scene, attending 3-4 balls each evening. At one ball, Jacob became uncomfortable and felt conscious in her corset which was oversized and stuck through her gown rather unattractively. Jacob was quick off the mark and gathered two silk handkerchiefs and a ribbon, fashioning it into a makeshift brassiere. The idea wasn’t an immediate hit, but women in the upper echelons of society began to notice the trend and wanted Jacob to sew these “brassieres” for them as well. Jacob received a patent for her “backless brassiere” in 1914, at the beginning of the first world war. The war effort demanded that women stop wearing metal boned corsets to help in the conservation of steel. This spawned new ad campaigns featuring the benefits of rubber corsets, bandeaus and Jacob’s Backless Brassiere. This forced the decline of corsets as more women were opting for Jacob’s simplistic, looser design.

1920s - The Flapper

The iconic image of the 1920s flapper is one that has not faded from memory. The flapper represents freedom and women’s androgynous sexuality, aiding in the amplification of their femininity in the coming years. The garments were softer, lacier, more feminine and far less restrictive, allowing the flapper to dance and party as much as they wished. The design of the garment mirrors that of modern bralettes with soft cups and no wires or bones. Coupling this with a lace girdle, suspenders and contrasting stockings was the epitome of sexy and women have never really turned their back on lace since.

1930s - The Underwire

Marie Tucek’s 1893 patent details the form and function of the underwired bra, enabling the brassiere to become more supportive and less of a fashion statement. The underwire trend didn’t take off until the early 1930s when bustier women demanded more support than the flapper bra, but a more efficient way to receive this support than the painful corset. The underwire has become the staple in every woman’s wardrobe and is one of the most utilised items in the western world.

1940s - The Bullet Bra & WW2

With the men away at war, women in the 1940s stepped up into the workforce in spades to fill the gaps. The working woman couldn’t wear a corset all day in a factory or office, nor could she wear the eccentric flapper bra. So what should she wear for support? Due to an increase in communications between the front line and western media, military lingo slipped into the public’s vocabulary. It was played on in many industries, including women’s clothing. The torpedo or “bullet” bra shot to popularity due to an ad campaign promising women “maximum projection” on the job. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that this bra would be a sexual icon, popularised by icons Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner.

1950s - The “Sweater Girl” & The Stylised Bullet Bra

*Marilyn Monroe Appreciation Moment*

This icon and her fellow starlets Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield had a major influence on young women and their clothing choices in the 1950s. The collective term for these women was “Sweater Girls”, named for their choice to wear tight fitting sweaters over the conical underwired bullet bras. These bras became a mainstream staple and defined an era of undergarments, fashion and femininity.

1964 - The Push Up & Wonderbra

BONUS: Bra Burning, The Feminist Movement & The Sexual Revolution

Meet every girl’s hero - Wonderbra. Wonderbra was the first push up bra and sported a lacy half cup, deep plunge design. With feminism on the horizon and the sexual revolution of the 1970s, women’s roles and appearances were becoming more defined, promoting trends like the rise of the mini-skirt and the decline of pantyhose. In what would eventually be described as a propelling agent of the sexual revolution, bra burning became a popular practice of protest, where women burned their brassieres as they believed they were only a means to look sexy and attract men, a relic of the sense of ownership over women.

The makers of the Wonderbra undertook market research and found that women didn’t hate bras. In fact, they loved their bras. It was the symbolism of the removal of restriction that was appealing about bra burning. Knowing this, Wonderbra pursued the bra market share relentlessly and aggressively whilst other companies felt threatened by the bra burning movement and began to shift their focus elsewhere. Wonderbra identified their target as young women, as their research had pointed them out as women who saw bras as a sexuality enhancement and craved “less bra” and less male attention but still wanted to feel sexy for themselves. The first push up bra was created as a result of this extensive market research into the sexual revolution and the practice of bra burning.

1977 - The First Sports Bra - The “Jog Bra”

A common misnomer about the Jogbra is that the word wasn’t originally “jog”, the word was “jock” - as in jockstrap. Yes, ladies. Women in the early 1970s wore 2 jockstraps around their chest to support their breasts while they exercised during the gym craze. Yes. That’s right. Just 47 years ago there was no such thing as a sports bra. Our chests are hurting just thinking about it. But! Lisa Lindahl and theatre costume designer Polly Smith saw the need and created Jockbra, later renamed Jogbra. In 1990, Playtex would buy Jogbra and create an empire built on the increasing number of physically active women thanks to pop culture trends like Baywatch, Olivia Newton John and the Spandex Craze of the 80s and early 90s.

1977 - Victoria’s Secret & Lingerie

With the expansion of the brassiere industry, family department stores like Macy’s & Bloomingdales began to stock sexier garments like lace push up bras and so the sexy brassiere industry was ever growing.

If anyone has ever dragged their man shopping for lingerie, you know the “I’ll just wait out here” line - this happened one too many times to American businessman Roy Raymond. Roy obviously was a very shy and easily embarrassed man and always had the feeling he was unwelcomed in such stores. This awkward department store environment led Roy to study the lingerie market for 8 years before opening the first Victoria’s Secret store, a store in which men could feel comfortable buying lingerie.

Roy quit his role working in the marketing department of the Vicks company and successfully opened the first commercial lingerie only retail store - Victoria’s Secret in 1977. After 5 years, Roy sold Victoria’s Secret’s 6 stores, 42 page catalogue and $6 million revenue per year to Leslie Warner for $1 million. By 1990, Victoria’s Secret was the largest lingerie retailer in America.

1990 - The Cone Bra & Madonna

Madonna’s iconic cone bra from her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour fostered a resurgence in the classic 1950s Sweater Girl look. The garment, created by designer Jean Paul Gaultier, drew on the sexy silk lingerie style of the 1980s and the bullet bra from the 1950s to challenge modern outerwear. This look would be replicated later by superstars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, helping the Sweater Girl live on in modern fashion.

2000 - Lingerie On Show

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show & The World’s Most Expensive Bra

2000 was the year of the model with bombshells like Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and the gorgeous Gisele Bundchen ending the 1990s age of “heroine chic”. 2000 was also the year that the Victoria’s SecretFashion Show debuted their most extraordinary Fantasy Bra ever - The Red Hot Fantasy Bra and Panties. This jewel encrusted matching set of bra and panties still holds the record for the most extravagant and expensive set of lingerie ever created. Made with over 1300 stones and 300 carats of Thai rubies, The Red Hot Fantasy Bra and Panties was propelled into popularity by tears of many awestruck women watching over live stream on the internet (yes, one of the first ever live streams of the event was in 2000!). In 2016, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show broadcast to an audience of 6.6 million viewers in the United States along with models like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner on show.

2017 - Bras For Every Occasion

From strapless to backless, push ups to minimisers, corsets to bandeaus, there’s absolutely no occasion that you can’t find a bra for. Women of every shape, size and body type have options for support, many of them finding a brand or style they love within the first 5 years of wearing a brassiere. However, no matter how much you love something, it doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Many women have never been fitted and as a result, around 70% of Australian women are wearing the wrong size bra. At DeBra’s our in-store fitters can help you find your new favourite garment without the stress and hassle of guesswork. Love your bras!

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January 17, 2018

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