Updated 16 August 2019

A brief history of the bra

Through the centuries, women’s breasts have been miminised, hidden from view or maximised. So where did the modern bra come from and who invented it?

An uplifting tale

Through the centuries, women's breasts have been miminised, hidden from view or maximised, according to the fashion of the time. So where did the modern bra come from and who invented it?

2500 BC

On the island of Crete, Minoan women wore bra-like garments that actually lifted their bare breasts out of their clothing. This was like a push-up bra that went a step further than the modern ones.

400 BC – 300 AD

Roman and Greek women were less ostentatious than the Minoans and strapped their busts down to reduce their breast size. This had more or less the same effect as the modern day sports bra.


The wife of King Henry 11 of France, Catherine de Medici introduced the steel corset at court functions. This uncomfortable contraption, of which the main aim was to make waists appear smaller, was around for 350 years in various designs. It provided both support and restraint, depending on the design that was chosen.


More user-friendly materials were introduced such as whalebone and buckram – a substance usually used for binding books.


The first bra-like devices are patented in the US.


Girls were expected to work towards thirteen-inch waists from as early as the age of four. By the time they were teenagers, their ribs and internal organs were often deformed.
The corset as a garment became a controversial issue in health circles. Public opinion started turning against this unhealthy restrictive garment.


Susan Taylor Converse creates a more comfortable acceptable bra called the Union Under-Flannel. It had no bones, no laces or pulleys and no eyelets. It was patented by Frost and Phelps. In Boston, the dress reform movement gets under way, campaigning for more comfortable undergarments.


Herminie Cadolle invents a garment, which is the first to support the breasts from the shoulders rather than squeezed up from below.


A garment closely resembling the modern bra is patented by Marie Tucek. This garment had shoulder straps, hook and eye fasteners and separate pockets for the two breasts.


Marie Phelps Jacob designs a backless brassiere to wear underneath a low-backed sheer evening gown. It was made from two handkerchiefs, ribbon and cord and she patented the device. The lack of publicity scuttled her business, but the patent was bought for $1500 by Warner Brothers Corset Company. The term brassiere appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from the old French word for ‘upper arm’.

1914 - 1918

Women enter the workforce in their droves and the wearing of the corset becomes impractical. In 1917 the US War Industries encourages women not to buy metal corsets to reduce the metal consumption. This apparently saved 28 000 tons of metal.


Ida Rosenthal and her husband William found Maidenform and are the first to create standard cup sizes from adolescence to maturity.

1930 - 1935

Warner produces an all-elastic bra which is aimed at showing off women's curves rather than hiding them. They also create the cup sizing system, which gets used by manufacturers across the world.

1940 - 1945

Natural fabrics were needed by the war effort, so manufacturers of bras start turning towards synthetic fabrics.

1946 - 1950

Men return to the workplace and again there is an emphasis on increased femininity. The hourglass figure returns and women start wearing foam falsies if they thought their breasts were too small.


The bra and the girdle are seen as symbols of the oppression of women and are thrown into rubbish bins during protests at the 1968 Miss America contest. Bras were never actually burnt, but the idea probably became fused with the public burning of draft cards.


Two female marathon runners, who were fed up with bouncing breasts, made the first sports bra by sewing two jock straps together. Champion patented their idea and the Jogbra was born.

The 21st century

Cleavage has become the trend and many women have breast enlargements done. The bra-manufacturing business is alive and kicking. Seen against the light of historical trends, chances are that flat chests will again become fashion, but fortunately the steel corset will remain something of the past.


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