The Fascinating History Of Bras & How Little Progress We've Actually Made In The Undergarment Industry

cartoon drawings of bra with purple ombre background
PHOTO: ARKADIVNA / GETTY IMAGES

I don’t know about you, but every time I put on a bra, I think to myself, “Could they not have come up with something better than this?” The answer, it turns out, is both yes and no. The modern bra has been around for 104 years, and it hasn’t evolved nearly as much as one would hope. However, the bra was itself an innovation after many years of wraps, corsets and bodices.

We know from artwork that many ancient women simply went bare-breasted. Egyptian and Indian art, for example, frequently depicts figures with naked breasts, and women likely went bare under their tunics. In the sense that bras are about covering the female body, this makes sense. Free the nipple! A lot of women still go without bras today.

Image: Mic's Flip the Script

But what about support? Surely women were participating in activities like sports and combat that necessitated a bit of extra stability? Indeed, the precursor to the sports bra dates back at least as far back as 2,500 B.C., when Greeks and Romans wore compressive breast bands made out of cloth and leather. Other illustrations depict women in bikini-like uniforms.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bras are also about aesthetics, as anyone who walks into a Victoria’s Secret can tell. Things were no different in ancient times. In ancient Crete, undergarments provided support without actually covering the breasts at all. Later, in the Middle Ages, tight-fitting bodices were used to lift and minimize the breasts rather than emphasize them. By the 16th century, corsets were pushing breasts up to high heaven.

Image: Daseaford / Getty Images

Fast-forward to 1914. An American woman named Mary Phelps Jacobs was tired of wearing a bulky corset that was impossible to hide underneath her chic evening gowns. To solve her problem, she invented the modern brassiere at just 19-years-old. It consisted of two pieces of fabric, held together by silk ribbons. This was the beginning of the brassiere’s international takeover.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This brassiere was a revelation at the time. Jacobs wrote that her bra, unlike a corset, “does not confine the person anywhere except where it is needed.” You can just imagine the female body breathing a massive sigh of relief at not being confined by corsets and bodices anymore. From this perspective, bras are great.

Over the next hundred years, though, bra aesthetics have often won out over practicality. The bra market was worth $19.6 billion in 2016, yet an astonishing number of women still wear the wrong bra size and the sports bra industry is woefully behind — largely because of the misconception that sports bras need to be sexy. If bra research was focused solely on comfort and support, we’d likely have some better options available today.

Images: Jacob Ammentorp Lund / Getty Images

Until that time comes, I’ll continue to relish that feeling when you get home and you can finally release your girls from boob prison. 

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KIM WONG-SHING

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer, lipstick junkie, and plant mama in New Orleans. She grew up in Philadelphia and went to Brown University. Connect with her on Instagram.

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