Although certain historical accounts might suggest otherwise, the modern bra does not have one singular inventor. Instead, it evolved from something women have known for centuries — it is easier to move if you have a garment holding your breasts in place.
Yet, beyond pure function, bras have historically been a reflection of fashion, culture, and sexual tastes. History suggests that women in ancient Greece wore straps of cloth similar to a modern bandeau top. Women in the Middle Ages are thought to have worn “breast bags,” before corsets came into fashion in the 16th century. So how did we go from strips of cloth to the latest invention — the strapless, backless, adhesive bra? Here’s a brief history:
Fourth century B.C.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date the bra was invented, the Greeks were the first to design a garment specifically for restraining breasts during physical activity. In classical Greece, women were known to wear a strap of fabric, known as an apodesmos, which resembled a bandeau top and bound the breasts and kept them in place.
Historians believe that women in the Middle Ages wore “breast bags,” which may have looked a little like a camisole with a built-in bra. Some women may have also tried to use the breast bags to reduce the size of their breasts, so that, as one unknown author in 15th century Germany wrote, “there is no gossip in the city about her big breasts.”
The corset first appeared in the French and Spanish royal courts during the 16th century. They were designed to mold a woman’s body into an hourglass shape by flattening her stomach and pushing up her breasts. Corsets were considered mandatory for middle and upper-class women at the time.
By the 18th century, corsets had evolved to be complex and detailed. They were shaped like funnels and stiffened with stays made of whale bone. The idea was to push the breasts up so they looked like “rising moons.” But this put so much strain on the body that there are recorded cases of women fainting, breaking ribs, bruising internal organs, and even dying from corsets that were too tight.
At the turn of the 19th century, French corset-maker Herminie Cadolle cut a traditional corset into two parts so that there was a top “corselet-gorge” and a bottom piece of fabric.
New Yorker Marie Tucek patented a ”breast supporter,” which in many ways looked a lot like an early prototype for the underwire bra and was a departure from the tight corsets of an earlier era.
Vogue began talking about brassieres in 1907, and by 1911 the word appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first modern bra was officially patented by socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs (who later went by Caresse Crosby) in 1914. Her clever invention allowed her to wear the plunging necklines of the time.
The U.S. War Industries Board asked American women to stop buying corsets in 1917 to make more metal available for the war effort. By the end of the war, 28,000 tons of metal were saved when women ditched their cumbersome corsets.
Two New York dressmakers, William and Ida Rosenthal, started making bras for their clients and eventually went on to found the Maidenform company. They are credited with introducing the letter sizing system.
As busty figures like Marilyn Monroe’s came back into fashion, Frederick Mellinger of Frederick’s of Hollywood introduced the “Rising Star” bra, which was considered the first push-up bra.
Roy Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret after an uncomfortable trip to buy underwear for his wife. His vision was a store where both men and women would feel comfortable shopping for lingerie.
The Wonderbra, which was first invented nearly 30 years earlier by the Canadian lingerie company Canadelle, was an immediate success when it was introduced to the American market. Famous for pushing up women’s breasts and making them larger, at the height of its popularity, researchers estimate one Wonderbra was sold every 15 seconds.
In recent decades, the size of the average woman’s breasts has increased dramatically and companies have started to introduce new bra sizes like the J, K, and KK cup sizes.
Sneaky Vaunt’s strapless, backless, adhesive bras become Instagram-famous thanks endorsements from full-figured stars like Amber Rose. Various adhesive bras have since flooded the market. And if history is any indication, the innovations will just keep coming.