BY: CHARLOTTE LEFAVE
Everyone in the possession of a pair of mammaries understands the struggle of having to contain them with a socially-acceptable wire-based death trap. There are so many rules surrounding these things on our chests, we have to simultaneously strap them down, lift them up, and look cute while doing it. And no matter how many we buy we always revert back to that one we hold high above the others, that incredible soft one that’s a little too stretched, way too comfortable, and has been yanked last-minute out of the laundry basket more times than we care to admit.
Every woman’s dream is to float braless out the door in the morning and not have to worry about judgemental side-glances, raised eyebrows and the paranoia of constantly thinking people are looking at you. But where did this containment concept come from? Who was the first woman to wear a bra, and was it for functionality, society, or vanity?
So way back in Ancient Greece, women were free as a bird. There were no restrictions regarding breasts, and they were often bare, or one was loosely covered (this was most fashionable in Sparta). Breasts were a symbol of pride, seen as glorious signs of fertility and motherhood and were highly respected for their ability to nurture life. They even had a certain degree of religious significance. So how did we get from the most out-there you could possibly be to restriction, hiding, and body shaming. The answer: motherf*cking men. Just kidding! Well, mostly.
Bras were first spotted in paintings of women participating in sports in Ancient Greece, wearing simple cloth strips over their chests that were sewn in the back. They were strictly utilitarian, used so that women could comfortably compete with their fellow Grecian ladies and not be harmed or hindered in the process.
The first signs of restriction or covering for aesthetic purposes appeared in Ancient Rome, where men commonly saw large breasts as signs of ugliness and aging. Because of this common opinion, young women often wore bands tightly wrapped around their chests due to the belief that this would prevent their breasts from growing and make them seem more youthful. Since men dominated this culture and women had no place in society unless they were attached to one, it is easy to see why they would chose to conform to this ideal.
In the Middle Ages, the female form was minimized even further with high collars and extremely concealing dresses due to a society that praised chastity and modesty. A simple cloth binder was the common choice of undergarment. This drastically changed with the coming of the Renaissance Era, when an early version of the corset started to make an appearance. This garment would later become extremely popular in fashionable society and expand into a staple item of women’s wardrobes all over the world. During this period, women’s bodies were made to stand out, curves emphasized and chests pushed up so high that they were almost completely revealed. The art produced during this time period displayed women as bold symbols of femininity and sexual desire, often shown partially or wholly nude, contrasting the largely religious basis of society.
The French empire never made use of the corset, they simply used short stays instead, which proved to be a much better option as knowledge regarding the corset further developed. Throughout the whole of the 19th century, corsets were a must among women of all ages, starting in toddlerhood to promote good posture and then later on to develop the popular hourglass figure. These devices, though at the height of popularity and fashion, had some problematic side effects. Since it was such a normal part of Victorian era fashion, the public and often fellow doctors ignored the evidences of studies done by physicians that exposed the dark side of the bone-based piece.
Though they were advertised as a tool for both physical and moral support, studies showed that corsets often resulted in side effects like nausea, eating disorders, bowel irregularities, rearranging or shrinking of the organs, fertility defects, breathlessness, flushing, fainting, and even gynaecological complications. Of course, since women were still viewed as the weaker sex, this was all chalked up to natural femininity being the only reasonable cause of these malfunctions. Fortunately, the common cure for these “feminine disorders” was bed rest, which lacked a corset, allowing women to have some time to relax and recover. Think of it like the relief of finally being able to take your bra off at the end of the day, times a hundred million.
Thankfully for women everywhere, by the mid to late 1800s, the time of the corset was steadily coming to an end. The clothing reform movement, or otherwise known as the Victorian dress reform movement, was a feminist movement that recognized the cruel restriction of the corset and the illnesses that it caused, and were fighting for clothing that was kinder to the body. They saw the corset as not only physically damaging, but as a way to suppress women’s freedom of sexuality. And it paid off, because after almost forty years of steady pushing, things began to change.
The bra had been in the making since 1863 when the prototype was first launched. The bra hadn’t caught on in popularity due to it being extremely expensive and the most popular fashion being tight-laced corsetry. However, in 1889, the first modern bra was invented by Herminie Cadolle of France, who split the corset into two pieces and allowed the upper half to be sold separately. This was further developed for years by several different companies, but the modern bra didn’t take off until the coming of World War I, due to a shortage of metal, causing corsets to be virtually finished in the fashion world.
The war also shook up the suppressive gender roles that had dominated society before its beginning, and women began steadily adjusting to this new world of possibility. After that, the bra was modified several times as to suit the fashion, but it never returned to the health-endangering ways of the corset. In the ’20s, women embracing the flapper lifestyle wore something like a bandeau for the stylish boy-ish physique. In the ’30s they began to be commonly called ‘bras’ instead of ‘brassieres,’ the elastic and cups were added, and the labelling of cup size by letter was launched by the companies Model and Fay-Miss. In the ’40s, military and factory women had special plastic bras made for their safety, and the bullet bra was made, quickly drawing attention from movie stars and women at the peak of fashion. In the ’50s, nursing, mastectomy, and training bras were created, and by the ’60s the bra was advertised to be worn 24/7 and promoted as a health benefit.
However, not everyone thought so. The bra was still thought of by some women as restrictive and an agent of societal pressure. Feminist activists began the famous burning of the bras movement, representing emancipation from a male-dominated society and establishing their own independence. One moment of popular impact was the Miss America Pageant of 1968, when over 400 activists gathered and performed a display of throwing beauty products like bras, heels, curlers, and magazines into a ‘Freedom Trash Can.’ Feminist books on the female position in society were published and became popular during this time as well, spurring the movement forwards and endorsing progressive women.
After this movement, the bra continued to adapt and develop into the types that we have today. We have everything from bralettes to push-ups, to sports bras, to t-shirt styles, to strapless, minimizers, adhesives, Wonderbras, bandeaus, convertibles, mastectomy bras, maternity bras, training bras and racerbacks. The possibilities are endless.
Throughout history the female body has been picked apart, prodded, squeezed, and altered to fit the current narrow mold that narrow minds perceived as beautiful. In every culture, there were defined images of acceptable and unacceptable body types, ultimately the desired and the rejected. The incredible lengths that women have gone through to fit into the socially acceptable category are extraordinary, as well as the lengths that we have gone to escape from these confines.
Bras only touch on a small section of how perceptions of bodies and styles have changed over the years, and yet we can see through their development how significant they were in the viewing of the female body image. Finally, we’ve gotten back to a society where wearing a bra is not a requirement, but more of an option. Throughout history, the female body image was mainly controlled by men’s perceptions of what we should look like.
Finally, we have reached a time where we can wear whatever we want, whenever we want, so let’s embrace it.