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Women wear bras for a whole rainbow of reasons: comfort, appearance, or just plain “keeping up appearances.” Some bras flatter small breasts making them look bigger, and others are designed for maximum comfort. Still other bras are designed for nursing or exercise. But how did it all get started? How did women start wearing bras in the first place?
It’s very difficult to date the invention of the bra. Does the mastodeton–the chest-binding worn by ancient Greek women while they were exercising–count as a bra? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on who you ask. Most will agree the evolution of modern shapewear got going in the 19th century. However before the Victorian masterminds who applied their brainpower to this engineering challenge came up with the bra, there were a few false starts. Maybe they should have asked a woman?
In the 19th century, women’s bodies became more and more embedded in attire. By the 1840’s, a woman might carry beneath her dress a knee-length chemise, a camisole, up to a half-dozen petticoats, a corset, and drawers. The idea as one historian put it was, “to eliminate, as far as possible, any impression of shape.” All of this undergarment-related infrastructure could be dishearteningly heavy. A woman might easily end up trudging through her day-to-day business weighted down under 40 lbs of clothing.
Crinolines–called “hoopskirts”, undergirded by whalebone or steel–were introduced as a way of shaping the appearance without requiring an outfit of heavy underclothing. While the crinoline lessened the load on women weight-wise, the potential for clumsiness and injury was greatly enhanced by their introduction into the wardrobes of ladies belonging to the upper-crust of society.
Strained crinolines had the dismaying tendency to invert and fly upward, like a stressed umbrella. Stories circulated about women who’d been left trapped and staggering inside misbehaving hoops. High winds were a source of major wardrobe malfunctions, and stairs presented a serious threat to personal safety. But the greatest threat of all to women wearing crinolines was the danger presented by fire. “Many wearers of crinolines were burnt to death by inadvertently approaching a fire,” Cecil Willet and Phillis Cunnington note in their surprisingly solemn History of Underclothes.
Crinolines golden-age came and went between the years 1857 and 1866, by which time they were more or less abandoned as an accessory. Not so much because wearing them was potentially life-threatening, not even because they looked ridiculous, but because they were increasingly being worn by “members of the lower-classes” and so had lost their exclusivity.
Just because crinolines had been abandoned, however, did not necessarily mean the age of pointless discomfort was at an end. Not by a long-shot: crinolines were succeeded by corsets.
For medical experts, tight corsets became something of an obsession in the second half of the 19th century. There wasn’t a functioning system within a woman’s body, it seemed, that wasn’t seriously susceptible to breakdown from the constricting effects of lace and whalebone. Corsets prevented the heart from beating freely, which caused congestion in the circulatory system. Sluggish blood, in turn, led to almost a hundred recorded afflictions–incontinence, dyspepsia, liver failure, “congestive hyerptrophy of the uterus,” and the loss of mental faculties to name a notable few.
One thing Victorian ladies, sadly, did not have access to were brassieres. Corsets created structure and pushed up from underneath, holding women’s breasts in place. But for true comfort breasts are better held up by slings.
The genius inventor who identified this opportunity was a man named Luman Chapman, who secured a patent for “breast puffs” in 1863. “Breast puffs” were a sort of early halter top–they fell short of the modern brassiere, but from an engineering standpoint, Chapman was headed in the right direction. Between the years 1863 and 1969, over a thousand patents on bras were taken out in the United States. The word brassière, derived from a French word that meant “upper-arm,”was first applied to this new trend in garment technology by the Charles DeBevoise Company in the year 1904.
We have to lay to rest an obstinate rumor, before ending this blog post, however. Many have asserted that the bra was invented by an individual by the name of Otto Titzling. The truth is if such a person ever existed, he did not play a role in either the invention or the development of shapewear. On that mildly disappointing note, we’ll have to end our meditations on the history of shapewear for today.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
“Bust Up”: The Brassiere was not invented by Otto Titzling by Barbara Mikkelson
The History of Underclothes by Cecil Laurent & Phillis Cunnington