Going from an undershirt to a training bra is a rite of passage most girls look forward to. Back then, that’s what made girls different from boys. The training bra itself was just one aspect. The more important part was it marked the transition into womanhood.
Women have fashioned material into a bra. Roman women used bands to cover their breasts to play sports. Then there was the corset, which was light silk fabric paired with whalebone or reeds. The corsets were laced in the back so tightly, there was a need to have fainting couches. As time progressed into more modern times, feminists began to rail against the constraints of the corset. Life magazine cites Hermine Cadolle of France as the earliest inventor of the bra. She designed it as a two-piece undergarment called the corselet gorge, and later le bien-être. The lower part was for the waist and the upper part supported the breasts with shoulder straps.
In 1893, Marie Tucek patented a device that consisted of separate pockets for each breast above a metal supporting plate and shoulder straps fastened by hook-and-eye, which most closely resembles the modern underwire bra. However, it was in the 20th century when New York socialite, Mary Phelps Jacob purchased a sheer evening gown for a debutante ball. At that time, the only acceptable undergarment was a corset with whalebone. Ms. Phelps was large breasted and the whalebone protruded from the neckline. As a matter of practicality, she and her maid fashioned two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord. The innovation drew people’s attention. Ms. Crosby nee Phelps started a business. In 1914, a patent was issued for the “Backless Bra.” Crosby’s patent was for a device that was lightweight, soft, comfortable to wear, and naturally separated the breasts, unlike the corset. Her husband discouraged the business venture and she sold the patent to the Warners Brothers Corset Company.
There have been a few modifications to the bra over the years. For the Flappers of the Roaring Twenties, the bandeau-style that flattened the chest was more in line with the waif-like dresses that were in fashion. By the thirties, the focus wasn’t to minimize but to accentuate the breasts. In the forties, Jane Russell’s look in The Outlaw caused a stir and women wanted to accentuate and support the breasts. In the seventies, there was a wave of bra-burning to represent a release from the patriarchy and announced the liberation of women from their constraints. From the eighties through the 2000s, there’s been a rise in bralettes, push-up, padded, and underwire bras. Designers and companies have modernized the shelf-bra that was built into sports or strapless garments. In spite of all the innovation, the basic shape has stayed the same. Although the use of whalebone in women’s undergarments has gone the way of the Whig, when you ask most women what they take off first when they get home, the answer is their bras more often than not.
As someone who has worn nearly every type of bra to handle a large bosom, I am always on the lookout for a happy medium of support and comfort. I believe it was Carol Burnett who said, the world would be a different place if men had to get into stirrups. I agree with her assessment wholeheartedly. No man would design an undergarment with steel bands near the family jewels, but women had to live with the worry of the bra-bite at the most inopportune times. If you’re a woman who has ever been at work, church, or in a meeting, you know the meaning of when underwire attacks.
In the pantheon of bra designers and companies, Soma is relatively new to the scene. At one point, bras fittings were exclusive to high-end lingerie boutiques and shops. However, their boutiques and price point offer women value with excellent service. It’s worth finding a boutique in your area and checking out their selection. They have sales associates who can help by getting some proper measurements to help you find a bra that’s both pretty and comfortable. No appointment is necessary.
Check out the Soma’s selection here, and find a location near you.
For more history on the evolution of the bra