A garment made to cover, contain, and support women's breasts, the brassiere has long been identified with femininity, female sexuality, and even female oppression. Invented during the early 1900s, when women were beginning to gain some independence, the brassiere, or bra, represented freedom from much more
As the era of the stiff corset came to an end in the late nineteenth century, fashion designers, along with women themselves, began to seek alternative undergarments. In 1914 a young New York socialite named Polly Jacob (she later used the name Caresse Crosby) tied two handkerchiefs together with ribbon to make the first brassiere. She eventually sold the right to make the new garment to Warner Brothers Corset Company. At almost the same time in France, designer Paul Poiret (1879–1944) created a similar garment. These early bras were designed to flatten the breasts, since small breasts were fashionable at the time. By the end of the decade another New Yorker, Ida Cohen Rosenthal (1886–1973), had designed a new, more fitted brassiere, with cups. She started the Maidenform Company to manufacture and sell the new bra.
A larger bustline was popular during the 1930s, and designers introduced an "uplift" bra, with padding and extra reinforcement to help women maximize their figures. Padded bras became popular again during the 1950s, when big breasts were in style again. The increasingly casual style of the 1960s led to a "braless" look. For those too timid to give up bras altogether, there were soft, stretchy bras that combined the braless look with a little support. Going braless became a form of political statement among many in the women's rights movement, as many feminists rebelled against society's rules about how women were supposed to dress. At the 1968 Miss America contest, feminists (supporters of equal rights and treatment for women) protested male beauty standards by throwing curlers, makeup, and bras into a garbage can. Although no bras were burned, the media exaggerated the event, and the term "bra-burner" became a synonym for feminist.
The jogging craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s led many women back to bras for support. Two University of Vermont students, Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl, sewed two men's athletic supporters to elastic straps and created the first jogging bra. Soon jogging bras, or "sports bras," were designed so that they could be worn without a shirt. During the 1990s the exposure of cleavage, the depression between a woman's breasts, came back into style and another new type of bra was developed. Called the Wonderbra, this bra pushed the breasts up so that even small-breasted women could have a fashionable bustline.
Dowling, Claudia Glenn. "Ooh-la-la! The Bra." Life (June 1989): 88–96.
Farrell-Beck, Jane. Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Hawthorne, Rosemary, and Mary Want. From Busk to Bra: A Survey of Women's Corsetry. Cincinnati, OH: Seven Hills Book Distributors, 1987.