For the next few weeks, we’re going to be taking a look at the history of the bra. This much-contested garment forms the foundation for every woman’s wardrobe today, but where did it start? From bras in the ancient times through the Renaissance, feminist protests of the 60s and to the modern-day offering that so many of us praise, the bra has been many things for many people. The question of “who invented the bra” has a very complicated answer, but to simplify the quest, we can look at the modern bra, invented in 1910 by Mary Phelps Jacobs.
Brasseire in Modern Language
Garments that form the foundation for the modern bra have been around for thousands of years, but the bra took on its modern name and a form we’d recognize today in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The term “brassiere” was first used in 1893, but it became more popular in 1904 when the DeBevoise Company began using the word brassiere to invoke an image of French sensuality and style in its advertising campaign to describe its latest bust supporter.
Vogue magazine first used the term brassiere in 1907, and the term had an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary by 1911. By the 1930s, the term brassiere was being gradually shortened to bra, and became a word in common parlance in that decade.
The First Bra Patent
The brassiere that the DeBevoise Company first advertised under the term resembled a camisole with boning; not really what we think of when we picture the modern bra. It wasn’t until Mary Phelps Jacobs patented her brassiere design in 1914 that we saw something resembling the bra of today.
One fateful night in 1910, Mary Phelps Jacobs was preparing to attend another debutante ball in her long line of evening parties and formal affairs. The whalebone corset that she had been wearing poked out of her evening gown and she decided it was an unflattering, uncomfortable garment. Mary and her maid fashioned a “bra” using two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon and cord.
Mary’s brassiere was much more comfortable than the corsets popular at the time, and her friends all asked her to make them similar “bras” after her debut. Soon, her invention garnered attention from strangers; a woman offered Mary one dollar if she’d make her a bra. Mary realized she’d created a viable product and later patented it, becoming the first person in the United States to hold a patent for a bra.
The French Beat Us to It?
Life magazine credits a Frenchwoman, Herminie Cadolle, with being the true inventor of the first bra. In 1889, Herminie Cadolle moved to Paris and opened a shop selling a two-piece undergarment called le bien-être. The lower part of the garment was a corset for the waist, while the upper part supported the breasts with shoulder straps. She exhibited this garment at the Great Exposition of 1900, and by 1905 the upper half was being sold separately.
These pioneering women, Mary Phelps Jacobs and Herminie Cadolle, brought the first recognizable bra in its modern form to the United States and Europe. But bra-like garments have been around for thousands of years, and the modern bra has undergone quite the evolution in the past century. Keep checking in as we trace the history of the bra and see all of the crazy things women have worn in the name of fashion over the past few millennia!