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The Evolution of the Modern Bra

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the first modern bras were patented in the early 1900s, and exploring the Edwardian era has brought us back to the birth of the modern bra. But the bra as we know it today has undergone a lot of change in the first half of the 1900s; and then feminist protests in the 60s threatened to end the tradition of the bra altogether. Today, let’s take a closer look at how the silk handkerchief and ribbon creation of Mary Phelps Jacob became the modern bra we know and love today.

Bras and the First World War
Mary Phelps Jacob patented her bra design in 1914, and it was perfect timing; the country was just getting embroiled in the First World War. Bras became more commonplace in the 1910s, and they caught on rapidly among women of all social stations. By 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board had asked women to stop buying corsets in order to free up metal for war production, so women began to rely heavily on the bra for support and shaping. (By the way – when women stopped buying corsets, this freed up 28,000 tons of metal – enough to build two battleships!)

During this era, women were moving into retail and clerical sectors. They were looking for garments that would be less restrictive than the corset, and would enable them to work comfortably. The bra became more and more popular, and was synonymous with women’s liberation. By 1918, the bra had moved from something that you could find discretely tucked away in the back of magazines, to being prominently displayed by department stores such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.

The 1920s and the Flapper Look
By the 1920s, the corset had become a girdle and women were relying exclusively on bras for breast containment. The fashion in this era was a low, sloping bustline, and bras from this era were slightly shaped bandeau-style bras, which held the bust in and down through a clip attached to the corset. It was easy for smaller-busted women to confirm to this “boyish” silhouette, but bigger-busted women had to wear devices designed to flatten women’s breasts.

Early Minimizer Bra/Bandeau

Bra Sizing and Shaping Evolves

In 1922, Russian immigrants Ida and William Rosenthal changed the look of fashion. They noticed that bras that fit one woman didn’t fit another woman properly, even when she was the same size. They formed a company designed to develop bras for women of different shapes and body styles; “Maiden Form.” Maiden Form became the leading bra company of the era, and William filed patents for nursing, full-figured and the first seamed uplifting bra. This ended the domination of the boyish Flapper look and began to provide emphasis on lifting and shaping the bust.

Bras Begin to Resemble Today's Garments

In 1932, the word “brassiere” had become shortened to “bra” and the S.H. Camp and Company became the first company to correlate the size of women’s breasts to letters in the alphabet. This gave rise to modern day cup sizes. The first cup size bras came out in 1937, with A, B, C and D cups available.

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