While the garment we recognize as the modern bra only dates back around a hundred years, breast-covering and emphasizing garments have existed as far back as 3,000 years ago. Many ancient cultures either emphasized or minimized the breasts, and designed garments to display or hide these feminine features. What were bras like in ancient culture?
Ancient Crete and the Snake Goddess
Ancient Minoans provide the oldest documentation related to bra-like garments, in the form of 3,000-year-old wall paintings depicting women wearing an open garment designed to lift and display the breasts. This was a homage to their Snake Goddess, who is depicted with exposed and amplified breasts. In many cultures, the breasts are a symbol of fertility and life. By displaying the breasts so prominently, the ancient Minoans on Crete were embracing the tenets of fertility and life and worshipping their Snake Goddess.
Ancient Greeks and Bras
The Ancient Greeks had their own variation of bra-like garments. Some wall paintings in Greece show women wearing what looks like a bikini while they’re engaged in athletic activities. In day-to-day Greek life, many women wore sheer clothing through which the breasts were visible, or draped garments that went over the shoulder and left one breast exposed.
Some women in Classical Greece wore a band of wool or linen wrapped across the breasts, and tied or pinned at the back. Other women wore a band of cloth or leather to support the breasts. Finally, some ancient Greek fashions included a belt fastened over a tunic-like garment just below or over the breasts. The belt below the breasts lifted and emphasized them.
Ancient Romans More Conservative
Roman culture emphasized breasts less than the Greeks. Ancient Roman men and women typically wore a loose, flowing tunic, sometimes with a girdle, and an outer cloak. Many Roman women wore strips of cloth over the breasts to restrict their growth, and larger-busted women wore garments designed to conceal their busts. Some early Roman art in the ruins of Pompeii show primitive garments similar to the first brassieres dating as far back as 62 A.D.
Bras in Ancient India
Much ancient Indian sculptures and art depicts women bare-breasted, but there are several instances of Indian women wearing garments similar to primitive brassieres. The oldest historical reference to brassieres in India dates to the rule of King Harshavardhana in the 1st century A.D. In the Vijayanagera empire, dating from the 1300s to the 1600s, sewn brassieres and blouses were very popular. India also featured a half-sleeved tight bodice in literature dating to the early 1200s, which indicates that these garments were worn by women and young girls.
Bras in China
The Chinese have practiced binding many things, and the breasts are no exception. During the Ming Dynasty, from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s, rich women wore a form of foundation cloth drawn over the shoulders and tied to the girth seam at the lower back. These garments remained common in the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1912.