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Bras in the 1800s

The Victorian era in England was a time when women continued wearing tight-fitting garments designed to emphasize the breasts and hips by tightlacing the waist. However, in the late 1800s, the “corset substitute” began to emerge, and large-busted women began to see garments designed especially for them. The latter part of the 1800s saw the beginning of the Clothing Reform Movement and a final withdrawal from corsets and tight-fitting undergarments. First, however, women of the period must contend with the cumbersome fashion of the Victorian nobility.

Victorian Era Fashion
Victorian-era fashion continued the emphasis that began during the Renaissance period on displaying a woman’s breasts and hips. Victorian fashion continued to dictate the tightlacing of the waist to help make it appear smaller, while simultaneously providing greater contrast with the breasts and hips.

Women during this period were also encumbered with layers and layers of garments, including:

  • A chemise with a drawstring neckline;
  • Drawers (panties);
  • Corset and corset cover;
  • An under-petticoat;
  • The hoop skirt;
  • An over-petticoat;
  • The dress.

Dressing during this period often took quite a long time, and noble women who were required to wear all of these garments to comply with fashion demands often needed a special maid to help them don the cumbersome garments. The corset was drawn tight to help emphasize the tiny waistline and comply with the period ideal of beauty. Women during this era typically began preparing for formal events hours before the event was scheduled to begin, due to the demands of these extensive garments.

Changes in the mid-to-late 1800s
Toward the late 1800s, the Clothing Reform Movement began to emerge – a movement that we’ll look at in more detail next week. The basis of this movement was to negate health problems by abandoning the restrictive garments that commonly caused fainting, rib cage deformity and other extreme medical risks. From this period forward, women’s fashion continued to evolve and the first bra-like devices began to emerge.

A device that resembles today’s bra was patented in 1859 by Henry S. Lesher of Brooklyn. This device was designed to give “symmetrical rotundity” to the wearer’s breasts. In 1863, a “corset substitute” was patented by Luman L. Chapman of Camden, New Jersey. This is commonly recognized by historians as a “proto-brassiere.”

In 1876, a woman dressmaker named Olivia Flynt was granted four patents that covered what she called a “true Corset” or “Flynt Waist” which was aimed at the larger-breasted woman. This is the first time in the history of the bra that we’ve seen garments specifically marketed at the larger-breasted woman.

By the beginning of the 1900s, the Edwardian era saw a change in women’s undergarments, with more emphasis on movement and the ability to enjoy leisure sports. The Victorian era was the last period where women consistently wore corsets for day-to-day life. In the modern era, the emphasis on small waistlines and the societal acceptance of slimness as a paragon of beauty continues, but not to the extremes that women suffered during the Renaissance and the Victorian era.


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