A colorful selection of brass

Bra History and Innovation Intertwined With the Social Development of Women’s Status

Bras or brassieres are a woman’s undergarments to cover and support their breasts and flatter their gracefulness. The history of the bra is closely intertwined with the social development of women’s status. It represents the evolution of fashion stages and various contemporary views on the aesthetics of the female body. During the history of bras, women have often experienced a variety of underwear to uphold, support, reveal, and adjust the appearance of their breasts. In the 16th century, the corset was the first essential shift in the development of underclothes. The French stylists wore it in the early 1500s to beautify their seductive figure, especially a charming cone shape. The corset flattered women’s breasts by supporting their chests upward, increasing their sexy and feminine appeal.

By the late 19th century, designers divided a corset into two pieces; one was a waistband garment for the lower body, and the other was the upper part of a garment hung from the shoulder. From the beginning of the 20th century, women’s underwear closely resembled contemporary bras. Then bras have replaced corsets, particularly the metal shortage of the Second World War generated the end of the corset. When the war ended, fashionable women in Europe and North America adored the most popular underwear: the bra. Later, women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America got familiar with using the bra when the influence of western fashion bloomed in Asian countries. It caused an impressive vogue for lingerie in these nations.

History of the bra in the 16th century

Two pieces of bras in the16th century hung on tailor's dummy
Retro corset on a tailor’s dummy. Credit: Reader’s digest

The history of the bra might undergo remarkable changes from the 16th century. The earliest pattern of a corset comes from the Minoan age or 1600 BCE. It speaks for a fundamental undergarment in the concept of clothing and tailoring. The corset was designed to flatten and stand out a woman’s bustline, which was considered a contemporary, fashionable way. Then a woman wore a  tightly-fitted kirtle under the outer petticoat to mold her body in the popular, fashionable form that there was a change: a skirt of the kirtle under the gown. Instead of a whole under-kirtle, a woman wore a separate kirtle under a gown.

Additionally, tribes in the mountain range between Asia and Europe have used corsets to beautify the bust. Normally, corsets were decorated with fifty laces and used from childhood until a wedding night. On that night, a groom took the laces off a bride’s garment to show his self-control. According to the French, the corset represents one of the most popular garments of western civilization. Its style is to tightly cover the waistline and push breasts upwards in an alluring way. The history of the bra underwent many compelling changes in the 19th century.

19th century

A red-yellow-strike corset on a tailor's dummy
A red-yellow-strike corset on a tailor’s dummy in the 19th century. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

At the time, there existed different opinions about the inventors of modern bras. The history of the bra in this period underwent landmark developments. Several design patents for the bra happened in the 19th century. In 1859, Henry S. Lesher in Brooklyn, New York, delivered the first breast patent with symmetrical roundness. Luman L. Chapman in Camden, New Jersey, came up with a corset substitute. Dressmaker Olivia Flynt had four parents, aiming at larger-breasted ladies. According to Life magazine, Herminie Cadolle in France produced the first modern bra.

Immediately, it figured in a luxury catalog of corsets. It represented a two-piece undergarment, which Herminid named the corselet gorge. She designed this garment into two; the lower part covers the waist, and the upper part upholds the breasts. In 1893, Marie Tucek made a breakthrough in designing separate pockets for each breast above a metal upholding plate. This device resembled today’s current bras. From then, home-sewn garments came into view to generate harsh competition with factory-made or ready-to-wear bras. The bra then became an alternative to the bra.

Evaluation of the bra in the 20th century

spotted orange and yellow bra
Spotted rose, yellow bra. Credit: Fashion history

John Walsh of the U.K. said that brassiere came from a military term that indicates an arm protector, as the word “le bra” in French means an arm. Producers imitated the word in 1904 when a fashion magazine, American Vogue, used the term for the first time in 1907, leading to a cornerstone for the history of the bra. In 1911, the term was defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. Interestingly, when Mary Phelps Jacob, at the age of 19,  went to a party, she wore an evening gown. The whalebone corset flattered her waistline. Later, she made the backless brassiere from which she earned her first dollar. Subsequently, she sold the patent to the Warner Bros Company for an impressive price of $1,500.

The above photo illustrates that a brassiere or a bra includes a couple of cone-shaped cups to contain female breast tissue. A chest bandeau with over-the-shoulder straps supports bread tissue. Women who have experienced a surgical removal of one or both breasts wear specialized brassieres that hold breast prostheses. According to the particular needs of pregnant and nursing women, brassiere models depended on the time: the early 1920s’ breast-flattering design, bias-cut model of the following decade, and many different shapes in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In terms of sports, the bra hoists and supports their chest.

Non-western bra equivalents

While the history of the bra in western countries has developed in many remarkable stages, different cultures or traditions across the globe have produced lots of kinds of undergarments to serve women’s needs. Among the non-western nations, the developing stages of the bra in China are noticeable because of its huge population.

History of the bra in China

A girl wearing a Chinese yellow bra
A girl wears a Chinese yellow bra. Credit: Steemit

The development of the bra has spanned over its long history. As a result, China has introduced many different undergarments that serve similar goals to the western bra and corset. The typical example of the bra is the dudou, which forms diamond-shaped underwear to flatten the breasts and cover the stomach. The old-fashioned bra existed from the dynasties of Ming and Qing. This belly band is a piece of cloth to cover a woman’s belly. It served to flatter Chinese women’s breasts as an ideal bust was flat-chested, which generated a temptation towards the opposite sex. The Chinese invented the dudou in the early 17th century to warm the chest and belly. It serves as an undergarment for children, women, and men to avoid colds and diarrhea.

Patterns of the dudou

The design looked very simple, including a square piece of cloth and attached straps to fasten around the neck and at the back. At the time, people sewed this simple garment, decorated with sophisticated embroidery. Interestingly, the content of the embroidery served different purposes. It contained love messages with themes withdrawn from romantic stories in operas, myths, or folklore for those in love. Women and would-be brides liked images of dragons, phoenixes, and fish, representing a sign of good luck, happiness, and fertility. For older adults, the embroidery described photos of tortoises, a sign of longevity.

Material of the dudou

In terms of material, dudous were made of traditional, popular silk satin. The material of straps could be similar to that of dudou. However, rich families preferred gold or silver chains. When the Qing Dynasty ended at the beginning of the 1900s, the dudou sank into silence. Then western undergarments like corsets and brassieres occupied the place of the dudou. Recently, dudou has made an impressive return to global fashion as a fashion garment and an undergarment. Nowadays, the sexy pattern of a dudou associated with skirts or jeans and backless tops is a regular sight in the streets. As a result, it is a move to change the public view of underwear.

Non-western equivalent bras in India

Three Indian ladies in traditional clothing
Indian women are clad in traditional clothes. Credit: SW

The first undergarment in India was the choli, which is similar to a bra. It included a little piece of cloth to cover the breast that became popular in the Chola Kingdom. Next, a tight-fitted body kanchuka appeared in the literature of king Vijayanagara in the 1300s. During this period, skilled tailors or chippiga had experience with bras and blouses. While in other places in the country, covering the breasts is connected with social status. Unlike the upper class of people of Travancore, Avarna women didn’t cover their busts in public unless they completed tax payments. Thus, they owned little control over their breasts.

Once, a woman living in Cherthala denied paying taxes. Against the current rituals of the community, she decided to cover her chest and went out in the street. Once the rumor spread across the Cherthala village, a village officer came to collect her taxes. Instead of following the rituals, she cut her breasts and placed blood in front of the officer. As a result, he went away due to his horror. Unfortunately, she passed away a matter of minutes later. Her death had spread so widely in the community that the then king canceled the tax. Accordingly, lower-class women could cover their breasts.

Yem in Vietnam

A Vietnamese girl is tying yem's straps behind her back
A brown yem. Credit: Vietnam Costumes

Looking back on the history of traditional dress in Vietnam, there are two symbolic dresses. The first one is Ao Dai; long dress women wear at formal events and special occasions. While the other is Ao Yem, an ancient underwear garment that is the necessary dress of ancient women. A yem is the Vietnamese national bodice or undergarment that all women in every walk of life wear to toil in fields. Also, it serves as a nightgown on summer nights when the climate is very muggy.  Yem came into shape in the Ly dynasty. In fact, it originated from the Chinese undergarment, dudou, which was very popular under the Ming and Qing dynasties.

“Ao Yem” or halter-top came into life in Vietnam very early. It is a piece of cloth, including a square piece with one corner, designed to closely fit the woman’s throat. In addition, this scrap of material covers the breast and belly tied by strings on the back. Traditionally, the halter-top has a brown or beige color for toiling in fields and rustic environments. Through the history of Ao yem, it has changed continuously with reformed designs. In fact, the development of Ao Yem made a milestone in the early century when western fashion came into Vietnam.

No-bra trend

The year 2021 has seen fresh attitudes towards the concept of the best bras. At present, so many women turn their backs on bras, a new fashion trend across the globe. They are already sick of bras. Some feel a bra tightening their rib cage and incredibly uncomfortable during a long day of work. Although they select the appropriate bra size, they still find no one fits properly. As a result, some decide to close their bra drawers forever, while others find ways to support their breasts.

Recently, the New York Times and Vogue have released articles on the braless movement that signal the end of the ruling of the bra. In the pandemic period, women tended to comfort over style and avoid the uncomfortable and restricting brassiere. Also, women go braless related to health-related issues, their price, and social purposes. They have fought against the physical and cultural influences caused by bras for years. For instance, a protest at the Miss America contest in 1968 prompted producers to release new designs.

Pros and cons of wearing a bra

An expert on breast health problems at Beverly Hills raised awareness that sleeping in a bra doesn’t harm health. Some people suffer less neck and back pain when they get proper support. For some, full breast support gives comfort and reduces back pain. Thus, it is a personal choice to help end-users to prevent backache.

Unluckily, few care about or research the long-term effects of women if they wear a bra every day. Some have it on; they feel uncomfortable and expect to take it off at home after the work day. Professor Jean-Demis Rouillon conducted a 15-year-long study to indicate that a bra didn’t slow down the breast from sagging with age. In addition, wearing a bra at a young age caused the chance of sagging later because it prevented the development of tissues. As a result, it leads to the degradation of muscles that upholds the breast.


The history of bras has developed in many noticeable stages, particularly in western countries. The French are stylists in the fashion of lingerie. The design of bras has depended upon the changing aesthetic tastes of women and social development. In addition, health and sports have a certain impact on bra designing. The evolution of the bra always focuses on the beautification of the female sex. However, there are pros and cons to wearing a bra. The no-bra trend is coming into shape as many want to liberate their breasts and model self-acceptance in society.




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