By the 1930’s, it wasn’t just about covering your breasts with an undergarment. It was about lifting, separating, and creating the image of full, round breasts. But how did this image of women take shape? That’s what my second edition of my “Historical Tidbits About Undergarments” will briefly glance over. The change from the early 20th century undergarments and cinched waists of the corset, to the uplifting brassiere.
Author Jill Fields actually gives the best intro for this post, by explaining how*:
“The brassiere is a twentieth-century garment. Worn today by virtually every woman in the United States from about the age of twelve, the brassiere first emerged in the early 1900s and became the standard item of dress within the next thirty years.”
It’s suggested that the evolution from corset to brassiere came about because as dress shapes changed; like lower necklines and longer waistlines, undergarments were made to accommodate this change, which left the breasts exposed and unsupported. And most women will tell you support is the one thing all breasts need.
Although it’s difficult to say when and what the exact reason for the change towards brassieres came about. That’s partially due to so many people claiming to be its originator. Paul Poiret (who I talked about before) attested that his corsetless designs not only made corsets go out of style, but also paved the way for the need of brassieres.
Socialite and Drunk History anecdote Caresse Crosby patented what’s considered to be the first bra in 1913. She sewed two handkerchiefs together with ribbon, creating a separate hold for each breast. Pretty much the shape of bras today. She sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in later years; which allowed them to stake a claim as the bra originators.
And while Crosby may have been left out, she does have some cutting insight on her place in bra history: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”*
As brassieres became the undergarment, particular attention paid to how the bras shaped women’s beasts. This design detail is what led brassiere makers in the 1930’s to create something everyone knows: cup sizes.
Warner is the first known company to sell brassieres by cup sizes. In 1935, they had what was known as alphabet brassieres: Type A, Type, B, Type C, and Type D. This development also led to companies creating standardized sizes for brassieres, eventually combining lettered cup size and chest measurements into what we know today (like a 28A, 32B, etc).
Perhaps what the brassiere’s prominence tells us is that the focus was shifting from the artificial and contrived appearance the corset, to a more natural one. The brassiere – which became the modern bra – was all about defining breasts to look like natural perky breasts.
What my personal takeaway in all this historical brush over is this: we’re changing the way clothes and undergarments fit us because we want to embrace what our bodies really look like. Or, rather, we want to present the best image of ourselves. Sometimes that means more support from a defined and lifting bra, other times it means the comfort and simplicity of a bralette. Whatever it is that you’ve got under your clothes, at the end of the day, it’s is (and should be) what you wanted to feel like you.
*An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007) by Jill Fields
*The Passionate Years (1953) by Caresse Crosby
*3rd November 1914: A copy of the first patent for the brassiere, Hulton Archive—Getty Images
*Library of Congress: Detroit, Michigan. Fashion show presented by the Chrysler Girls' Club of the Chrysler Corporation at the Saks Fifth Avenue store. Girl modeling a brassiere and girdle. Photographer: Arthur S. Siegel. Spring 1942.
*Alphabet brassieres (Wikipedia: adverti
*Sears 1917, Spring Catalog - "Brassieres with Boning"
Dayna Brownfield is an editor and writer, with a background in women's niche publications. You can read her musings at www.daynab.com, and check out her monthly Instagram project, Zine It, at @dayna_._b.