The history of brassieres is inextricably intertwined with the social history of the status of women, including the evolution of fashion and changing views of the female body.
Women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, reveal, or modify the appearance of breasts. From the 14th century onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women in the West were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 19th century, various alternatives were experimented with, splitting the corset into a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso, and transferring the upper part to devices suspended from the shoulder.
In the late 19th century, bras replaced the corset as the most widely used means of breast support. By the early 20th century, garments more closely resembling contemporary bras had emerged, although large-scale commercial production did not occur till the 1930s. Since then bras have replaced corsets (although some women prefer camisoles) and a minority go without. During the 20th century, greater emphasis has been given to the fashion aspects of brassieres. Brassiere manufacture is a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by large multinational corporations.
Throughout recorded history, women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, or elevate their breasts. Brassiere or bikini-like garments are depicted on some female athletes in the 14th century BC during the Minoan civilization era.
From the 16th century onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women in the Western world were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upward. In the latter part of the 19th century, clothing designers began experimenting with various alternatives to the corset, trying things like splitting the corset into multiple parts: a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso and devices that suspended the breasts from the shoulder for the upper torso.
Garments more closely resembling contemporary bras emerged by the early 20th century, although large-scale commercial production did not occur until the 1930s. The metal shortages of World War II encouraged the end of the corset. By the time the war ended, most fashion-conscious women in Europe and North America were wearing brassieres. From there the brassiere was adopted by women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, although we have no information about what arrangements, if any, immediately preceded the adoption of the brassiere across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Like other clothing, brassieres were initially sewn by small production companies and supplied to various retailers. The term “cup” was not used to describe bras until 1916, and manufacturers relied on stretchable cups to accommodate different sized breasts. Women with larger or pendulous breasts had the choice of long-line bras, built-up backs, wedge-shaped inserts between the cups, wider straps, power Lastex, firm bands under the cup, and even light boning.
In October 1932, the S.H. Camp and Company correlated the size and pendulousness of a woman’s breasts to letters of the alphabet: A, B, C and D. Camp’s advertising featured letter-labeled profiles of breasts in the February 1933 issue of Corset and Underwear Review. In 1937, Warner began to feature cup sizing in its products. Adjustable bands were introduced using multiple eye and hook positions in the 1930s.
Since then, bras have replaced corsets and bra manufacture and sale has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Over time, the emphasis on bras has largely shifted from functionality to fashion.
There is an urban legend that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling (“tit sling”) who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere (“fill up the brassiere”). This originated with the 1971 book Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra and was propagated in a comedic song from the movie Beaches.