Breast supporting act: a century of the bra

In 1907, Vogue coined the term 'brassiere', and launched a billion-dollar industry that changed the way women dress for ever. A hundred years on, lingerie lover John Walsh provides an uplifting social history of the undergarment – and grapples with its role in today's world

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:42

The bra was invented by an engineer of German extraction called Onto Titzling in 1912. He was living in a New York boarding house, and one of his neighbours, a voluptuous opera singer called Swanhilda Olafson, complained that she needed a garment to hoist her vast bosom aloft every evening – so Titzling obliged, using some cotton, elastic and metal struts. Unfortunately, he failed to patent the device and, in the early 1930s, a Frenchman named Philippe de Brassière began making a suspiciously similar object. Titzling took him to court, but the unscrupulous Frenchman won the day. And that's why the garment all the ladies are wearing is called a brassiere, not a titzling.

Bette Midler sang about this court case in the film Beaches, so obviously it's true, isn't it? Don't be ridiculous. It's a total fabrication, based on a spoof 1971 history by Wallace Reyburn, and is just one of a thousand tales and myths that punctuate the history of the small double-dome of cloth that encases the female chest.

The bra is a thing of wondrous variety. It has been called the Hemispheres of Paradise and, less flatteringly, the Over-the-Shoulder Boulder Holder. Its function has been, paradoxically, both modest concealment and brazen revelation. It has been praised as a revolutionary garment that freed women from constriction, and has been (allegedly) burnt in public as an emblem of oppression.

It's available in a riot of forms, including lacy, push-up, sporty, plunge-line, strapless, pointy, Cross Your Heart, conical, and Wonder. It's a billion-pound industry in the UK, and a $15bn mega-industry in America. No other garment has so closely shadowed the history of the status of women. No other garment has had the power to reduce intelligent, rational men to drooling boys and awestruck slaves.

Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1907, the word "brassiere" was used in Vogue for the first time. But its evolution goes back three millennia. Historians have found that, while Roman women sometimes wore a band of cloth over their breasts, to restrict their growth or conceal them, the Greeks favoured a less uptight approach. Some enterprising designer realised that such a belt worn under the breasts might accentuate them, to pleasing effect. (In the hierarchy of ideas that have made the world a better place, this is up there with light bulbs and indoor plumbing.)

The brazen Minoans were streets ahead of the Greeks, however: women in Crete wore material that both supported and revealed their bare breasts, in emulation of the snake goddess – 3,000 years before the invention of glamour modelling.

While the French Revolution freed women from the corset (it was outlawed because of its fatal association with the aristocracy), elsewhere its rule continued. The big change came in the early 20th century, as women played more sport, and the corset divided into the girdle and the "bust bodice", like a really scary bikini.

Early feminist organisations, such as the National Dress Reform Association in America, had warned against the health risks of corset-wearing and called for "emancipation garments". By 1900, several proto-bra experiments had been conducted. Henry Lesher of Brooklyn offered ladies a rigid metallic structure, like a dustbin, to hold their bits in place. Clara P Clark's "improved corset" came up with shoulder straps in 1874. Olivia P Flynt's "bust supporter" offered to hold each breast in a "fabric pocket" supported by wide straps.

In 1885, Charles Moorhouse romanced lady customers with his "inflatable breast-enlarging garment", with its rubber straps and cups. And in 1889, Herminie Cadolle invented the "soutien-gorge" (the name meant "throat-support") as part of a two-piece undergarment, patented her idea and showed it off at the Great Exhibition. It was 1905 before she thought of selling the upper section separately.

The word "brassiere" was once a military term meaning "arm protector" (le bras being French for arm), and, by extension, " breastplate". It was first used in the sense we understand it during the 1890s. Manufacturers used it in 1904, but it took a mention in the pages of Vogue in 1907 to make it a milestone in fashion history. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911. In that year, Britain's new king, George V, visited France with his queen, Mary. Because of her small stature beside the king, she was known to hilarious Parisians as " La Soutien-George".

Credit for the first brassiere usually goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, a 19-year-old girl-about-Manhattan who, in 1910, bought a sheer evening gown for a party. The whalebone corset that was supposed to define her figure actually poked out of the plunging fabric. What was a girl to do? She and her maid dug two silk hankies out of a drawer, sewed them on to a length of pink ribbon, added some string and tucked her breasts in place. Girlfriends asked if she would make a similar device for them. Then somebody paid her a dollar to do so, and she took the hint.

The "backless brassiere" was patented on 3 November, 1914. Ms Phelps Jacob (who later married Harry Crosby, founder of the Black Sun Press, which published works by D H Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway and Pound) didn't do well out of her invention. Disappointed by sales, she flogged the patent to the Warner Bros Corset Company for a measly $1,500. It was later valued at $15m.

The First World War saw more and more women abandoning corsets, as they found themselves, for the first time, in uniform and factory garb. The bra began to take off – not that the fashions of the time gave it much to work with. The flat-chested "flapper" look required breasts to be flattened and bound rather than lifted and defined.

The next bra revolution was the Maidenform breakthrough in 1922. In a New York shop called Enid Frocks, a seamstress, Ida Rosenthal, spotted that women with the same chest size didn't necessarily look right in the same bra, because the breasts were different shapes; and so cup size was born. In accentuating and lifting the bosom, rather than trying to flatten it, they bade farewell to the flapper, and paved the way for the future glamourpuss.

In the next two decades, a combination of Hollywood starriness, ever-bolder advertising, and the lure of department stores saw a colossal boom in women's products; and the bra was, so to speak, at the forefront. Maidenform was joined by Gossard, Triumph, Spirella and Teilfit, manufacturers who fought tooth and nail to invent refinements: better fabrics, patterns, straps, cups, fibres, padded sections. As the technology became more abstruse, the garment's name was simplified, in the 1930s, to "bra" .

The Second World War helped, with the Forces' insistence that low-rank military women should wear bras and girdles "for protection" – especially the ludicrously conical "Torpedo" or "Bullet" bras. Step, or rather wiggle, forward the Sweater Girl, whose tight jumper was meant to show off the artificial jut of her breasts, like twin artillery shells.

The Fifties saw the pointy bra give way to a more shapely, maternal look (probably helped by the huge post-war baby boom), and the market rose exponentially, with ever-greater choices of bra, new styles, paddings, even functions: the zip-up nursing bra was born, and the 24-hour "Sweet Dreams" model.

The Sixties saw the biggest upset in the history of the garment, when Germaine Greer declared, "Bras are a ludicrous invention", and her sister feminists insisted that they reduced women to sex objects. The key moment was the 1968 demonstration by 400 women against the Miss America beauty show at Atlantic City Convention Hall. Somebody put a "Freedom Trash Can" on the ground and encouraged protesters to throw into it girdles, nylons, bras, curlers, high-heeled shoes and other emblems of enslavement. When the can was full, someone suggested setting fire to it, but no one could obtain a permit, and the plan was, rather weedily, dropped. But the idea of "bra-burning feminists" remained a potent image in the public mind – on a level with students burning their draft cards in protest against the Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s, the head of the Canadian Lady Corset company died and his son, Larry Nadler, a Harvard-educated MBA, conducted some intense market research. Women, he discovered, didn't hate their bras as symbols of oppression. Rather, they considered them a means to looking beautiful. Nadler targeted the bra market with something new: it would be seamless, sexy and flattering, and would appeal to teenage girls. His invention was called the "Dici (by Wonderbra)" – of the two names, the former was later ditched, and the latter went on to change the world.

In underwear history, the Wonderbra was the Great Liberator. Bras would no longer lurk unseen behind a lady's blouse. They would no longer be " unmentionable", nor be a defence against prying male eyes. On the contrary, they'd be the main attraction. Rather than "lift and separate" (the Playtex tag line), the Wonderbra would yank the breasts together and shove them in your face. Rather than a purely functional garment, they would be seen as a means of attraction, marketed as a luxury item.

In 1974, its TV commercials took the unprecedented step of showing a woman's torso wearing only a Wonderbra, with the tag line, "We care about the shape you're in". By 1980, sales in Canada alone hit $30m.

In 1991, Gossard took on the brand under licence and hit a wave of popular uplift. British women in the early Nineties became fixated by plunging lines and spilling cleavages. Vogue carried articles on the return of the padded bra, Vivienne Westwood brought out a range of outrageous corsetry, and Jean Paul Gaultier began his cheeky experiments with lingerie worn as outerwear – a trend that reached its apogee with the conical breastplate worn by Madonna on her Blond Ambition tour.

The Wonderbra, now owned by Sara Lee, the parent company behind Playtex, scored a bull's-eye with its 1994 poster campaign showing the model Eva Herzigova gazing at her pushed-together breasts, and the words "Hello Boys". In major conurbations across the UK, cars mounted the pavement or crashed into bollards as motorists tried – and failed – to drag their eyes away from Ms Herzigova's perky frontage. The image was later voted No 10 in a "Poster of the Century" contest.

Rigby & Peller, corsetière to the Queen since 1960, opened its flagship store in London in 1994. It is prized by its well-heeled clients for its expert fitting service – it claims that 80 per cent of women who walk through its door are wearing the wrong size and fit of boulder-holder (and need constant refittings, every six months or so). The company has had a huge influence by insisting that a bra is far from a one-size-fits-all clothing item – that it's something unique to the individual, like a second skin.

In the 2000s, the market has expanded (ahem) to bursting point. The arrival over here of Continental brands such as Lejaby and La Perla, and newer brands such as Under Cover and Elle Macpherson Intimates have established bras as a self-indulgently luxury purchase, while the Agent Provocateur and Myla houses have opened up a lucrative market in sexy products for women who like to remind themselves of the wanton seductress that lurks beneath their sensible business suits.

The top-of-the-range modern bra is a semi-visible item, heralded by a pretty, pastel-coloured shoulder strap that hints, a little saucily, at the colour of its wearer's matching bra and pants down below. It's a long way from the days when underwear was about concealment, flattening and the furtive "structuring" of female breasts. While sales of functional Marks & Spencer cotton bras are still high – and the world bestseller remains the sturdy Triumph Doreen, as worn by millions of ladies over 50 – many women are happy to spend £100 on a pure-silk number as a caressing indulgence.

It has to be silk, though – not cotton, or lace, or nylon or polyester. Strangely similar, in fact, to the twin silk handkerchiefs sewn together with some pink ribbon by Mary Phelps Jacob's enterprising maid, a whole century ago.


Me and my bra

Interviews by Julia Stuart

Amy Alexandra

(ex-Big Brother glamour model)

I think bras indicate your sexuality and mood. You might be having a girly day, and then go on a date and wear a more sexy one in black or red. I'm size 32DD, and being a model I have a personal relationship with bras. They are a massive part of my work and help me create a different look with every shoot and enhance what I have.

Laura Bailey

Bras can be both liberating and mood-enhancing. Textile technology means they can now be totally invisible, or designed to be admired in its own right. M&S fit the best and I can find everything I need there for sport, work, and fun. I did get quite attached to my Elle Macpherson Intimates maternity bras in my all-too-short-lived voluptuous pregnant days.

Tracey Emin

I wear a bra because I would never not be able to: my bust is a 32FF. Even though I'm known for flaunting my cleavage I actually try to disguise my breasts to make them look smaller. I was totally flat-chested until I was 13. Once I was put on the pill at 14, they just grew totally out of control. My grandmother had a 46-inch chest and it's something that runs in the family.

Joan Bakewell

I never burnt my bra. That was a very minor activity, which became a cliché. I buy bras with great care. I like them to look attractive. When I was a teenager they were pink and shiny, and no one knew how to fit them. There's been a miracle of styling and development. I go to Rigby & Peller, where great trouble is taken to get your correct size.

Clarissa Dickson Wright

I don't wear a bra unless I'm dressing up. At my 50th birthday party I was boogieing away and suddenly felt this terrifying pain in my chest. I thought: "That's it, I'm having a heart attack." Then I thought: "Don't stop now, what a way to go!" The pain got more and more intense. I staggered off and discovered I'd broken my underwired bra.

Mary Killen

It's important to get the correct size. Not only do you get cramp in your neck if you're not being supported, you also get "banana bosom" when you lose elasticity. Girls don't realise it's terribly bad to run. If your bosom is any size, when you're walking along you are conscious of it moving around. If you've got it constrained, you're not. It's a bit of a nuisance bobbing around otherwise.


An A to Z of bras

By Simon Usborne

Anna Kournikova

In 2000, the toned tennis star had van drivers swerving all over the road when her scantily clad form appeared on billboards advertising Berlei's "shock absorber" range of sports bras. The slogan: "Only the ball should bounce."


More than 90 per cent of women are thought to wear bras, but a dedicated minority prefer the freedom of an unbolstered bosom. Several studies have cast into doubt the belief that bras prevent sagging; almost all 250 participants in one French study, in which the women agreed not to wear a bra for a year, showed signs of improved firmness and elevation.

Cup size

According to the 2001-02 government-sponsored National Sizing Survey, the average bust size for females in the UK is 38.5 inches (compared to 36 inches in 1951). Other surveys have put the average UK bra size at 36C.


The Chinese silk dudou ("stomach cover") was employed as a bust-flattening undergarment during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and has appeared more recently on high streets as a kind of oriental boob-tube.


Bra comes from the French brassière (child's vest), a derivation of the Old French word bracière, which was an arm protector in military uniforms and, later, a chest plate and a type of women's corset. The word "bra" appeared in Vogue in 1907 and in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911.


The popular image of feminists burning brassieres is an urban myth. During a protest against the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, a group of women filled a "freedom trash can" with bras, high heels and girdles, but they never set fire to it. The phrase "bra burning" was the invention of a New York Post reporter.


About 70 per cent of women wear ill-fitting brassieres. Good fits are calculated thus: measure around the chest directly under the breasts and add four inches to the number if it is even and five inches if it is odd. This is the bra size. To determine cup size, subtract the bra size from the bust size (around the fullest part of the bosom). Differences of 0-3 inches equate to, respectively, cup sizes A to D, while 10 inches give you a G-cup.

Howard Hughes

In breaks from designing aircraft, the Hollywood tycoon Hughes moonlighted as a lingerie designer. For his 1943 film The Outlaw, he created a steel underwire push-up bra for leading lady Jane Russell (above). The star reportedly failed to wear the garment because of a poor fit.


In 2002, the British Journal of Plastic Surgery reported that a 27-year-old man required surgery after catching his finger in his girlfriend's bra strap. In response, a team at St George's Hospital, south London, led by Dr Andrew Fleming, said: "[We] advocate patient self-education (during the adolescent years) on the mechanism of external female mammary support, and postulate that it may be important in reducing the incidence of other such injuries."

Jean Paul Gaultier

The enfant terrible of French fashion hit the headlines in 1990 when pop queen Madonna (right) thrust her bust into his iconic conical bra during her Blond Ambition tour. The black satin brassiere was snapped up by a Chilean textiles museum for five times its asking price at a Christie's auction in 2001.

Klum, Heidi

In 2003, the 34-year-old German supermodel posed in the world's most expensive bra. Comprising more than 2,500 carats of diamonds and sapphires, the Victoria's Secret Fantasy bra, designed by the jewellers Mouawad, took more than 370 man-hours to make and was valued at $10m (about £5m).

Lesher, Henry

The New Yorker Henry Lesher invented a bra-style garment in 1859. His patent for "combined breast pads and armpit shields" detailed how the inflatable rubber and cloth device, which never caught on, would " prevent the arm-pits of [ladies'] dresses from becoming saturated and stained by perspiration, give a symmetrical rotundity to their breasts and a more comfortable and graceful support to the skirts of their dresses than heretofore".

Men's brassieres

The American company Enell is one of many online firms offering custom-fitted "male support vests" designed to "minimise bounce" for men with overdeveloped chests, or "moobs". In one survey of more than 5,000 men at, a surprising 97 per cent of respondents admitted to a desire to wear a bra.

Northumbrian Water

In June, engineers at Northumbrian Water retrieved a bra from a sewage pipe in a village near Darlington. Heavy rain, together with a build-up of grease behind the offending article (at least a 36C), had caused a pipe to burst and a road to collapse, costing the water company £15,000 in repairs. The owner's identity remains a mystery.

Outlaw, The

Howard Hughes's seamless cantilevered bra designed for his leading lady in the 1943 western The Outlaw never appeared in the film, but its invention, as well as the regular appearance of Lana Turner's cone-shaped " projectiles" in films such as They Won't Forget and Ziegfeld Girl, heralded the heyday of the push-up "bullet bras".


The Portuguese for bra is sutiã, while the Spanish say sugetador (from sujetar, to hold). The French prefer soutien-gorge (throat-support) and the Germans, Swedes, Danes and Dutch all use "BH" from, respectively, büstenhalter, bysthållare, brysteholdere and bustehouder (bust-holder). In Esperanto, the bra is called a mamzono (breast-belt).

The Queen

Since 1960, the London corsetieres Rigby & Peller have had the honour of lifting and separating the royal bust. The Queen has never revealed the size of her bosom, but celebrity bra-size websites put it at an above-average 36B, which puts HRH in the same league as Carly Simon, Claire Danes and Doris Day.

Rosenthal, Ida

The inventor of the uplifting Maidenform was a canny businesswoman. With her husband William and partner Enid, she became a management and marketing genius, managing the company's finances and sales and building the brand name with racy ads featuring photos of women in bras. The "I dreamed... in my Maidenform bra" campaign ran for 20 years.


Considering the abundance of colloquial terms for breasts, alternatives for "bra" are surprisingly rare. Some cockney rhyming slang dictionaries list "Master McGrath", the name of a champion 19th-century Irish greyhound, while the online Urban Dictionary offers only "over-shoulder boulder-holder" and "upper-decker flopper-stopper".

Tit tape

First spotted on celebrity breasts belonging to Geri Halliwell and Jennifer Lopez in 2000, tit tape quickly became a discreet alternative to bras. First employed by Donatella Versace, the double-sided adhesive has become a must-have accessory for those seeking to prevent Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunctions.


The cleavage that threatened to upstage Julia Roberts in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich (below) owed much to the supporting role played by a gel-filled push-up bra. Launched in 1999, the Ultimo bra made its creator Michelle Mone a multimillionaire and has also reportedly graced the bust of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

Vogel, Thomas

The Guinness world record for the most bras unhooked in one minute using one hand is 56, a feat achieved by the German Thomas Vogel in Cologne on 9 September 2006. A YouTube video featuring a bearded and bespectacled Vogel wearing a white coat offers a step-by-step guide for speedy unfastening.


In an internet poll hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Wonderbra (advertisement above) ranked fifth in the 50 greatest Canadian inventions, losing out to insulin and the light bulb but beating the pacemaker and the electron microscope.


The largest off-the-shelf brassiere (sold only in America) is thought to be a 54LL, but the Japanese branch of lingerie firm Triumph International holds the Guinness world record for the largest bra ever produced, with an underbust measurement of 24 metres (78ft 8in) and a bust measurement of 28 metres (91ft 10in).


According to official statistics, every year the UK imports more than 100 million bras. A 2006 survey by the market analysts Mintel showed that we spend £1.2bn on bras and pants every year. Out front on the high street is Marks & Spencer, which claimed a 38 per cent share of the underwear trade in 2005.

Zwart, Piet

In 2005, the designer Wendy Rameckers unveiled a wall of breasts as part of her design for a lingerie shop in Rotterdam. Rather than comparing wives' or girlfriends' busts to those of embarrassed staff, clueless men would ponder different-sized fake silicon breasts. Rameckers said: "Men know all about their car, but never seem to know their wife's bra size."

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