Underwear has certainly changed a lot through the ages. Our ancient sisters on the island of Crete wore what is commonly considered the very first type of bra, a delightful number that was designed to push the breasts up and out of their clothing. Thousands of years later and it appears that nothing much has changed in that department but in reality, the bra as we know it has undergone some radical re-invention through time?In the years between 450BC and 285AD Roman and Greek women’s version of the bra consisted of wearing a strap around the breasts to reduce the bust size in accordance with the flat-chested fashions of the time. Similarly, in the roaring 20’s, the flat-fronted fashions of the Flappers too dictated designs for women’s underwear, this time bra manufacturer Warner coming to the party with a flattening bra. How flattering!

But it’s not only

fashion that has dictated the shape of what lies beneath. In the 1550’s Catherine de M?dicis, wife of King Henri II of France enforced a ban at court functions on what she termed “thick waists”. In doing this she paved the way for the growing popularity of the steel corset, an item which became the main style of shaping undergarment for the following 350 years.The 1800’s saw some major developments in bra design with the first patent being issued on a bra-like garment. Corsets fell out of favour, came back with a vengeance and generally continued to crush and squeeze internal organs to the point of rupture for most of the century. Milestones include:
  • 1875 ? the “Union Under-Flannel” – a no-bones/eyelets/laces/pulleys garment made from wool fabrics
  • 1889 ? the “Bien-?tre” – French for “Well Being” a design that perhaps rebelled against the constrictive dangers of the corset
  • 1893 ? the “Breast Supporter” – a garment which included separate pockets for each breast, shoulder straps, and hook-and-eye closures

At the turn of the century, things were travelling in leaps and bounds in the bra department and in 1907 Vogue magazine first used the term “brassiere”, which interestingly, has its origins in the old French word for “upper arm”.

This is not to be confused with “brasserie” which is, of course, somewhere to eat.

Hot on the heels of Vogue, the Oxford English Dictionary, bastion of all things proper, lists the word “brassiere” in the 1912 edition.

Later, the outbreak of World War I forced women en masse into the work force. Factory work and regulation uniforms made wearing a corset everyday something of a problem for our war-time sisters. This did not deter women from the purchase of such items and in 1917 The U.S. War Industries Board requests women to stop buying corsets to reduce the consumption of metal. Sources say up to 28,000 tons of metal were conserved through this effort reputedly “enough to build two battleships.” Yay team!

During the 1930s the word “bra” came into popular usage and in this decade Warner developed what would become the universal cup sizing of bras around the world.

Soon World War again threatened women’s underwear manufacturing and between the years of 1941 and 1945, with common fabrics such as cotton, rubber, silk and steel in short supply. Manufacturers adapted their designs to utilise the new range of synthetic materials.

Recent years have seen some technologically-advanced enhancements to this basic bra model including padding and boosting by way of inserts, gel pouches and now inflatable pockets. I wonder what our ancient warrior sisters from Crete would think of that?

Women in the 21st century have a selection of underwear available to them like never before in sizes, fabrics and types of support, for sport, maternity, evening wear and everyday wear.

Let’s go shopping…