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23rd March 2022

Free the Nipple: A History of the Bra

A comprehensive history of the bra, from corsets, bandeaus and nylon to under wiring, Victoria’s Secret and the ‘free the nipple’ movement
Free the Nipple: A History of the Bra
Photo: Lennart Schneider @ Unsplash

Bras: we think we know the drill. Women are sold all kinds of lingerie, with the industry racking up billions of pounds each year. However, how much do we really know about the history of the bra and its humble beginnings at the start of the 20th Century? And how might the threads of misogyny weaved throughout the bra’s meteoric rise influence our stance today?

Let’s begin 130 years ago in the Victorian era, where signs of the modern bra began to emerge in the form of overbust corsets. Overbusts were the first to tailor their shape to the breasts for support. By the early 20th Century, corset designs had moved down the body for greater comfort, leaving room for the creation of separate bust supports.

Photo: Emms Benitez @ Flickr

It was in 1914 that teenager Mary Phelps Jacobs (better known as Caresse Crosby) patented the first bra in America. She created the design with her maid from a pair of handkerchiefs and ribbons. Crosby sold her design for 1000 dollars a year later. During the First World War, bras became mainstream when women were asked to stop buying corsets to free up steel for the war effort.

As we move into the 1920s, the popular flapper style led to the use of bandeau bras to slim down the silhouette. This is perhaps the first instance of the bra beginning to cater to trends in the feminine form, succeeding the corset as a method of shaping the body into the latest fashion.

The 1920s also saw a growth in the bra manufacturing industry. Maidenform Brassiere Company, formed in 1922, innovated the cup size which is still used today.

Bra cups had become two separate pieces by the end of the 1930s, as bras began to look recognisably like those which we buy today. The Second World War had an impact on feminine undergarments once again, with metal being saved. Instead, stitching techniques were utilised to provide bust support.

1947 saw the birth of the push-up bra by Frederick’s of Hollywood. Founder Frederick Mellinger created a bra he and his war veteran friends wanted to see on their wives. Perhaps the real marker of the introduction of the male gaze into the bra industry. The move came alongside a rise in capitalism, consumerism and a boom in pop-culture post-WW2. The influence of mass consumption and the popularity of certain female forms was to have a huge impact going forward.

For example, the 1950s popularised the bullet bra at a time when the pinup style saw women’s lingerie become the main focus of a whole subsection of fashion and photography. Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe were huge influences on the bullet bra’s popularity, where hourglass body types were the ideal. There was even advice telling slimmer women to take weight-gain supplements to fit the standards of the time.

The ‘perfect body’ changed in the 1960s where the prosperous post-war woman had a straight physique. The desire to look a certain way complemented consumerism via technological advancements, which saw greater variety in the bright patterns which could be printed onto nylon and matching lingerie sets.

The 1970s began the trend for slim chests, as the ‘no-bra’ design was introduced in bras without padding and wiring (similar to the bralettes of today). The trend for the athletic body type would continue in the Western world throughout the rest of the 20th Century.

Photo: @Pixabay

In terms of female innovation, Lisa Lindahl created the first sports bra in 1977. This advancement led to increased access for women in sports and, inevitably, launched a now saturated industry of female-focused activewear. Roy Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret in the same year.

In keeping with the birth of lingerie giants such as Victoria’s Secret, the 1980s saw a boom in mass consumerism. Companies attempted to sell women a whole wardrobe of bras for every occasion. Growth continued throughout the 90s when Wonderbra released their iconic (perhaps for the wrong reasons) ‘Hello Boys’ marketing campaign. Women’s bodies and bras were now firmly part of the modern male gaze.

At the turn of the 21st Century, moulded bras attempted to reduce the look of the nipple. Following, the desire for slender physiques was usurped by the trend for curves and bigger breasts. Accompanying the rise of cosmetic surgery, influencer culture, and major brands such as the Kardashians, this was yet another link between capitalism and women’s bodies.

The marketability of bras had taken another major step with the first annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 1995. Becoming a staple event in popular culture during the 2010s, it gave women a direct – yet wholly unrealistic – picture of how their breasts, and the rest of their bodies, should look via Victoria’s ‘Angels’.

And now we find ourselves in 2022, with seemingly endless styles, cups and fabrics to choose from. Despite this, the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement has been making the rounds since its inception in 2014. It takes its name from a film directed by Lina Esco, and aims to end the objectification of women’s breasts and nipples.

As seen above, the history of bras is intertwined with the male gaze, capitalism and extreme body standards. So it may be best to ditch the bras’ constraints. It’s also a stand for equality: only female nipples are banned on Instagram, so it’s no wonder the #freethenipple campaign has taken off on social media.

However, will going braless really free you from the exasperating standards placed on women by the lingerie industry? The movement itself is a social media-based campaign, dominated by celebrities with the ‘ideal’ body shape once again projecting onto other women how they should present their bodies. Although showing a bit of nip might be empowering to some, others might genuinely prefer a bra, and we shouldn’t be told what will liberate our sense of womanhood or sexiness.

At the end of the day, just wear what you want to and what makes you feel comfortable. Our bodies are not made to be gazed upon, nor to conform to trends in ridiculous body standards. Whether you go for something push-up, lacy, without wires or nothing at all, do it wholly for you. Take back the power consumerism has had over what it means to have a feminine form for the last 100 years.

Annabel Benton

Annabel Benton

Co-Culture Managing Editor at The Mancunion // Twitter: @AnnabelBenton_

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