Free the nipple: a history of the bra


Arms: We think we know the drill. Women sell all kinds of lingerie, with the industry racking up billions of pounds every year. However, what do we really know about the history of the bra and its humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th century? And how might the threads of misogyny woven throughout the meteoric rise of the bra influence our position today?

Let’s start 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 adapt their shape to the breasts for support. At the start of the 20th century, corset designs moved lower in the body for more comfort, giving way to the creation of separate bust supports.

Photo: Emms Benítez @ Flickr

It was in 1914 that teenager Mary Phelps Jacobs (better known as Caresse Crosby) patented the first brassiere in America. She created the design with her maid from a pair of handkerchiefs and ribbons. Crosby sold his drawing for $1,000 a year later. During World War I, bras became common when women were told to stop buying corsets to free up steel for the war effort.

As we enter the 1920s, the popular flapper style led to the use of bandeau bras to slim the figure. This is perhaps the first instance of the bra beginning to respond to trends in the female form, succeeding the corset as the latest fashionable body shaping method.

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

Bra cups had become two distinct pieces by the late 1930s, as bras began to look recognizably like the ones we buy today. World War II once again impacted women’s underwear, with the metal spared. Instead, stitching techniques were used to provide bust support.

1947 saw the birth of Frederick’s of Hollywood push-up bra. Founder Frederick Mellinger created a bra that he and his fellow veterans wanted to see on their wives. Perhaps the true marker of the introduction of the male gaze into the bra industry. This move was accompanied by a rise in capitalism, consumerism, and a boom in pop culture after World War II. The influence of mass consumption and the popularity of certain female forms is going to have a huge impact in the future.

For example, the 1950s popularized the bullet bra at a time when the pin-up style saw women’s lingerie becoming the focus of a whole subsection of fashion and photography. Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe had a huge influence on the popularity of the bullet bra, where hourglass body types were the ideal. There were even advice telling thinner women to take weight gain supplements to meet the standards of the time.

The “perfect body” changed in the 1960s when the post-war prosperous woman had an upright physique. The desire to look a certain way complemented consumerism via advances in technology, which saw greater variety in the bright designs that could be printed on nylon and matching lingerie sets.

The 1970s began the trend for thinner breasts, as the “no bra” design was introduced in bras without padding or underwire (similar to today’s bralettes). 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 women’s innovation, Lisa Lindahl created the first sports bra in 1977. This breakthrough led to women’s increased access to sports and, inevitably, launched an industry now saturated with sportswear for women. . Roy Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret the same year.

In line with the birth of lingerie giants like Victoria’s Secret, the 1980s saw the rise of mass consumption. Companies have attempted to sell women a whole wardrobe of bras for every occasion. The growth continued throughout the 90s when Wonderbra launched its iconic (perhaps for the wrong reasons) “Hello Boys” marketing campaign. Women’s bodies and bras have become an integral part of the modern male gaze.

At the turn of the 21st century, molded bras attempted to reduce the appearance of the nipple. Then the desire for slender figures was usurped by the trend for curves and larger breasts. Along with the rise of cosmetic surgery, influencer culture, and big brands like the Kardashians, it was yet another link between capitalism and women’s bodies.

The commercialization of bras had reached another major milestone with the first annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 1995. Becoming a staple of popular culture during the 2010s, it gave women a direct – but totally unrealistic – 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, beanies and fabrics. 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 closely linked to the male gaze, capitalism and extreme body standards. So it may be better to ditch the restraints of bras. 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 bra-free really free you from the infuriating standards imposed on women by the lingerie industry? The movement itself is a social media-based campaign, dominated by celebrities with the “ideal” body type once again projecting onto other women how they should present their bodies. While showing a little pinch might be empowering for some, others might really prefer a bra, and we shouldn’t be told what will release our sense of femininity or sexiness.

In the end, just wear what you want and what makes you feel comfortable. Our bodies are not made to be looked at, nor to conform to the trends of ridiculous body standards. Whether you go for something push-up, lace, wire-free, or nothing at all, do it all for yourself. Take back the power that consumerism has had over what it means to have a female form for the past 100 years.

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