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 ; Extra
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 Brassiere 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". …