The first analogs of modern bras appeared in ancient times. Among the wreckage of the Sicilian Villa del Casale, dated IV century BC. e., a mosaic was found with “girls in bikinis”, which depicts a group of young women involved in sports, wearing bandeau-supporting breasts. However, a sconce (short for the French word brassière) as we know it today – with two cups or a strip of fabric on the chest and shoulder straps, appeared only in the 19th century.
In the 1850s, doctors and feminists began to speak out against tightening corsets in a united front. As an alternative, they offered women a lighter “support for the bust”, which did not interfere with the work of internal organs and allowed them to breathe freely. In the 1850s to 1920s, the first bras prototypes were made and sold in the USA, England, France, and Germany. At that time, they were not in great demand: the silhouette in the form of the letter S, typical of the Beautiful era, was much easier to achieve with corsets and waist-tightening belts than bras. However, during and after World War I, a new type of figure came into fashion. Women were no longer required to emphasize their breasts, so supporting sconces quickly became commonplace.
By the 1930s, bras looked more and more like modern ones: Latin letters were used for size marking, fasteners with hooks and loops and adjustable shoulder straps appeared. New elastic fabrics, as well as a variety of colors, patterns, and styles that appeared with the development of the textile industry, have made this underwear popular among women 17 and older. Sconces were increasingly shown in Hollywood films (the sex symbols of the time wore models with pointed cups on the screen), fashion department stores spared no money for advertising, and soon bras became popular among women from higher layers of society.
Historians Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau write in Uplift: The Bra in America that during the Second World War, American military personnel were required to wear bras as part of their uniforms, and other working middle-class women soon followed suit. In the 1950s, with the filing of actress Jane Russell, a sconce with cups of conical shape, which, judging by the advertising pictures, was supposed to be worn with tightening belts, came into use. Then there appeared a sconce for training, analogs of modern sports bodices that helped attract a younger audience.
By the 1960-1970s, corset belts had finally gone out of fashion, and the female perception of bras had changed. Comfort and functionality have become more important than sex in the spirit of Hollywood stars. Many feminists saw in the habit of wearing a bra submission to male ideas about female beauty. In protest, they began to massively abandon the sconce. The famous photo taken during the 1968 demonstration timed to coincide with the Miss America beauty pageant generated the myth of “feminists burning their bras.” However, most women continued to wear bras for reasons of comfort. In the 1970s and 1980s, many of them preferred elastic knitted sconces, which were originally invented specifically for athletes.
The sexual connotations associated with bras returned in the 1990s and 2000s. This was partly triggered by the launch of the Wonderbra advertising campaign with the slogan Hello Boys and Eva Herzigova in the title role, and partly by the Victoria’s Secret “angels” phenomenon. The first show of the iconic lingerie brand took place in 1995 at the Plaza Hotel New York, and since 1999 it has been broadcast online. Thanks to what the show showed during the commercial break of the Superbowl Cup, two million people watched it. By 2001, Victoria’s Secret was broadcast on cable television – the first broadcast attracted 12 million viewers. Brands like Frederick’s of Hollywood and Agent Provocateur and celebrities like Dita von Teese have earned millions on erotic lingerie. Through their efforts, the boudoir culture entered the mainstream and gave way to mass films “for adults” in the spirit of “Fifty Shades of Gray”. Designers reinterpreted this trend in their own way, releasing things in a linen style and offering to wear a sconce not under clothes, but as a full-fledged wardrobe item.
Over the past 20 years, the assortment of bras has replenished more than ever. Those who wish can find models without straps, with an open back, without cups, with linings and a rigid frame or without them, rigid, elastic. And you can hardly surprise anyone with a bra on display (in the spring-summer 2018 season, this trend was found in the collections of Louis Vuitton, Maison Margiela, and many others). The actual shape of the cups also changed during the course of history: conical, push-up, natural … However, the design itself remained almost the same as 100 years ago. And apparently, until someone comes up with something fundamentally new, it is unlikely that we will find a worthy alternative to the classic bra unless we can even stop wearing bras.