The history of the brassiere, more commonly known
as the bra, reveals that its form and purpose has been shaped by fashion trends.
Along with the many changes to this female undergarment comes a debate over who
should be credited with the creation of the modern bra.
Few disagree that the bra dates as far back as 2,500 BC, when Minoan women on
the Greek island of Crete wore a garment similar to a bra, which lifted their
busts out of their clothes, leaving them exposed. The custom of ancient Greek
and Roman women, to minimize the bust size, completely reversed the Minoan
trend. To minimize their chest size, these women strapped bands over their busts
to rein them in.
The debate over the true inventor of the modern bra has not been entirely
resolved. A gentleman named Hoag Levins spent a great deal of time in the U.S.
Patent Office doing research for a book, and concluded that Marie Tucek obtained
a patent for the first brassiere in 1893. She named her invention the "breast
supporter," because it had separate pockets for each, straps that went over the
shoulders, and hook-and-eye fasteners in the back. Unfortunately, Marie never
marketed her invention, which very much resembled the modern bra.
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob, a.k.a. Caresse Crosby, a New York socialite who
is credited with inventing the first modern bra, invented it out of necessity.
For a prominent social gathering she planned to attend, she purchased a sheer
evening gown. The undergarment at that time consisted of a corset stiffened by
whaleback bones, one that would simply ruin the appearance of Mary's new gown.
She enlisted the help of her French maid, Marie, and together they fashioned a
basic, backless brassiere made from two handkerchiefs, ribbon, and cord.
The bra, not Mary, was the belle of the ball, and Mary began sewing bras for
friends and family. When she received a request for a bra from a stranger, who
enclosed money for the undergarment, dollar signs flashed in her eyes, Mary
grabbed her sketches, and headed straight for the U.S. Patent Office. The Office
granted the patent for the "Backless Brassiere" to Mary in November 1914. After
making several hundred bras, and selling few, Mary closed the doors to her young
business. She had made the fatal mistake of failing to publicize her venture
and, in an unwise business move, she sold her rights to the brassiere to the
Connecticut based Warner Brothers Corset Company for a token $1,500.
Since Mary's basic bra arrived on the scene, people have adjusted its design
many times. For example, the fad in the roaring 1920s, the flat-chested
"flapper" era, was to bind the bust. Sensibility came from Ida Rosenthal, an
immigrant from Mother Russia, who, together with her husband, William, founded
the a company called Maidenform. She felt strongly that all women did not fit
into the same bust size category, painstakingly grouped women into different cup
sizes, and engineered bras to fit females throughout all stages of life, from
puberty to maturity.
Today, the types of bras available are too numerous to count, but concerns
exist over potential health risks associated with wearing a bra. A 1994 study of
4,730 women, conducted by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijerin, suggests
that wearing a bra may increase the risk of breast cancer. Critics found the
study to be flawed, because the results did not include key criteria, especially
that of the participants' lifestyles. Until there is conclusive evidence that
the bra poses a serious health threat to women, it will continue to support
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