The Humble Bra – Part One
The bra, like other garments, has a long, long history, dating back as far as at least 2700BC when the Greeks had the concept to restrain a woman’s breasts. Wall art from the time depicts women wearing outer garments which laced and seemed to partially restrain, and partially push up and expose the breasts. In Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, around 1570BC, women’s fashion was that they were generally bare breasted.
In Classical Greece, about 750BC, women wore a belt-like garment under the bust, loosely draped and often with one breast exposed. A band of cloth known as an apodesmos, or mastodeton was also worn to bind down the breasts for exercise in places like Sparta, where women were allowed to participate in sports. When the apodesmos was worn under the breasts, it highlighted them. Another word for a breast-band or belt was strophion.
Mosaics from Rome circa 300BC depict women wearing bikini-style tops while undertaking exercise.
In China during the Ming dynasty, about 1368, a form of primitive “bra” was worn, complete with cups and straps drawn over shoulders and tied to the seam at the lower back. Popular amongst the rich, this was called a Dudou. According to Chinese legend, the beautiful concubine of the Emperor of Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), Yang Yuhuan, invented Dudou. Art from the time is the first depiction we have of sexy lingerie.
In the Middle Ages women did not generally restrict or support their breasts in any way; if they did, a cloth binder was used. An edict of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire, dated 1370 states, “No woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or by tightened dress.” In the France of Charles VII (1403-1461), a gauze drape was used over the bust. Breasts were minimised with straight bodices and full skirts; corsetry was designed for function rather than aesthetics. Contrary to this, the ideal female form of this time was large breasted and full figured.
By the mid 1500s, corsetry was used for fashion and the hourglass shape was desired. Breasts were compressed by corsets so they overflowed from the top of dresses, giving a voluptuous (and one must suspect, uncomfortable) result.
The bra’s history runs in tandem with that of the corset: the Regency fashion for empire-waisted dresses liberated women, for a time, from corsets as well as any restraint of the breasts. This was in part thanks to French Empress Josephine, who during pregnancy dressed for comfort and the trend took hold.
The Victorian era of the 1800s saw women’s clothing designed to emphasize both the breast and hips by severely tight-lacing the waist. Victorian women wore many layers of clothing: a chemise with a drawstring neckline, drawers, corset and corset cover, the under petticoat, the hoop skirt, the over petticoat, and finally the dress. They must have felt warm!
By 1889, the bra made its first tentative appearance…