Before the corset, women just stayed as covered up as possible to hide their feminine shape, with no real definition to their form, but with the middle ages, things began to change.
From 1490-1510, before the invention of the corset, women wore two basic garments: a skirt and a bodice. To help women keep an erect, feminine posture, stiffened undergarments first came into being. Tight bodices both raised the bust line and pushed the breasts into, basically, one big uni-bosom, which was well hidden under the clothing.
But sometime in the first half of the 16th century, the true corset was invented. Made from rigid materials like buckram, whalebone, and horn (ouch!) these “whalebone bodies” kept the women’s torso straight and defined what we think of today as the feminine form. Yet, at the same time it covered the length of the torso – becoming both uncomfortable and making breathing of secondary importance.
This terribly unhealthy and painful device narrowed an adult women's waist to 16 inches or less! Thanks to fashionista Catherine de Medici (1519–1589), the corset became all the rage in France and quickly spread across Europe. Her rage, that is, against thick waists, which she banned from court in the 1550s.
So, for the next three and a half centuries the corset became a woman’s primary means of support. I’m not sure that support is quite the right work, for corsets are designed to compress the body at the center (the waist) and for the flesh and organs either above or below that. The corset created an extremely exaggerated, hourglass shape, which in turn made smelling salts all the rage, since women fainted quite often.
By the late 1800s, women were starting to show signs of growing tiresome as this strange contortion of the female body when designer Susan Taylor Converse created the "Union Under-Flannel" from woolen fabric with no whale bones, eyelets, laces or pulleys.
These Union suits were part of the Rational Dress Movement for women in 1868. Originally called "Emancipation Under-Flannel" and designed as an alternative to restricting corsets, they proved to be more popular with men. Women loved having a tiny waist, even though it wasn’t very good for them.
Next up comes the two-part undergarment by French-born corset-maker Herminie Cadolle, which she dubbed the “Well-Being” or “Bien-être” (below). The top half was designed to support the bosom with the bottom half being a corset that covered the waist and rear. Basically, it was a Victorian bikini, but it didn’t go far either.
Marie Tucek came shortly after and patented the first brassiere. It had two separate pockets for the breasts, straps over the shoulders and hook and eye closures. Sound familiar? An innovative seamstress, but a lousy marketer, it never went anywhere either.
Then in 1910, Polly Jacob found herself in a pickle. Her traditional corset just didn’t work with the sheer evening gown she had just purchased for an important social event. The corset poked out of the top of the gown right at the plunging neckline, so she was faced with coming up with an innovative solution, and, “Ta-Da!”: the birth of what would later become the modern brassiere. Polly and her maid simply stitched two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord. And it worked!
This new undergarment was quite risqué for its time, a huge turn away from the cumbersome, dense, and outrageously restrictive corset. But at the same time, it complimented the newest fashion wave. Soon, all of the women in Polly’s family asked her to make them one of these new-fangled undergarments. So liberating!
Soon, the word was out, and Polly began receiving requests from strangers who offered to pay her, and her business was born as the days of the corset faded away. Polly then became the first to patent an undergarment which she called “the brassiere”, from the old French word for “upper arm.”
Polly’s brassiere was lightweight, soft and separated the breasts naturally, and she soon opened her business named Caresse Crosby. Although an improvement in many ways over the corset, her invention didn’t do much in the way of support and flattened rather than lifted the breasts. It worked for the Flapper look during the Roaring Twenties, but as full-figured movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell entered the scene, Polly’s bra lost popularity in the 1930s and 1940s.
Warner remains a major bra manufacturer today. Maidenform, another leader in the industry, was founded during the 1920s when a Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal noticed that all bras did not fit all women of the same size.
Of course, by that time Polly had already sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company and shortly afterwards, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets so they could recycled the metal for war production. (This resulted in about 28,000 tons of “found” metal, enough to build two battleships!) Of course, this action made the brassiere even more popular.
She and her husband subsequently founded Maidenform and created a line of bras for every stage of life and of various cup sizes.
Back to those buxom movie stars, there is a famous story featuring aviation engineer and millionaire Howard Hughes. Hughes was directing the 1943 film, “The Outlaw”, and insisted on making a special brassiere for his movie star crush, Jane Russell.
Hughes designed a cantilevered bra to emphasize Russell’s bosom—in short, an underwire bra. It was designed to lift the breasts up and squeeze them together so that a larger amount of bosom could be exposed.
However, Ms. Russell was not impressed. She later confided that Hughes’ bra was too uncomfortable, so she replaced it with her own and stuffed it with tissue for extra lift, hence creating her famous cleavage for the film!