History of the Brassiere: Knowing Mary Phelps Jacob

Friday, November 18, 2016

Photo courtesy of  RetroWaste
Where there’s coffee there’s good conversation. Or a healthy argument. Or an odd song to sing. Or there’s the brassiere to talk about. 

Your little, not-so-little, and even big girls might start asking you where bras came from. 

Here's a good place to start to understand a bit about the history of the brassiere.


My friend and I were sprawled on the floor one lazy Sunday afternoon about 20 years ago, enjoying good coffee that came straight from a fellow writer’s pantry, when he suddenly asked, “What on earth are the wings for in sanitary napkins?” The day was just another one of those sweet, slothful moments we’d have especially on Sundays. That’s how the talk about bosom started. 

“They save women from accidents.” I told him.
I had my back flat on the floor trying to relax when my Rainbow Bright man-friend persisted in stirring the conversation towards women’s stuff. “So what did women wear before the invention of bra?” I knew he’d never stop so my mission for the day was to answer his bosom queries.

The revolution of the bosom

One of the most interesting part of history happened in 1913, when New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob
realized that she needed something that did not poke out visibly from under her silk garment and the plunging neckline of her sheer evening gown. The corset was the only acceptable undergarment that time and all the inconveniences of wearing one pushed her to create something that women would be thankful for in the next centuries. (I, however, was saved from all that because I was told I was a male Indian warrior in my recent past life.)

The backless brassiere was patented sometime in 1914. Surprisingly (and like most women who get bushed easily), Jacob got tired of her business and sold it to the Warner Bros. – the bra-makers, not the movie-makers (as strongly pointed out on the article on “The History of the Brassiere”).

Although it was Jacob who revolutionized the brassiere, some interesting things about bosom supporters have already started happening way before her time. In 1875, a no bones, no eyelets, no pulleys and no laces or  under-outfit was manufactured. Everything they removed from that undergarment made it a little less barbaric, however still crude.
So, from the no-more-menacing-attachments called the “union under flannel”, it improved to the “breast supporter” in 1893. This time it came with the less complicated hook-and-eye for a lock.

Union under flannel


Finally in 1917 during the World War I, the War Industries Board called on women to stop buying corsets. Halleluiah! It was the time in history when 28,000 tons of metal were saved, and women actually started to breathe properly.

If you're a female reading this, consider yourself lucky now that brassieres are pretty things not made from bones. 

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