The Ancient Origins of the Bra: A Timeless Garment

The Ancient Origins of the Bra

Underwire and fire-resistant bras are just the latest innovations of a garment that for millennia has been part of women’s clothing. But what are its real Origins of the Bra?

Origins of the Bra – Modern bras lift, define and are a fundamental part of the lingerie market, estimated at $88 billion (almost €84 billion) in annual sales in the United States alone. Today’s versions can be characterized by cutting-edge fabrics and precisely designed support, but they derive from predecessors dating back to very ancient times. From ancient armor to symbols of passion, here’s how the precursors of the bra evolved and how this clothing item has withstood the test of time.

Before the Bra

It’s not clear when the first of the many bra precursors dates back to, but historians have found references to similar garments in ancient Greek works like Homer’s Iliad, which describes the goddess Aphrodite removing a “curiously embroidered band” from her breast, and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which a woman who refuses her husband teases him by saying she is taking off her strophion, awkwardly translated as “band for the breast”.

Historian Mireille Lee writes that while the strophion had sexual and gender connotations, it’s difficult to precisely determine what ancient women wore under their clothes: there is in fact only one artistic depiction from the time showing a woman wearing a strophion.

Archaeologists excavating the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily uncovered another significant find: a 4th-century AD mosaic showcasing Roman women participating in athletic activities, their breasts discreetly covered by a garment believed to be an amictorium—a linen attire resembling a bikini. This discovery earned the depicted women the moniker “Bikini Girls” among scholars and enthusiasts. The Romans crafted the mamillare, another garment designed to cover the breasts, using leather. But as classicist Jan Radicke writes, while Roman women “appear to have had various options for covering and shaping the breast, the available evidence is too sparse to determine” the actual appearance of these garments or to establish whether their purpose was aesthetic, erotic or simply supportive.

The discovery in 2008 of "bras" dating back to the 15th century (like the one in the photo) at the Austrian castle of Lengberg surprised fashion historians, who thought that bras with cups was an invention of the 19th century.
The discovery in 2008 of “bras” dating back to the 15th century (like the one in the photo) at the Austrian castle of Lengberg surprised fashion historians, who thought that bras with cups was an invention of the 19th century.

“Breast Bags” from the Middle Ages

In 2008, some archaeologists discovered in a kind of storage room at the Austrian castle of Lengberg a series of objects dating back to the 15th century including four “bras”. These linen garments, very similar to modern bras, may be what some medieval authors referred to as “breast bags”.

At the time, explain textile scholars Rachel Case, Marion McNealy and Beatrix Nutz, large breasts were not fashionable and were a subject of gossip, so women wore garments that provided support and reduced their size. The so-called “breast bags” from 600 years ago discovered at Lengberg Castle feature cups similar to modern bras and, as the experts write, “show exquisite fabric construction” to shape and support the breast. Fashion historians voiced their excitement over the discovery, revealing that bras with cups, traditionally thought to have emerged in the 19th century, were actually crafted much earlier.

The Birth of the Modern Bra

In the evolution of the modern bra, the inventors and clothing reformers played a significant role in shaping and supporting the breast through new garments. However, opinions diverge on the actual inventor of the modern bra, with some attributing it to Herminie Cadolle, the late 19th-century French merchant who created a “breast support” by innovatively dividing the corset into “two pieces,” defining the upper portion for this purpose.

Olivia Flynt, the seamstress, patented the “Flynt Corset” model in the United States in 1873. Or perhaps Caresse Crosby, who patented a “corslette” in 1914 riding the fashion of the time with its generously cut fronts and backs? (Crosby later sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company, whose bra brand still exists today).

In the 1930s the bra replaced the corset, and that decade the lingerie industry equipped this ever more indispensable garment with both standardized cup sizes and adjustable shoulder straps. By 1968 bras that provided “shaping” were so widespread and associated with femininity and beauty standards that during protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, feminists threw them into garbage cans (they were later portrayed in pop culture as “bra burners”, but in fact that act did not occur: “We intended to burn [a garbage can full of bras on the Atlantic City boardwalk],” Atlantic City protest organizer Carol Hanisch told NPR in 2008, “but the police department would not allow it).

Revolutionizing Athletic Support and Comfort

And then there are sports bras. Sports apparel historian Jaime Schultz writes that before the conception and production of designs specifically for sports, many women simply wore regular bras or bound their breasts – more or less in the style of the ancient ‘Bikini Girls’. Then, in the 1970s, two runners drew inspiration from the men’s supporter to create the jockbra, now considered the first modern sports bra. But it took until 1999 to see sports bras accepted as standalone garments: when US women’s soccer star Brandi Chastain, after winning the World Cup, took off her jersey and celebrated on the field in just her sports bra.

Schultz herself called that the moment that “outed” the garment. The pandemic brought another shift in bra usage, prompting many to go without or prefer bralettes and less structured sports bras over molded, push-up and padded bras that had grown in popularity in recent years. But from bands to “breast bags” and beyond, innovation in bras continues unabated. One notable example is the introduction of prototypes for the fire-retardant Army Tactical Bra by the US Army in 2022, intended for incorporation into military uniforms. A testament to the ongoing efforts to improve how we position, support and shape the female breast.