Bra history dates back as far as ancient Crete but the word brassiere didn’t appear until 1907, when it was coined in an issue of American Vogue. Prior to 1907 early bras were referred to as soutien-gorges by the French or bust improvers (or BBs) by the Edwardian British.
Most of the fashion designers of the early 20th century claimed to create the first bra and they all promoted breast restraining garments in order to mold their clients’ bodies to the newer, simple straight dress styles. These early undergarments were similar to the tight camisoles of the 1980s and 90s. The term camisole was used for these garments at the beginning of the century but was replaced by “Bust Bodice” in 1905.
Fashion bra history really began in 1914 with the first bra patent filed by the New York debutante Mary Phelps-Jacobs. Hers was the first elasticized, backless brassiere, designed to release women from their corsets and enable them to participate in sports and other activities without physical restraint (Coco Chanel must’ve approved).
The prototype consisted of no more than two pocket-handkerchiefs and a piece of pink ribbon. She conceived the idea while dressing for a ball. The thought of dancing the night away in a tight whalebone corset inspired her to find a looser, less constricting substitute. Within half an hour her French maid stitched together an ultra lightweight bust supporter and Jacob was able to enjoy the ball with a new sense of freedom.
Friends to whom she confided her secret asked her to produce bras for them, and later a letter arrived from a total stranger asking for one and enclosing a dollar bill. Phelps-Jacobs realized there was a market for her invention and hired a designer to produce a detailed specification for her patent application. She sold the patent to the Warner Corset Company for $1,500 outright. Had she opted for royalties instead, she would have earned a fortune. Over the next 30 years Warner made $15 million in bra sales.
Research: Angelina Pieros
Sources: Twentieth Century Fashion, The Complete Sourcebook; Wikipedia
Addendum, July 2012
History is dynamic, not static. A recent archaeological discover made at Lengberg Castle in Austria has made this article interesting but obsolete, here’s why.