The origins of the bra can be traced back to 2000 BC. The Corset-style of the time was open at the front to the waist, leaving the breasts uncovered. Back in 2500 B.C., warrior Minoan women on the Greek isle of Crete began wearing a bra-resembling garment.
From 450BC-285AD, the Greeks wore a bodice tied above the breasts. The wearing of corsets was prohibited so they used "the Apodesme" which was a small band of material wrapped round the breast, largely for functional reasons - to prevent the breasts from moving.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, women were wearing bodices that flattened the breasts.
In the 1550s women subjected themselves to the torture of whalebone and steel rod corsets. The steel corset is attributed to the wife of King Henri II of France, Catherine de Medicis, who banned "thick waists" at court attendances. The corset became the dominant undergarment (in various designs) of support and restraint for the next 350 years.
The 15th century saw breasts becoming a focal point. Bodices and stiffened stays covered and flattened the lower part of the breasts, whilst pushing up the upper breast. This created cleavage and gave the appearance of high and rounded breasts.
During the Renaissance Period, women stuffed the chest portions of their undergarments with silk pouches and hankies, binding them in place to create an alluring bustline. Since there was nothing much to hold the pouches exactly where they should have been, there was a tendency for them to shift into laughable positions.
In the 1850s US patents were registered for the first known bra-like devices. Corsets fell out of style for about 10 years, but then came back in fashion with a vengeance in the 1860s. Severe corset "training" wass common which reduced waists to such unhealthy levels that ribs and internal organs became deformed. Controversy over corseting health risks ensued.
The "Thompson Patent Glove-Fitting Corset" of 1867 had a spring latch and snaps at the front, as well as the traditional hooks. The latter years of the 19th Century began to see challenges to the traditional views of the ideal woman, and the painful and unhealthy undergarments that they were expected to wear.
In 1875, manufacturers George Frost and George Phelps patented an undergarment called the "Union Under-Flannel". Unlike a corset, it had no bones, eyelets or laces and required no pulleys and was made from wool fabrics. Susan Taylor Convese made improvements to this design.
In 1889 Corset-maker Herminie Cadolle invented a bra-like garment called "Bien-'tre" ('Well-Being'.) Resembling a "Victorian bikini", its main differentiating feature from regular corsets was that the breasts were supported by the shoulders rather than squeezed up from below as with traditional corset designs. Although marketed as a health aid beginning in 1889 in a Paris department store ad, the item did not gain widespread notice.
Marie Tucek patented the "Breast Supporter" in 1893. The garment included separate pockets for each breast, shoulder straps that passed over the shoulders and fastened with hook and eye closures, making it the earliest known design to be similar to modern-day bras.
In 1907, Vogue magazine first used the term "brassiere", which comes from the old French word for 'upper arm'. Before this, bra-like devices were known by another French term "soutien-gorge" (literally, "throat support" or "breast support").
In 1913, dissatisfied with the idea of having to wear a heavy corset underneath a new sheer evening gown she just bought for a social event, socialite Mary Phelps Jacob of New York and her maid, Marie, devised a backless bra made from two handkerchiefs, some ribbon and cord. Amazingly she started getting orders for it that very night.
After considerable interest from friends, Mary Phelps Jacob applied for a patent (under the business name "Caresse Crosby") on Nov. 3 ,1914 for her "Backless Brassiere" design, which was basically the same garment that she previously improvised. This "brassiere" was lightweight, soft, and separated the breasts naturally. Unlike Marie Tucek's 1893 design, Jacob's garment did not have cups to support the breasts, but flattened them instead. Jacob marketed the "Backless Brassiere" garment until she tired of the business and sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500. Warner's reportedly made over $15 million dollars over the next 30 years from the patent.
From 1914-1918, World War I forced women into the work-force. Many women began working in factories and wearing uniforms, making the daily use of corset wear a problem.
In 1917 the U.S. War Industries Board requested women to stop buying corsets to reduce the consumption of metal. Sources say up to 28,000 tons of metal was conserved through this effort - "enough to build two battleships."
The bra gained popularity and began to be used more commonly during the 1920s. This was the era of the "flappers", and the flat-chested boyish look was all the rage.
In 1928 Ida Rosenthal, a Russian immigrant, and her husband William went into business as the Maidenform Company as a protest against the flat-chested flapper girls of the Roaring 20s. Ida was responsible for the creation of bust size categories (cup sizes) and developed bras for every stage of life.
By the end of the 1920s corsetry companies began to manufacture brassieres that were boned and stitched into different cup sizes.
It wasn't until the 1930s that shape started to become acceptable again, and the "bra" (a shortened form of the word "brassiere") changed from flattening the breasts, to holding them.
The "sweater-girl" look, portrayed by actress Lana Turner during the 1930s, was the next fashion development, with pointed rigid bras that maintained their shape. This was followed by "falsies", pads worn inside the bra designed to enhance the fullness of the bust. These evolved into the push-up bra with stiffened cups supported by under-wiring.
In 1935, Warner's created the cup sizing system (A to D), which became the system commonly used by all manufacturers throughout the world.
During the 1950s the shape of the bust had become most exaggerated. Strapless bras also became popular at this time because of the fashion for off-the-shoulder outfits.
The 1960s saw the women's liberation movement denouncing bras as a symbol of conformity and servitude and encouraging "bra burning rallies". The Hippie and free-love movement would see the bra abandoned altogether, resulting in the braless look.
A return to the need for support saw the bra re-emerge after the 1960s. Developments in manufacturing and technology such as lycra, have seen the materials for bras become increasingly lightweight, durable, elastic and yes, even comfortable. Today, there is a bra for everything and everything is in its place.