From corsets to the pushup bra

Women have a wide range of choices when it comes to undergarments. The adhesive, skin-molded, shock absorbent, 18-hour, clear strap, pushup gel bra; wonder; fantasy bras and even the “smart bra” are just a few choices found around the world today.

Over time the brassiere has moved from its original purpose of supporting the bust to being an instrument of high fashion. There is now a bra for every occasion, from the training bra and upward.

The bra has defined female body image since the Greek “apodesme” (circa 2500 B.C.), a small band of material wrapped around the breasts to prevent them from moving when walking. The apodesme shoved the bare breasts of Minoan warrior women on the Greek isle of Crete upward and out of their clothing.

Then came the chest-flattening bodices of the 13th and 14th enturies A.D., precursors to the boyish look worn by flappers in the 1920s, [which women wore to make their breasts look smaller.] Later, fashion moved again toward bust-enhancing bras such as the pointed bras of the 1930s and padded “falsies,” the forerunner to today’s wonder bra.

Perhaps the same sentiment that led Renaissance women of the 16th century to stuff their chests with silk hankies led to new innovations and a thriving lingerie industry in the 20th century.

The history of the modern bra begins with Marie Tucek’s “breast supporter,” patented in 1893. Known as the “soutien-gorge,” meaning “throat support” in French, it was designed with two separate pockets for each breast, with shoulder straps and hooks on the back.

Stories about the bra being invented by a man named Brassiere are all false. Vogue magazine coined the term – which means “upper arm” in French – in 1907. “Brassiere” appeared in the “Oxford English dictionary” in 1912.

Defying the fashion sense of the flat-chested flappers who were so popular during the 1920s, Ida Rosenthal and her husband William formed the Maidenform Company, still found in department stores throughout the United States. Rosenthal categorized bust sizes in the late 1920s, creating A to D cup sizes that are still the standard today.

The beginning of the backless bra is accredited to Mary Phelps Jacob, who patented it at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Tired of the corset that would eventually tear her skin and the sheer dress she was planning to wear to a party, she used two napkins, a ribbon and a cord to create world’s first backless bra. The bra became the talk of the party among the other corset-wearing women ,who began taking orders for the new bra that one fateful night in 1913. Unlike the steel corset that was popularized in 1550 A.D., Jacob’s bra was significantly lighter and softer.

Currently, the bra industry is synonymous with stores like Victoria’s Secret Company – established in 1982. The company sold $2.6 million worth of lingerie in 2003, according to Standard and Poor’s Net Advantage, which keeps a record of company revenues.

“I find it interesting that Victoria’s Secret is marketing bras based on the notion of purity,” said junior Ami Kolfhekar, critiquing the company’s latest Angel collection.

She said bras are now marketed as something a woman wears for show, whereas she grew up not thinking about them as a fashion.

“It’s more of a fashion statement now, the whole white T-shirt, white bra trend,” she said.

“I was molded not to think that much about bra styles,” said Kolfhekar, whose parents are from India, where she said there are no bra stores like Victoria’s Secret.

Junior Christina Tripodi, who worked for Victoria’s Secret, said the company even applies its “angelic” theme to how its stores are run. She said when she was working there, the company required that her hair and nails be a natural color. Tripodi said the company is also trying to push it’s comfort line, “Body by Victoria,” in order to compete with Macy’s and other department stores that sell bras for the everyday woman.

She said that Body by Victoria, the polyester-cotton blend bra collection, is the store’s best- selling bra type.

Junior Anand Iyer said she thinks the industry follows the whims of fashion rather than necessity.

“The bra went from being worn for its utility – ‘don’t hurt yourself while running’ – to (becoming) a fashion statement,” he said. “It’s like watching a commercial out of a Ralph Lauren catalog with stuff people don’t regularly wear.”

Junior Matt Apfel said that he finds some bras intimidating because they make breasts look bigger than they really are. He said the effects of the trend are being felt in markets as far away as Asia.

” In the same way we look at Europe for fashion, people in China and Korea are looking at us,” he said. “China and Korea are starting to have stores like Victoria’s Secret, and women are wearing tank tops and clothes their parents wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.”

Scientists at the University of Wollongong, located in New South Wales, Australia, are developing a “smart bra” that would use polymer fabric sensors attached to the straps to expand straps and cups in response to breast movement. The bra would enhance support especially during strenuous exercise, according to an article on, a site that publishes Web news and product reviews.

Women’s Wear Daily reports that as of June 2, 2003, Victoria’s Very Sexy Push-up bra was the company’s No. 1 seller.

But the store has its critics.

“Victoria’s Secret is overrated,” sophomore Amy Stack said. “But it’s the first thing one thinks about when you say ‘bra’.”

But others disagree.

“It has good quality, they measure you and you know the bra is not going to bust,” sophomore Erin Aiken said in defense of the bra company.

Underwear commercials for stores like Victoria’s Secret mix sex appeal with images meant to empower women, but some feel the mix is contradictory.

“Really pretty underwear is important because it gives you confidence,” freshman Kara Donovan said. “But some ads make it seem like the woman is shy about her sexuality.”

The bra and the publicity that surrounds lingerie has been a much – debated subject in the feminine discourse.

Freshman Michelle Zieky, who wrote a term paper in high school about women’s rights and fashion, said the bra can empower and constrict a woman.

“The bra was once seen as a constricting thing. Now it is used as a symbol of sexual power,” Zieky said. “But that makes for a double-edged sword, where you say sex is power and then you subject yourself to be treated as an object.”

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