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A History Of Women’s Underwear: Who Invented It And When?

Let's take a trip into history for a moment and discover where women's underwear actually came from!

Belle-Lingerie09 December 2022

A History Of Women’s Underwear: Who Invented It And When?

Bras and knickers are things you probably put on most days without really thinking about who ‘invented’ them or how they came to be. But actually, both bras and knickers have been through a major transformation to become the garments we know and use today. Read on to find out more about when bras and knickers were invented, and which people had the most influence in their development.

When Was The Bra Invented?

To discover how the modern bra was invented, we have to go back quite a long way. To the 4th century, in fact! A mosaic that was found in the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily shows a group of women participating in some sort of sporting activity, wearing bandeau-style tops that actually look quite modern. This garment, known as a breastband, dates back even further to ancient Greece and was usually made of linen. This is the first evidence we have of bras being worn, possibly for support or for comfort. 

Fast forward to around the 15th century, and we have proof that bra-like garments were being worn in Austria. Lengberg Castle was undergoing an archaeological excavation in 2008 and a vault on the second floor was found to contain some textile items. Amongst 2,700 individual clothing fragments, four ‘bras’ were discovered. They looked quite similar to bras we wear today, with cups and shoulder straps, but such a design was unusual and wouldn’t really take off until the 1930s. 

From around the 1550s to the 1850s, corsets were the in-thing. Similar in appearance to bodies or basques, they lifted up the breasts and reduced the size of the waist to create a shape that was considered feminine and fashionable. Only in the late 19th century did women and doctors begin to realise that corsets were restrictive and uncomfortable, and so a change began to occur. 

In 1889, Herminie Cadolle showcased a corset bra at the World Fair in Paris, and prototypes of the very first bras were being manufactured across Europe and America up until the 1920s. But, as it was still fashionable to have a defined waist, corsets and girdles were still the preferred underwear choice for women.

It wasn’t until after World War One, when it was less fashionable to emphasise the chest, that the bra became more popular. In the 1930s, bras began to get the features we know today, including cup sizing in letters and eye-and-hook fastenings at the back. The padded bra was then invented in the 1940s, as it was still considered fashionable to have bigger breasts. 

A breakthrough in women’s bras occurred in 1964, however, with Louise Poirier’s invention of the Wonderbra. Its comfort, but also its ability to push and lift the breasts, made it an instant hit.

Who Invented The Bra?

As you can see, the bra went through a lot of changes to look how it does today, so we can’t say that there was one ‘inventor’.

We’ve mentioned Herminie Cadolle, who revealed her two-part corset at the World Fair in Paris in 1889. But shortly after this in 1893, Marie Tuckek patented her own bra that had cups for the breasts to sit in and straps that went over the shoulder for support. Her bra even had the modern hook-and-eye fastenings, likely making this design the nearest thing we have to the modern bra. Her design failed to take off though, as women were still purchasing corsets and girdles. 

Mary Phelps Jacob has also been said to have had a big influence on inventing the bra. Upon purchasing an evening dress, she found that her corset was visible through the fabric. She decided to stitch two pieces of fabric together, joining them with a ribbon and wore this instead of her corset. It was much more comfortable and other women attending the same event noticed how she was able to move more freely. They wanted similar creations and Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) opened the Fashion Form Brassière Company in 1920 to sell her creation. She patented it under the name Crosby in 1914. 

Why was the bra invented?

Now we know approximately when the bra was invented, why was there a need for it? Corsets, while deemed fashionable for the shape they provided, were restrictive and uncomfortable, and didn’t fit underneath the ever-changing styles of clothing either. The bra was less visible and much more comfortable, and so the change was eventually welcomed by women in the 20th century. 

Interested to learn more? You can discover more interesting facts about bras here.

Who invented knickers?

As with the bra, it’s hard to identify one single person who invented knickers as we know them today. 

Generally, women didn’t wear knickers until the turn of the 19th century. During this time, women wore undergarments known as drawers. These were two separate legs that were joined at the waist, sort of like a baggy pair of shorts that came to the knees. 

These items shot to fame thanks to Amelia Bloomer. While she didn’t invent the underwear, she learned about it and published instructions on how to make them in her newspaper, The Lily. Subscriptions to the publication shot up and women across America went crazy for the new undergarments. They became known as bloomers after her which meant women had more freedom to do activities that they couldn’t previously, such as riding a bicycle. 

Eventually, by 1920, drawers and bloomers had become shorter, finishing above the knee instead of below it. This was likely to accommodate the new, shorter dress styles. 

Pierre Valton also had a big influence on women’s underwear. In 1918, this Frenchman designed cotton knickers that had an elastic waistband and were much shorter in the leg, making them more practical for both adults and children.

As you can see from our summarised history, both bras and knickers have transformed over the last few hundreds of years. They may even continue to do so into the future, as fashion changes and styles come and go.

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