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Women’s Underclothing: Bras

The Playtex 'Wonderlastic' Bra, 1960s. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

In this blog we are going to look at the underclothing worn by women in our collections. Most of our collections cover the Victorian and Edwardian period but women’s underwear has a long and varied history. In the Victorian age women would wear a whopping number of layers to create a certain shape. The corset was used to create a tiny waist, and metal cages known as ‘crinolines’ were worn to achieve voluptuous skirts. Here we are looking at the histories of corsets, bras, crinoline cages, and knickers!

In part four of our blog series on the history of woman’s underwear we are looking at the development of the bra, how woman went from corsets to bras, and we are looking at the bras we hold in our collections.

Bras

Bras in one form or another have existed for thousands of years but bras as we know them today were created during the First World War. During this time there was a severe shortage of metal in the country as every piece had to go towards the war effort, even the metal used as rods and boning in corsets!

This was the final liberation women got from their cumbersome corsets, but their bodies still needed support. During this time corsets where getting lower and barley covered the bust, so a pre-bra style garment called a bust supporter was developed and worn over the corset for those with bigger busts.

The bra as we know it today is largely the invention of one woman – Mary Phelps Jacob also known as Caresse Crosby. Mary Phelps Jacob was an American socialite who attended multiple parties and balls a night. These parties prepared Mary for her launch into eligible society, and she enjoyed partying more than anything.

However, the cumbersome corsets of the 1910s were incredibly difficult to dance freely in. So, one night Mary was getting ready for yet another ball and decided she was done with corsets forever. She sent her maid to fetch two hankies and a ribbon, and she fashioned the first modern bra there and then.

All night Mary received compliments about how free she looked, and she quickly realised that she had a marketable invention. She got a patent for her invention for it in 1914 and called it the Backless Brasserie. In 1920, Mary opened her own company called ‘Fashion Form Brassiere’ but it was never a success for her.

Unfortunately, her wealthy husband didn’t believe that Mary should be running her own business and encouraged her to sell it, which she did to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. The Warner Brothers Corset Company went on to earn more than $15 million from her patent. Mary later wrote “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

Underwired bras became available during the 1930s but again, the Second World War required the metal for the conflict and underwired bras didn’t really become popular until the 1950s. In 1936, the S.H. Camp and Company used the alphabet from A – D to standardise sizes for bras and this became the most popular way size them, we still use this system today.

By the 1950s movie stars had popularised the famous ‘bullet bra’ which gave a cone shaped appearance to the breasts and this fashion was again picked up in the 1980’s by the singer Madonna.

Famous singers, movie stars and now internet influencers continue to popularise different fashionable underwear. Some, like the singer Rihanna, even own their own underwear companies. From push up bras to plunge bras the history of using undergarments to mould and create certain desirable shapes continues to repeat itself.

During the golden age of the movies (1940s – 1960s) famous actresses set fashionable trends that influenced everyday people, but overall what women wanted was a sense of luxury. So bras, like corsets before them, came in a range of colours, fabrics and trims to make them feel unique and special.

 

 

This diagram for the patent of the modern bra was created by Mary Phelps Jacobs in 1914. Unfortunately she sold the patent and lost out on millions of dollars in sales for the product.

 

 

Small black bra now kept in the collection in Preston Park Museum and Grounds. This image shows the bra on display, hence the lighting. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

 

This bra box was created by Playtex who set up business in 1947, but this bra dates to the 1960s as it offers ‘wonderlastic’. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

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