“I can’t wear a bra because it’s backless…”
She swapped it out for something dark. “… but this second one is a little low-cut. Bra or no bra?’ Think man, think. The fate of the universe depended on the answer to this question.”
— Kate Meader, Even the Score —
In 1977, keen jogger Lisa Lindahl, fed up of the discomfort of running in an underwire bra, set about designing the world’s first sports bra, but the inspiration for it was to come from two of the most incongruous of sources: her (now former) husband, and his jockstrap.
Lindahl, a University of Vermont employee at the time, had floated the idea of a cooling, supportive, chafe-free bra to her costume-designing friend Polly Smith, but they came up short until her husband playfully slung his jockstrap over his chest and suggested that they try that instead.
“I put it over my chest and it went right over my breast,” Lindahl tells the New York Post. “I looked at Polly and said, ‘Oh my word!’”
The pair set about stitching a couple of jockstraps together, and, hey presto, the Jogbra was born. The $22 item revolutionised the lives of many women, Lindahl notes, making “sports so much more within reach” and removing barriers. They sold the company to what would become fitness giants Champion. As gym culture took off throughout the 1980s, so newer pieces were crafted using materials such as Spandex, and have now become fashionable work-out items in the form of crop tops — a development that satisfies Lindahl’s dream of, like men, “being able to run without a shirt on”.
The very first bras were likely worn by the Ancient Greeks and consisted of tight bands of fabric — either wool or linen — wrapped around the torso and pinned at the back. Amazingly it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that anything resembling a bra was born—named, rather unflatteringly, the breastbag; and in the centuries that followed, women had to contend with restrictive corsets. A handful of brasserie — which comes from the French for ‘upper arm’ — designs were created in Europe around the turn of the 20th century, and Vogue magazine was the first to mention it, in 1907 (making an appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary three years later), but the creation of the modern-day bra is generally credited to Mary Phelps Jacob, who was granted a US patent on 3 November 1914.
Jacob — who later changed her name to Caresse Crosby — was inspired by the fashion of the time, notably the rise of slim-cut dresses with plunging necklines. Dressing for a Manhattan debutante ball in 1913, the 19-year-old New York socialite grew frustrated with how her whale-boned corset and undergarment was ruining the finish of her ball gown, recalling in her autobiography, The Passionate Years: “The eyelet embroidery of my corset-cover kept peeping through the roses around my bosom.” She instructed her maid to fetch a couple of handkerchiefs, some ribbon and a needle and thread, and, from those she fashioned a make-do bra that was “delicious”: “I could move freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”
Over the following months, Jacob developed the design further, introducing the likes of elastic bands, and, emboldened by the feedback from her high-society friends, filed for a patent for a “backless brasserie” on 12 February 1914.
Aesthetics aside, one of the bra’s biggest advantages was the physical relief. “It was lightweight and you would tie it around your neck,” Lynn Boorady, fashion and textile technology chair and associate professor at Buffalo State University, tells Time. “It looks like a halter top bikini, I guess, but not quite so conforming.” But she doubts many ladies of the time would have worn the item in pubic, but definitely in the house as “most women loosened their corsets at home just to be comfortable”.
A surprising accelerator for the acceptance of the bra was the onset of World War I, with demand for metal high, the metal for corsets was commandeered to help combat the Nazis. Even more surprising — and a little sad — is that Jacob barely made a profit from her patent, selling the rights to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for the modern-day amount of $29,000. She once commenting, according to Linda Hamalian in her biography of Jacob, The Cramoisy Queen: A Life of Caresse Crosby that “I can’t say the brasserie will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it”.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces