An “Uplifting” Story: The History of the Bra

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Our long-promised history of the bra may seem padded, but it is contoured especially for bathroom readers. This is the real story. Thanks for your support.


Who invented the bra? Through the 1800s, a number of people patented items of intimate apparel for women, but most were just extensions of the corset. In 1893 Mary Tucek was granted a patent for a crude “breast supporter,” which had a pocket for each breast, straps that went over the shoulders, and a hook-and-eye fastener in the back.

But the modern bra was really born 20 years later. The fashion of the early 1910s was to flatten the breasts for a slim, boyish figure; the fashion also favored plunging necklines. In 1913 a Manhattan debutante named Mary Phelps Jacobs became frustrated when her chest-flattening corset kept peeking out above her plunging neckline. “The eyelet embroidery of my corset-cover kept peeping through the roses around my bosom,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Passionate Years. The sheerness of her Paris evening gown was ruined by the lumpy, bulky corset.


In frustration, she and her maid designed an undergarment made of two handkerchiefs and some ribbons that were pulled taut. "The result was delicious. I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper."

Showing off her invention in the dressing rooms of society balls, she had her friends begging for brassieres of their own. Jacobs actually sewed and gave away many bras as gifts. But when strangers started accosting her, requesting the brassieres and offering money, Jacobs went to see a patent attorney (she had her maid model the garment discreetly over the top of her uniform).

A patent was granted and Jacobs opened a small manufacturing facility. She called her invention the "backless brassiere." It was the first ladies' undergarment to dispense with corset-stiffening whalebone, using elastic instead. Jacobs sold a number of her brassieres under the name "Caresse Crosby," but for all her ability as a designer, she had no marketing instincts. Sales were flat and she soon shelved the business.

A few years later, she bumped into an old boyfriend who happened to mention the fact that he was working for Warner Brothers Corset Company. Jacobs told him about her invention and at his urging, showed it to his employers. They liked it so much they offered to buy the patent for $1,500. Jacobs took the money -she though it was a good deal. So did Warner Brother Corset Company -they went on to make some $15 million from Jacobs’ invention.


Ida and William Rosenthal, two Russian immigrants, came to America penniless and set up a dressmaking business in New York with a partner, Enid Bissett. They were constantly dissatisfied with the way dresses fit around the female bosom, so in frustration -and perhaps in rebellion to the popular flat-chested look of the flapper- they invented the first form-fitting bra with separate "cups." And since all women are not built equally, Ida invented cup "sizes."

The Rosenthals gave up the dress shop in 1922 and started the Maidenform Brassiere Company with a capital investment of $4,500. Four years later, they had 40 machines turning out mass-produced bras. Forty years later, they had 19 factories producing 25 million bras annually. Some of their innovations:

* The “uplift” bra, patented in 1927.

* The “training bra” (no definitive word on what they were training for).

* The “Chansonette bra,” introduce din 1949. It had a cone-shaped cup stitched in a whirlpool pattern. The bra, which never changed shape, even when it was removed, was quickly dubbed the "Bullet Bra." Over the next 30 years, more than 90 million were sold worldwide.

When William died in 1958, Ida carried on and continued to oversee the company until her death in 1973 at the age of 87. The Maidenform corporation, which started with ten employees, now had over 9,000.


Another major contributor to the development of the bra was Abram Nathaniel Spanel, an inventor with over 2,000 patents (including one for a garment bag designed so that a vacuum cleaner could be hooked up to it to suck out moths). In 1932 Spanel founded the International Latex Corporation in Rochester, New York, to make latex items such as bathing caps, slippers, girdles, and bras, sold under the name Playtex.

Playtex was very aggressive in its advertising. In 1940 -an era when underwear ads in print publications were primarily discreet line drawings- Playtex placed a full-page ad in Life magazine with photos of models wearing Playtex lingerie alongside a mail-in coupon. Women responded: 200,000 sales were made from the ad. And in 1954 Playtex became the first company to advertise a bra and girdle on TV. Those garments -the Living Bra and the Living Girdle- remained part of the line for 40 years.

(YouTube link)

In 1965 Playtex introduced the Cross Your Heart Bra. Today it remains one of the best-known brands in the United States and is the second bestselling brand of Playtex bra, with the 18-Hour Bra filling out the top spot.


The tycoon and film producer also had his handing creating a bra. In 1941 he was making a movie called The Outlaw, starring his 19-year-old "protégé," Jane Russell. Filming was going badly because the bras Russell wore either squashed her breasts or failed to provide enough support to prevent her from bouncing all over the screen.

According to legend, Hughes himself designed an aerodynamic half-cup bra, so well reinforced that it turned Russell’s bosom into a veritable shelf. Censors had a fit. 20th Century Fox postponed the release date due to the controversy. Millions of dollars stood to be lost, so rather than back down, Hughes went all out. He had his people phone ministers, women’s clubs, and other community groups to tell them exactly how scandalous this film was. That prompted wild protests. Crowds of people insisted the film be banned. The publicity machine launched into full gear, and when the film was finally released, it was a guaranteed hit.

On opening night, Hughes hired skywriters to decorate the Hollywood skies with a pair of large circles with dots in their centers. Jane Russell, an unknown before the film, became a star overnight. Years later she revealed in her autobiography that she had found Hughes’ bra so uncomfortable that she had only worn it once …in the privacy of her dressing room. The one she wore in the movie was her own bra. No one -not even Hughes- was the wiser.


An inflatable bra introduced in 1952, it had expandable air pockets that would help every woman achieve "the perfect contour." The bra could be discreetly inflated with a hidden hand pump. Early urban myth: these inflatable bras sometimes exploded when ladies wore them on poorly-pressurized airplanes.


Hinda Miller and Lisa Rosenthal were friends who enjoyed jogging but didn’t like the lack of support their normal bras offered. Lingerie stores had nothing better to offer them, so they decide to make their own. In 1977 they stitched together two jock straps and tested it out -it worked. Their original prototype is now displayed at the Smithsonian.

In 1978 the two inventors sold $3,840 worth of their bras to sporting apparel stores. In 1997 Jogbra sales topped $65 million.


Originally created in 1964 by a Canadian lingerie company named Canadelle, the Wonderbra was designed to lift and support the bustling while also creating a deep plunge and push-together effect, without compressing the breasts. Even naturally flat-chested women could achieve the full-figured look. The bra was popular in Europe but wasn’t even sold in the United States because of international licensing agreements.

(YouTube link)

In 1991 fashion models started wearing Wonderbras they had purchased in London. Sara Lee Corporation (yes, the cheesecake company), who by then had purchased Playtex, bought the license to the Wonderbra and began marketing it aggressively. They spent $10 million advertising the new product, and it paid off. First year sales peaked at nearly $120 million. By 1994 the Wonderbra was selling at the rate of one every 15 seconds for a retail price of $26.


* Highest-Tech Bra: A British inventor has come up with a bra that contains a heart rate monitor, a Global Positioning System, and a cell phone. If the wearer is attacked and her heart rate jumps, the phone will call the police and give her location as determined by the GPS. The electronic components in this “Techno Bra” are removable for laundry day.

* Most Expensive Bra: For $15 million you can buys Victoria’s Secret bra inset with over 1,300 gemstones, including rubies and diamonds (with matching panties).

* Most Cultured Bra: Triumph International, a Japanese lingerie firm, created a bra to honor Mozart on the 200th anniversary of his death. It plays 20 second of his music every time it’s fastened and has lights that flash on and off to the beat. But perhaps in keeping with Mozart-era hygiene, the bra isn’t washable.

* Smelliest Bra: In 1998, French company Neyret announced that it was marketing a bra that would release scents when stretched or caressed. Aromas included apple, grapefruit, and watermelon.

* Biggest Celebrity Bra Collection: If you’re in L.A., visit the Frederick’s of Hollywood Bra Museum. It has such items as the bra Tony Curtis wore in Some Like It Hot; the bra Milton Berle wore on his TV show, and Phyllis Diller’s training bra, marked "This side up."

(Image credit: Flickr user Sandy Kemsley)

* Biggest Bra: The Franksville Specialty Company of Conover, Wisconsin, manufacture bras for cows in order to prevent them from tripping over their udders. The bras come in four sizes and are available in only one color: barnyard brown. Design extra: They keep the udder warm.

* Cleverest Dual-purpose Bra: When public opinion turned against her, Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos reportedly wore a bulletproof bra.


“When women’s lib started, I was the first to burn my bra and it took three days to put out the fire.”  

—Dolly Parton

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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This Bathroom Reader book is probably older than the discovery. And if you really research the history of the bra, you could fill books with the things women tried over history!
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