Loading…
0:00
16:39

In the past several decades, selecting a brassiere has mostly been about making choices. Luxury lingerie shop or Maidenform from the department store? Full coverage or demi? Pushup or push-way-up?

If you didn’t want a bra with an underwire, you’d have to look in the tween or athletics area or rifle through the racks for a soft-cup option that wasn’t too frumpy.

That is, until last year, when suddenly bras without wires became the new must-have accessory.

The bralette — loosely defined as “a bra without wires and a lot of pretty details” — has become ubiquitous in women’s fashion. It combines the comfort of a sports bra with a more traditional look, feel, and style, and it disrupts half a century of underwire dominance in the $28 billion lingerie industry.

It’s not difficult to identify the perks of a bralette over a traditional bra: They’re more comfortable for many people, less expensive, and because they’re meant to be more visible than a traditional bra, offer an additional way to accessorize an outfit.

Bralettes have been developed in a range of support and have moved into much larger sizes in the past several years. This also makes them a more inclusive option: Even as recently as seven years ago, any sort of wireless bra was considered to be the sole purview of people with smaller breasts. Today, comfort without wires is being offered in an array of sizes and shapes.

Many of the same things that make the bralette appealing to a consumer also make it attractive for designers. In a piece for Stylecaster earlier this year, Hilary George-Parkin laid out the benefits for businesses looking to scale down their traditional bra operations in favor of a lighter, more wireless line:

Underwire bras also have up to 40 components, and, says Harrington, can take years of research and development to actually come to market, leaving very little in the way of profit margins. By comparison, the simplest bralettes can be fashioned entirely out of stretch lace or micromesh and tweaked season after season — a halter here, an extra strap there — to entice consumers to buy more.

Though American Eagle was one of the first U.S. brands it capitalize on it, the bralette trend started with independent designers who found that sewing a more casual foundational garment was far easier and less expensive than developing an item with molded cups. In an era when the creativity of scrappy young people is one of the most renewable resources for big companies, these shifts in support garments are no exception.

This reflection on a larger cultural current is consistent with the rest of the bra’s history. Like so many other characters in our collective fashion history, foundational garments serve as a kind of microcosm for the rest of society and culture. The bra — what it does, how it’s worn, and what it looks like — has often been as much about symbolism as support.

Tracing the history of the bra can tell us a lot about bigger historical movements — and why the bralette, specifically, is having its moment in the sun.

BC: Before Corsets

For as long as there have been breasts, there have been opinions on what to do with them. But we haven’t always been so prudish.

In many early civilizations — African, Polynesian, and Native American communities, for starters — people of all genders were (and some still are) bare-chested much of the time. When they did cover up, it was often for warmth, not support. There are few records, either through recovered objects or ancient art works, indicating that clothing the top half of a woman was much different than clothing the top half of a man in a large majority of the inhabited world.

Residents of ancient Egypt were no different: Women wore simple sheath dresses with nothing underneath, made of material so thin that they were quite transparent.

In other areas of the early world, including ancient Greece and Rome, a bra-like garment was common. Breast bands (also called strophium), typically very simple and made of just one or two pieces of material, were a bandeau-like piece worn to offer support and prevent gravity from taking control. They could be worn under a tunic or other garment, or alone if a woman was participating in activities or bathing. In some rather lusty paintings found on the walls of what’s believed to be a brothel in Pompeii, women assumed to be prostitutes are depicted wearing breast bands and nothing else.

From the brothel in Pompeii, a woman in a breast band with a male companion.

One might assume that the natural next step from a breast band would be something that resembles the modern bralette — some bits of sewn cloth, cleverly assembled by a woman looking for a bit of relief for her back — however, archeologists and ethnographers hadn’t found much proof of any such garment until quite recently. It was, for decades, a widely held assumption that the breast band fell out of fashion and that most women wore nothing at all until the first common undergarments—corsets—became popular.

Using bone, metal, and other scaffolding materials to create a very ideal silhouette, corsets were believed to be the precursor to the modern-day bra, not an interim trend between breast bands and pushups.

But in 2012, a handful of unmistakable objects were recovered from a castle in Austria — four linen pieces, dated to the 15th century, that looked very much like something you might find at your local American Eagle. With straps and two distinct cups, the garments were a surprising discovery and introduced a new understanding of what women were wearing before corsets became the norm.

“Bras…were obviously invented, went out of fashion, were forgotten, and supposed to be invented (again) in the late 19th century,” said archaeologist Beatrix Nutz, who discovered the bras, in a Q&A with the Smithsonian. “Now the first invention was rediscovered in Lengberg Castle — that is, until someone finds still older ones somewhere.”

Nutz also points out clues that today’s bralette may have had a historical precursor — in particular, 15th-century art and poetry make it clear that large breasts, rather than being viewed as attractive, were actually seen as comedic or embarrassing. Smaller breasts were something to flaunt. Nutz writes in HistoryExtra:

An unknown 15th-century author of southern Germany was definitely referring to breast-enhancement in his satirical poem as he wrote: “Many [a woman] makes two breastbags [bags for the breasts], with them she roams the streets, so that all the young men that look at her, can see her beautiful breasts; But whose breasts are too large, makes tight pouches, so there is no gossip in the city about her big breasts.” As we can see, medieval bras worked both ways.

This speaks to the larger cultural significance of breasts and what we do with them. When breasts aren’t viewed as a big deal, culturally, they don’t need to be covered. When they’re the butt of a joke, they’re scuttled away under designated garments or oh-so-subtly shaped by a tightened pouch. But when they’re revered, as would be the case later, we find ways to elevate them.

Corsets Change the Rules

As clothing began to take shape in the Western world, so too changed what went under it.

Records of body-modifying garments, including those for waist training, exist in cultures around the planet for ages, but the corset (called “stays” at that time) didn’t become a mainstream must-have item until the 1500s, when, according to the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, “Catherine de Medici (1519–1589) is credited with introducing the fashion to France.”

Over time, the ideal shape of the female body ebbed and flowed — hourglass figures, conical shapes, and more angular torsos all came and went, bringing with them new shapewear — and at some junctures, the popularity of stays even seemed to be teetering away entirely. During the French Revolution, the popularity of corsets declined noticeably; instead, women would wear soft undergarments.

Portrait of Madame de Verninac, 1799. No bra, no problem.

Contrary to many historical texts, writes Valerie Steele in The Corset: A Cultural History, the Revolution didn’t cause the downfall of the corset, though the era’s staunchly anti-elite politics did help loosen the grasp of the nobles when it came to fashion.

“Even Madame Royale, the 19-year-old daughter of Louis XVI, wore light corsets, not aristocratic boned stays, in her prison cell,” Steele writes.

As ideas of revolution, liberation, and social equity rose to prominence in France, the restricted or highly regimented foundational garments that had previously been aligned with grace and social stature became less appealing.

In many ways, this 18th-century shift from iron, bone, or supremely starched stays to lighter cotton or muslin bodices laid the groundwork for modern-day changes in lingerie, including the bra-burning 1960s and today’s bralette boom. The push for postwar conformity in the 1950s (which ushered in those perky, ultra-pointed bra) was met with the braless ’60s and ’70s. Similarly, as the body-positive movement and the embrace of body types typically barricaded from the fashion industry have grown, maximum comfort has begun to edge out the mega-pushup bras aggressively peddled by the likes of Victoria’s Secret in the past two decades.

But these currents never last forever, and as always happens (and will likely happen again, post-bralette fever), the tide eventually turned back toward a more bound figure.

Wealth again became a status symbol after the French Revolution’s dalliance with proletariat empowerment, and throughout the 18th and 19th century, women in the Western world again wore snug bodices and corsets that lifted (or flattened) their chests, nipped in their waists, and even altered the way they stood. The Edwardian corset, for example, not only pushed the breasts to prominence but also actively arched a woman’s back to create an S-shaped silhouette.

A 1902 catalog offering Edwardian corsets and something more like a bra.

Something resembling a wireless bra was, at times, sold alongside a corset; a 1907 catalog ad by a French designer featured a soutien-gorge (French for “bra,” which is a bit ironic, considering “brassiere” is a French word to begin with) that would allow women to “dispense with the corset.” However, the item stood out among pages of contraptions with buckles and bones—and was meant mostly for sleeping, tenderness, or nursing, not going out.

Comfort was certainly not the goal; these corsets literally deformed the spine, ribs, and organs of the women who wore them. Health concerns began to arise, as did a general resistance toward such highly confining garments.

In 1908, medical journals were warning of the effects of corsets. Image: Wellcome Trust

They also weren’t especially subtle, which became a problem around the turn of the 20th century, as women’s gowns became more delicate and sheer. This is exactly what prompted a young woman to sew — and eventually patent — her own revolutionary undergarment.

The First Real Bra

Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob) was dressing for an event in 1914 when she came across a problem: Her boxy corset was poking conspicuously out of her dress. Crosby, who came from a fairly well-to-do New York family, reportedly asked her maid to “bring me two of my pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon.”

She then sewed herself a garment — which looked similar to the bras found in the Austrian castle—fashioning a piece that would look very at home in your Instagram feed today. Dubbing it the “backless brassier,” Crosby called her invention “delicious.”

Crosby’s patent, signed Mary P. Jacob.

“I could move more freely,” Crosby said. “A nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”

Shortly after, Crosby sought the advice of a patent attorney and filed for a patent in November 1914. Her patent went on to make millions for the company that eventually purchased it — Warner Brothers, if you can believe it — as well as open the door to a new era of underwear that specifically supported the breasts without constricting movement.

That Crosby’s bra — designed by a woman and based in a real need — became the new standard for undergarments isn’t surprising. The rise of this softer support option was helped by one substantial outside force: World War I. Metal corsets were, at the same moment, unfeasible for other reasons — as is often the case with style before and after a war, the need for metal meant frivolously wearing it around your waist wouldn’t do, nor was it permitted by law. Bone corsets remained somewhat common, though as women entered the workforce (again, as a by-product of World War I) and generally became more active outside of the household, they needed to be free to bend and move.

Again, the bra stood as a landmark; a new era of liberation was about to be ushered in, and liberating the breasts came with it.

By the 1920s, girdles — made from starched fabric and designed for the sole purpose of cinching in the waist — replaced corsets almost entirely, and bras became a necessary item. However, bras were still very much designed to capture the fashionable body type at the time. Flappers would often eschew a bra if they were relatively flat-chested, or they might wear minimizing bandeau bras not unlike the Grecian breast bands of the very old days.

And, of course, because these garments remained expensive, many women who didn’t have a lot of disposable income still wore no bra or girdle at all.

This ad from 1953 boasts that “even the wire is curved.”

It wasn’t until the 1940s that the underwire became an industry standard, which allowed designers to change the scope and shape of a bra. And by the 1950s, bras were actually starting to look and feel different from one to the next, in large part because more women had disposable income to spend on things like underwear. Price points dropped as innovation increased, making the bra became a staple.

Women were working more, earning more, and generally doing more shopping for themselves, rather than for the family, creating a new market for consumption. Additionally, with the explosion of women’s workplace apparel, new bras that looked smart at work and didn’t make the wearer feel like passing out were required.

From Bra Burning to Bralettes

A 1967 ad for Warner Brothers’ Little Fibber bra relied heavily on body shaming to sell padded bras.

Bra designs have often reflected a way for women to express their views — and not wearing one has long been one of the most pointed statements a person’s breasts can make.

Since the 1960s, bras have held a contentious place in the world. Highly politicized by feminist writers like Betty Friedan, the bra has become a symbol of gender inequality and oppression of the female body — a signal flare for the changing ideologies around beauty, gender, and commercialism.

Since that time, bras have been tossed in garbage bins, turned into art projects, and generally become a symbol for something more than back support — in the past 100 years, they’ve followed larger trends in what’s considered desirable and attractive.

Following the 1990s emphasis on supermodel measurements (which led to inventions such as the water bra) and extreme cleavage (see: Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour), the pivot toward pretty, unlined, wireless, comfortable bralettes isn’t entirely surprising. In fact, it matches much of the other turns that fashion has made.

An actual Wonderbra ad from the 1990s.

More natural makeup; long, loose hair; comfortable sneakers and sandals; and, of course, “athleisure” have sprung from the restrictive and highly idealized beauty standards of the previous decades. Style is being led by teenagers on social media and the garments they make themselves, not the runways of Milan.

More recently, the bra has become a rallying point for other intersections: Mastectomy bras for cancer survivors have become a focal point, as have bras that can be worn by people who are transitioning or have disabilities that affect their movement. The color options of “nude” bras, which are highly exclusive of Black and Brown bra-wearers, have spawned an entirely new industry.

In the same way that a diverse variety of voices have worked to expand feminism, a diverse variety of visible bodies has expanded the market for clothing options that actually work. From Caresse Crosby’s hanky invention to the independently made bras and bralettes in a range of sizes, shapes, colors, and purposes that are cropping up online, bralettes are very much in step with the legacy of plucky people wanting something different from their foundational garments and doing it themselves.