The History of the Bra: A ‘ludicrous invention’ or a device for emancipation?


The bra has often been seen as an instrument of patriarchy, used to subjugate women through the restriction and sexualisation of the female body. In contrast, it can also represent women’s emancipation:a garment designed for women, by women.


Ancient visual material often depictswomen as bare-breasted. However, the first bra-like garment dates back to Ancient Egypt, with paintings showingwomen wearing the ‘kalasiris’ -a tight tube dressheld up by two straps, exposing the breasts but providing support.


The representation of the bra as indicative of male repression dates back toAncient Rome. Literary evidence suggests that the dominant male view was that large breasts were unattractive so many women bound their breasts. However, the 4th century ‘bikini girls’mosaicdepicts women playing sport while wearing what looks like a strapless bra, suggesting that bra-structures in Ancient Rome were not entirely a negative objectification of the female form.

History of the bra Fig1

It was not until the Renaissance that décolletage became fashionable and women began wearingcorsetsthat pushed the breasts upwards and restricted movement.


History of the bra Fig2

This fashion prevailed into the Victorian era, when, due in part to the work of female clothing reformers in late 18th century England, the corset was replaced by the bra. The invention of the bracanbe seen as representative of female emancipation, as it allowed women to enter the public sphere and enjoy activities that would not be possible with a corset (e.g., riding a bicycle).However, this was mostly confined to upper-class women.


It was a century agothat the modern bra became available to the masses. Brassieres became more versatile, comfortable and affordable, developing in line with women’s entry into the workforce.


History of the bra Fig3


Famously, the1960s saw some feminists denounce bras as a ‘ludicrous invention’,used to restrictand sexualise the female body. In the oft-referenced example of theMiss America protests in 1968, protestors burned bras and other symbols of male oppressionin the ‘Freedom Trashcan’. The legacy of the feminist movement is the choice for women to participate in society with or without a bra, without negative social consequences.


The bra has continued to develop in the 21st century, with bothsilicone-moulded and diamond encrusted bras selling for $10 million. Whether you see the bra as an object of repression or emancipation, it provides an entry to understanding how women’s identity has been constructed throughout history.