Bye bye bra? Times are changing as lingerie liberation trends in lockdown

As housebound women hang up their undergarments in the wake of the pandemic, we look back at the controversial history of the bra

02 August 2020 - 00:10 By Thango Ntwasa
The design of the bra has changed drastically over the years.
The design of the bra has changed drastically over the years.
Image: 123RF/Daria Minaeva

It is with heavy hearts and full chests bearing no support that we announce that the bra has passed on. For centuries our beloved bra kept abreast of women's needs but now it sits in a drawer, buried beneath lingerie bottoms and premature purchases for parties no-one can legally attend.

As we all adjust, the fashion world mourns the greatest contribution to the fiery feminist bonfires of the swinging '60s and looks back at the life and often oppressive times of fashion's most contentious garment.

286-305 AD: BOLD BANDEAU BEGINNINGS 

Ancient Greek culture celebrated nudity almost as much as Kim Kardashian at a photo shoot. However, in works depicting women of the period the bra is seen taking its first steps, with women using bandeaus — strips of cloth to secure the breasts of women taking up athletic hobbies.

1400s: THE SECRET UNDIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES

In 2008 during the reconstruction of a castle in Austria, four linen garments dating from the 15th century were found. They are believed to have played a role in flattening breasts and were called breast bags, a name sourced in the work of poets and surgeons of the time.

1530s: TOOLS OF TORTURE 

Women of the 16th century and beyond desperately sought an hourglass figure. The corset and its many updates from the Tudor age to Victorian fashion has been criticised as a patriarchal tool to torture women.

1876: The first industrial bra.
1876: The first industrial bra.
Image: Bettman/Contributor

1876: FIRST INDUSTRIAL BRA

Thanks to feminists of the time, a number of associations formed to abolish the oppressive corset and so the modern bra was born, an expensive undergarment that only elite educated women could afford.

1893: GETTING ENTANGLED 

New Yorker Marie Tucek took credit for a hellish wired bra, a precursor to the underwire bra.

1910-1917: A WORLD WAR MIRACLE 

A 19-year-old debutante, Mary Phelps, didn't have a corset that fit her right. With her maid by her side, Phelps fashioned herself a bra from two handkerchiefs. This was a revolutionary hit with many women as comfort for an undergarment had been unheard of. An updated version influenced the bras women wear today.

Since the clutter of corsets included metal, the garment was finally banned in 1917 for the war effort.

1940: The first push-up bra.
1940: The first push-up bra.
Image: Getty Images/Underwood Archives
1922: Ida Rosenthal develops sizing measurements.
1922: Ida Rosenthal develops sizing measurements.
Image: Getty Images/Hutton Deutsch Collection/Corbis CIA

1922: ONE CUP, TOO MANY SIZES 

Ever wondered how bra sizing came to be? It was the genius idea of a seamstress, Ida Rosenthal, working at a shop called Enid Frocks, who realised that women's breasts were similar sizes but had different shapes.

Along with Enid Frocks' Enid Bisset, Rosenthal and her husband founded the now popular brand Maidenform where they created bras that would use sizing measurements that still apply today.

1940s: A STAR BRA IS BORN

The conical bras of the '40s brought about the push-up bra, the first being the "rising star" as made famous by Frederick's of Hollywood in 1946, followed by the bullet bra by Maidenform in 1949.

1968: Burning bra movements begin.
1968: Burning bra movements begin.
Image: Getty Images/Bev Grant
1948: Strapless bras start taking shape.
1948: Strapless bras start taking shape.
Image: Getty Images/Underwood Archives

1948: NO STRINGS ATTACHED

The straps and odd shapes of bras were no help for shoulder-less evening gowns. Strapless wired bras became popular.

1968: BURNING THE BRA 

Burning bras was done by a movement called the New York Radical Women at the 1968 Miss America pageant. A number of bras were burned in what was titled the "Freedom Trash Can". They also torched high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes and magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy.

1977: Victoria's Secret is born.
1977: Victoria's Secret is born.
Image: Getty Images/David Bailey/Conde Naste

1977: VICTORIA'S FIRST SECRET

With bizarre inventions like nipple bras dominating in the '70s, it's no surprise that a store like Victoria's Secret was born. The brand offered lingerie made for women, but their target market was men.

1977: WHO RUNS THE WORLD? JOCKS 

The inventor of the jogbra, Lisa Lindahl, hated gym classes growing up but was one of many avid joggers hitting the street when the workout craze boomed in the '70s.

2002: NO MORE ENTANGLEMENTS 

Phones were wireless but relationships were still entangled so naturally bras cut all ties and straps when the NuBra was invented. NuBras were made from a silicone adhesive that could stick to the wearer's breasts, offering support and comfort.

2002: NuBra is invented.
2002: NuBra is invented.
Image: Getty Images/Jaimie Trueblood/WireImage for Silver Spoon

2009: ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A GEN Z BRA? 

Memory foam was a big hit in the '90s and in a bra the material could mould itself according to the body temperature of the wearer. Thus was born the smart memory bra, first made by the brand Lisca.

2016: WHEN LINGERIE MET ATHLEISURE

Lively, Michelle Cordeiro Grant's business, has been described as one for "women with wild hearts and boss brains". This is quite revealing of her collection of intimates that have been described as leisurée — a mix between athleisure and lingerie. Noticing that many women with 9-to-5 jobs were wearing sports bras for comfort rather than the gym, Grant started her fashion movement to provide a garment that blended the comforts of sportswear fabrics with the appeal of sexy lingerie.

2020: LOCKDOWN LIBERATION

An unforeseen consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown has been the growing "lockdown liberation", with fewer women opting to wear bras. And it would seem sex no longer sells for the likes of Victoria's Secret. CNBC has reported a 12% drop for bra sales at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US.

In a move that would leave lovers of pre-Covid fashion shocked, YouTubers have also made tutorials on how to repurpose bras as face masks.


LETTERS TO MY BRA

With bras relegated to face masks and trash cans, we got three women to open letters to theirs

Nokubonga Thusi, Sunday Times beauty editor 

You maybe noticed lately I haven't been reaching for you as much. I'm trying to avoid uncomfortable, constricting clothing while at home (don't feel bad — my skinny jeans are also feeling neglected), but it doesn't mean that I love you any less. Thanks for always supporting me, never letting me go out in public with a nipple stand, for your bust optical illusions and allowing every clothing item I have to fall effortlessly into place.

Anne Hirsch, comedian 

It's not you, it's me. Lockdown has led me to grow (emotionally and more specifically, physically) out of you and you simply cannot contain me anymore. In short, I need space. We shared some good times and you held me together when I most needed it, even boosted me up. But I have had a taste of strapless freedom and I'm hooked. And let's face it, you never quite fit. I'm sorry but this is breast for us both.

Elle van der Berg, model and music producer

When I started wearing bras I was super excited because being a transwoman who was also right in the beginning of my medical transition, on hormones, I was just super excited to see my body changing to validate my inner self. But I quickly learnt that very few bras consider their primary function — comfort and support. It's been hard to ignore the misogynistic expectations they carry when they're divorcing comfort and function.