Bras. For about half of you reading this, they’re an essential item of wear. For the other half, they’re two great big cups of suggestion containing the most fun body parts yet discovered by science. In other words, they’re something nearly all of us are deeply familiar with, if only via our bedroom-ceiling fantasies.
But familiar doesn’t have to mean ‘pedestrian’. As every internet fact writer will tell you, it’s what’s beneath the surface that’s truly interesting. No, we don’t mean boobs. We mean the history of the bra itself. While all the other cool websites are happy just watching their girlfriends undress, we love nothing more than to get our nerd on and read up on some undergarment history. Trust us, you’ll be glad we did.
10. Bras Were Invented in Ancient Greece
Next time a girl offers you a chance to take off her bra, tell her to cool her jets and listen to this amazing factoid first. The bra was first invented in ancient Greece. This means the garment your hypothetical partner is wearing is older than the Colosseum in Rome.
After she’s left in disgust, shaking her head and muttering about guys who spend too much time reading listicles, you can comfort yourself by digging deep into the mind-blowing details. See, the ancient world didn’t have much in the way of underwire, so their bras were very different to what we have today. Instead of coming off the shelf, they were totally homemade, and boy did they look it. Making a ‘bra’ in ancient Greece involved wrapping a load of wool or linen across your chest and tying it behind your back. It may not sound like much, but it totally worked, giving support to many-an Athenian’s chest-area.
Something approaching modern bras didn’t really show up until the 1500s, when corsets came into fashion in a big way. While bras in Greece were worn for comfort, breast-supporting corsets were mandatory for middle-and-upper-class women for centuries. While we’re on the subject of female subjugation…
9. ’60s Bra Burning was a Total Myth
When we say the words ‘sixties feminist rally’ to you, what image instantly pops into your head? A good proportion of you just said something along the lines of ‘hippy college girls burning their bras’. If popular culture was the sole arbitrator of what’s historically true or not, this would be correct. But pop culture is pop culture, not history. And history says no bras were ever burnt in protest.
Like, ever. As in, not one single, lousy bra ever had the decency to tear itself off someone’s torso and go hurtling into a blazing trashcan. We know this because NY Post reporter, and later editor of Ms., Lindsy Van Gelder, admitted in 1992 that she’d made the whole thing up.
At the time, the media was covering the burning of Vietnam draft cards with some sympathy, while kinda ignoring the women’s lib movement. Gelder thought she could net some of her male colleagues’ sympathy by linking the two stories via the ‘burning’ of a hated object. Unfortunately, her plan backfired when male reporters found it hilarious and turned the idea into a kinda pre-internet meme. By the 1980s, the image was so firmly entrenched in pop-culture that it’s never left.
8. Bras Make Boobs Go Saggy
When you think about it, bras are weirdly unnecessary. Not if you’re carrying a lot of weight upfront and need some support, but if you’ve got small-ish breasts they don’t offer much. So why do most girls wear them? The official answer is that they’re advisable to prevent sagging and back pain, and improve posture. The official answer is totally wrong.
Meet Jean-Denis Rouillon, the scientist with the job your 14-year old self always dreamed of having. Since 1997, Rouillon has been measuring women’s naked breasts to see how they change after prolonged bra-wearing, versus prolonged hanging loose. From his research base in France (of course it’s in France), Rouillon has demonstrated that not wearing a bra makes your nipple gain a ¼ inch of lift every year. By comparison, wearing a bra stops supportive breast tissue growing and leads to a terminal case of sag.
However, we should point out that this only really works if you’re still young. After your mid-30s, ditching the bra won’t make any difference at all. In terms of sag, at least. In other ways, it might just save your life…
7. Bras Have Totally Killed People (Twice)
If there’s one thing we’ve learned doing this job, it’s that anything, no matter how innocuous, can be dangerous. Bras are no exception. While they may look unthreateningly functional or sexy from the outside, at their heart lies a soul steeped in pure danger. We know this for a fact, because bras have been known to kill at least two people.
For our younger male readers who may not have reached first base yet, you should know bras contain metal wire. It’s how they offer support to breasts, and why 90 percent of girls you meet have at least one story of their bra going rouge and stabbing them. While getting poked by an errant piece of metal sucks, it has nothing on what happens under certain, horrifying conditions. In event of a nearby lightning strike, the wire in a bra can act as a conductor. The result can be insane burns, agonizing agony, or even death.
This last one happened to two women in central London in 1999. During a storm, a lightning bolt exploded nearby, their bras went into superconductor mode and killed them both. While that’s certainly a rare occurrence, it does prove that even the most-innocent item of clothing can potentially conspire to leave you deep beneath the cold, cold ground.
6. Howard Hughes Invented the Craziest Push-up
Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes was many things: a genius, a lunatic, a recluse, an obsessive-compulsive, and an airplane-loving super-pilot (hence Scorsese naming his biopic of Hughes The Aviator). He was also a guy who knew what cinema audiences wanted. And in the 1940s, they wanted breasts so gravity-defying you could land a biplane on them.
This culminated in 1943, with Hughes’s movie The Outlaw. Having hired the already well-equipped Jane Russell, Hughes set about making sure her breasts would become the star of the show. Using cutting-edge airplane technology, the eccentric madman designed a push-up bra that would heave his starlet’s accessories all the way up to heaven. It was the pushiest push-up bra in history, and it made Hughes the talk of the town.
Unfortunately, being male, Hughes hadn’t given much thought to comfort. According to Russell, his super high-tech bra hurt so much she could only wear it for five minutes at a time. Eventually, she chucked the damn thing out, tightened the shoulder straps on her regular bra and did the scene without Hughes’ oddball invention.
5. Victoria’s Secret Was Originally Intended for Men
Victoria’s Secret is where women shop when they want to let their partner he’s been a good boy. The lingerie-maker has been fueling male fantasies for decades, and is one of the places for gals to pick up a nice bra. But this quintessentially-female store has a slightly surprising side to it. When it was first opened, it was originally intended for men.
It was the mid-’70s, and founder Roy Raymond was looking to buy his girlfriend something sexy for their anniversary. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really standard-practice in those days, and the store he went into very nearly called the cops after mistaking him for a pervert. Raymond got so angry he decided to open his own lingerie store, specifically catering to men who wanted to buy their wives gifts without ending up on a register somewhere.
The idea was good enough to expand into two other stores, but by 1982 the company was nearly broke. Raymond sold out, and the buyer targeted Victoria’s Secret back at women, turning it into a multi-million dollar empire. Raymond wound up going broke and committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993.
4. Imelda Marcos’s Bulletproof Bra
Imelda Marcos was the modern world’s answer to Marie Antoinette. As wife of the Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she blew insane amounts of public money on clothes and shoes, reveling in luxury as her people starved. When her husband was deposed she fled abroad, leaving behind over 3,000 pairs of shoes and a mind-blowing number of luxury items. But most mind-blowing of all may have been her bulletproof bras.
You don’t get to be wife of a notoriously corrupt dictator without acquiring at least some enemies, and Imelda Marcos’s enemies were more-numerous than most. The former beauty queen had embedded herself deep in the government, appointing family members to highly-paid posts created especially for them, and blowing state funds on her shoe collection. Aside from the armed guerilla groups in the country’s outer provinces, there were millions of ordinary people who were itching for a chance to off this symbol of corruption.
Hence the bulletproof bras. Paranoid about assassination, Imelda took to wearing bras that could save her from a surprise attack. Being Imelda Marcos, though, she also ensured the bras themselves were highly-fashionable, even with a Kevlar lining.
3. Bras are Worth Way More than You Realized
Bras are fairly durable garments. Not many people buy more than a couple a year, and few people own stacks and stacks of the things. As such, you might think that the bra industry is profitable, but on a human scale. Say, an annual turnover of $500 million or so. Well, you’d be wrong. As an industry, bras are worth a staggering $16 billion a year.
For comparison, the entire GDP of Iceland only stands at $19 billion, and they’ve got fish and Bjork to help them out. If bras were a country, they’d be wealthier than Jamaica, Kosovo, the Bahamas, and about forty more you couldn’t reliably place on a map.
Part of this might have to do with the insane luxury lines of bras developers often put out. For those with the requisite levels of cash and Imelda Marcos-levels of self-centeredness, there are bras out there that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Some go for millions. Just keep this in mind: next time you buy a car or a house or even a mansion, there is someone out there, somewhere, wearing a piece of lingerie worth more than your latest major purchase.
2. WWI Made Bras Obscenely Popular
The Law of Unintended Consequences is often invoked to explain truly unexpected outcomes. But perhaps no outcome can be considered such a ‘black swan’ event as the rise of the bra. In the first decades of the early 20th century, corsets were king, and bras were barely at the level of court jester. The event that made women chuck their uncomfortable corsets and switch to bras? Err, the advent of WWI.
Corsets use a lot of wire. When the US entered WWI in April 1917, all that metal was needed for the war effort. So the War Industries Board went public in mid-1917, and told American women to stop buying corsets. By sheer fluke, Warner Brothers Corset Co. had just purchased the patent for the bra. Needing something innovative to keep their business afloat, they immediately pushed into bra production. By the time metal rationing ended in late-1918, the bra had become the undergarment of choice.
It would take WWII and another metal shortage for corsets to disappear completely, but it was WWI that started it. Next time your girlfriend dresses up in a nice, sexy bra for you, remember to take a moment and thank Kaiser Wilhem for invading Belgium.
1. The Inventor of the Modern Bra Got Screwed Over (by her husband)
Although the sixties turned them into symbols of male oppression, the first bras were considered highly-liberating. Compared to strict Victorian corsets, they allowed women to move easily, work in factories (seriously, try constructing munitions while wearing a corset), and not faint every time they were in a warm room. So it’s ironic than an early symbol of female emancipation wound up failing to make its inventor any money.
The modern bra was first patented in the US in 1914 by Caresse Crosby. After getting fed up with her oversized corsets, Crosby got her maid to help her sew two pink handkerchiefs together with some ribbon. When she wore the result to a party, other women went mental. Crosby was able to dance freely, and looked like a natural woman instead of an armor-plated tank. Orders began to pour in from friends. Crosby set up a business.
Unfortunately, fate intervened in the shape of her husband. Just as the business was gathering steam, Mr. Crosby got fed up and forced his wife to sell her patent for $1,500. No sooner had she done so than the War Industries Board effectively banned corsets and the bra went supernova. Caresse’s rewards for liberating women’s breasts went unclaimed, all thanks to her miserly husband.