How World War I Helped Women Ditch the Corset
By Jessica Pearce Rotondi
via the History.com web site
Massive cultural shifts during and after World War I helped free women from confining roles—and the confining corsets that bound them to the previous age. The evolution of the bra re-shaped the image of what a woman could be, whether she was serving in the war effort, fighting for the right to vote, or dancing in a flapper-style dress at war’s end.
History of the Bra
“No one person invented the corset or the bra,” says Valerie Steele, Director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “They were developed in different places and many people took out patents over the years improving or changing their design.” Some of the earliest bras date back to Ancient Rome: “Mosaics from the villa Romano del Casals in Sicily show the strophium, a simple cloth breast binding,” says Judith Dolan, distinguished professor and head of design at the University of California at San Diego.
By 1500, corsets—tight, structured undergarments extending from below the chest to the hips—became the undergarment of choice for women in the middle and upper classes in much of Europe. The constricting corset would reign supreme until the 20th century, when women began to breathe easier thanks to the bra.
While a 600-year-old prototype of a bra was recently found in a castle in Austria, credit for inventing the first “modern” bra goes to French designer Herminie Cadolle, who cut a corset into two in 1869 and called it the “corselet gorge.” Cadolle’s creation was seen as a bit scandalous at the time. It would take world events—and a patent—for the bra to really take off.
American socialite Mary “Polly” Phelps Jacob patented the “brassiere” on November 3, 1914, the year World War I broke out in Europe. Filing for the patent under the pseudonym “Caresse Crosby,” she’d come up with the concept while dressing for a ball, when her uncomfortable corset poked through her dress, prompting her and her maid to sew together two handkerchiefs to offer more flexible support.
Her business never quite took off (though she’d go on to shake up the publishing world in Paris, printing the work of authors like Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, and James Joyce), and she sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for a paltry $1,500. By the time the United States joined World War I in 1917, the influence of European fashions and the changing role of women helped open the floodgates for women to ditch their corsets and embrace the bra.
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