From Oomph to Comfort: How the Modern-Day Bra Came to Be
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: iStock image / Altered by The Quint)

From Oomph to Comfort: How the Modern-Day Bra Came to Be

The two-cups-straps-and-a-back bra that was put together a hundred years ago by an American socialite, Mary Phelps – who had tired of wearing rib crushing corsets – is a pure bred western garment that has today replaced almost all other forms of traditional breast wear.

Mary hastily hand-sewed two silk kerchiefs with pink ribbons for straps. Orders poured in from friends so she patented her version but managed not much thereafter.

Warner bought the patent from Mary Phelps, and the rest is history. The World War had pushed up the demand for metal, and there just wasn’t enough to put supportive strips into corsets. Perhaps women also had had enough of bone crunching fits and were more than ready to embrace this new underwear which supported without suffocating. Warner made millions on a product that was new, but certainly not unprecedented.

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Bras for Every Season

The ancient Indian subcontinent let breasts be free without much ado, and ancient Rome let them hang naturally under loose robes. Kanchukis were worn as an unstitched length of cloth that could be bound around the breasts to give them support, desirous of the wearer’s comfort level. No constraining hooks or rings or adjusts there.

But since weather dictated the choice of apparel, humid areas had women going bra-less; Bengal being one such instance.

The traditional Bengali drape of the extremely fine humidity-friendly hand-spun and hand woven khadi-muslin sari ensured the modesty as well as comfort of the wearer. In the hotter parts of the country which needed protection from singeing, sleeved-fitted cholis (hand-sewn bustiers), short or long, supported the breasts. Hand stitched bodices of this kind were the bras of today, literally so; just more comfortable and equally, if not more beautiful, with their hand-sewn and embroidered embellishments – besides being much easier on the pocket too.

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Mary Phelps’s Bra Makes its Way to India

The modern-day drape of the sari and its accompanying blouse was introduced by Gyanadanandini Tagore, the forward looking and path breaking wife of Satyendranath Tagore – the first native Indian to have qualified for the Indian Civil Service – the older brother of the poet Rabindranath. Gyanadanandini played to the hilt her role as the wife of the first Indian civil servant, to much outrage from her family and society. But – and this must be mentioned here – to great support from her husband.

This required Mrs Tagore to socialise actively with the British whence the bra-less, blouse-less comfortable attire of a loosely draped fine sari underwent a change forever.

She introduced the now-prevalent drape and the accompanying blouse. An observant Rabindranath records that ‘cut pieces of silk from English tailoring shops along with bits and cheap lace were used to stitch blouses for women’.

All these developments were concurrent to Mary Phelps’s patent. Soon, Mary’s bra reached the shores of India and was welcomed by the likes of Gyanadanandini and others.

Move Over Sexy. We Want Comfort!

Bras made from woven fabric darted at the cups for a conical shape soon evolved into rounded cups. The tough post-war period encouraged women’s empowerment that brought with it changes in lifestyle, diet and nutrition. A gadget dependent system meant less exercise for the shoulder and the pectoral girdle, which in turn meant less muscular support for breasts. An incursion of preservative-infused-processed-food into kitchens ensured that the average breast size kept shooting up the world over. Sagging became a perennial headache.

Consequently, underwire bras helped create an oomphier cleavage for fashionably deeper necklines, that the non-wired versions with fuller cups could not.

Our breasts were finally realising how our feet felt in stilettos after twelve hours on the move.

Soon, the burn-the-bras cry rented the air but with not many bras being actually burnt. Equality and emancipation do not twine easily with a casting away of much needed support. Rather, a milestone moment presented itself thereafter as ‘Hello Boys’, an iconic advertising campaign run by Wonderbra for their racy maximiser. While women flocked to Wonderbra, men blamed the campaign in London for traffic accidents.

Bras now demand comfort and ease-back on the breasts.

From supporting garments in linen that were discovered in Austria in 600 AD and in Southern Italy where two sporty women are seen playing beach ball in a precursor to today’s sports bra, our bras too are straddling the spectrum: from oomph to comfort!

(A ‘bra doctor’ for 28 years, Swati Gautam is Founder-CEO of NecessitySwatiGautam, India’s first customised brand of Bras. She can be reached at This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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