Bras have existed since the Minoan civilization in 14th century BC for athletic events (the original sports bra). However, the current iteration of the booby-hammock we are used to wearing was developed in the 20th century. The first patent for a modern bra was issued in 1914 to 19-year-old socialite Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob), who, fed up with wearing an oppressively uncomfortable corset, sewed two handkerchiefs together before a ball so she could dance freely (which, if I can be so bold to speculate, probably involved a lot of unfortunate arm-dancing).
Crosby’s original patent looks strikingly similar to a silky halter top you might see Kylie Jenner rock at Coachella, proving that time really is a flat circle (at least in regards to fashion trends). In the the interim, our bras took on styles that varied wildly from chest-flattening bandeaus of the 1920s, which helped give flappers their boyish shape, to cone-shaped “bullet bras” of the 1950s which boosted the busts of film icons like Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe.
Today, 95% of women in Western countries regularly wear bras, supporting (you get it) a multibillion dollar industry. So, with all this innovation, how did we end up with the bra in it’s current state: Off-white, misshapen, underwire monstrosities that are the garment equivalent of a sad face emoji? I sat down with the Icon team to figure it out.
Kelsey: I don’t like bras. I am VERY team RAW BOOB and I go braless as much as I can. I have pretty big boobs so it’s noticeable when I’m not wearing a bra, but I don’t like wearing them. I like the look of a natural boob. If I do wear a bra I prefer very thin-strapped sports bras that just get me passable. There is the laziness factor too, bra shopping is a whole thing I just don’t have patience for.
Lauren: I wore a bra to bed all through high-school, and then these past three years as I’ve been gaining weight my boob size has gone up three sizes, so I’m almost a double D now. I love wearing a black lacy bra with a white v-neck t-shirt. Since I wore a bra to bed all through high-school my boobs are super perky, so I also like not wearing a bra because it looks really hot. I love bralettes and sports bras, but I can’t fit into a lot of bralettes because they are made for tiny boobs. I think my boobs actually make me feel the sexiest out of any part of my body because they are so prominent.
Maria: Piggy backing off of that, definitely LOVE my tits. When I first started developing, it was a lot easier to fit into traditional bra sizes so I wore underwire bras. They were fancy, they were complicated, they made me feel dope. But then as I started to gain weight, I couldn’t fit into those anymore and I realized my options were essentially awful. I found that there wasn’t really a market for women with really really large breasts. I totally mourned those bras. Now I just wear sports bras because I reached a point where I honestly don’t care. I’m on Team Sports Bra, I think they are so comfy and I don’t have to worry about it.
Kejal: I got boobs very late so I remember in my adolescence being really self-conscious about being super flat-chested. I had a little bit of body dysmorphia where I still thought I was really flat-chested but then people would say, “You have big boobs!” When I finally realized I had boobs I was really into wearing super sexy lacy push-up bras. I also slept in my bras for a while, mostly because I think it is comfortable. If I don’t wear a bra, they bounce, and kind of hurt and move to the side, so I like them strapped in. I am on Team Sports Bra, I really like spaghetti strap sports bras from Target, super comfortable.
Leigha: I played sports in high school so I always thought I had little tits. Then I remember showing up to a party wearing a red tank top and all my friends were like “Leigha, you have boooooobs!” Even in college I was so bad with sizing, I thought I was a B cup, like really small, and I remember when I finally went for a bra sizing they were like, “No, you are a 38C”. I was like “Oh Shit!” I was a whole size off.
Kejal: I wore the wrong bra size for years. Going through nursing, gaining weight, loosing weight, they change size so often that cup sizes almost feel obsolete to me.
Maria: It’s another quantitative thing about me that I don’t want to think about. There’s already enough I have to think about.
Leigha: Also I touch my boobs a lot in public.
Everyone: ME TOO!!!
Maria: As soon as I get home, the bra comes off. I love support, I live by that when I’m outside of the house, but as soon as I’m home I’m like, whatever, they can hang at my knees.
Kejal: I’m pants off, fresh sports bra on. It’s physically uncomfortable to go bra free.
Leigha: I felt really weird about not wearing a bra until I went to a nudist colony, and it was so freeing to be naked with everyone. That changed my whole perspective. Now I’m just like, Team Tops Off, everyone take your top off. It’s so freeing.
Lauren: I love the feeling when my boobs are free and all over the place. I love the jigglyness of it.
Monica: It hurts for me. It’s interesting, because a lot of you have talked about growing from smaller to larger, and I’m the complete opposite. I grew really fast, hated it, and was very self-conscious about it. I was that 14 year-old with massive boobs and I didn’t know how to deal with it because no one in my family has a large chest. It completely affected my growth and gave me scoliosis and other issues. So three years ago I had a breast reduction and that was the most empowering choice I ever made for myself. But because of that I can’t go braless because it’s not effective for my scarring. During and after the operation I had to wear a bra all the time, so I’ve just gotten used to that, but I can’t sleep in them, that’s the only exception. It’s so painful because of my scarring.
Because of the breast cancer history in my family, we have to take really good care of our chests, so there is nothing exciting or sexy to me about the idea of my boobs. I just don’t want to deal with them. The more controlled they are, the better. I’ll have bras that have lace on them and then I’ll just feel weird wearing them, even though they are really comfortable. It just doesn’t feel right. So it’s this weird point of contention with my femininity and my self-esteem, because if I could I would just get rid of them, but then I also know that’s not necessarily the choice I want to make for the rest of my life, and just trying to make those decisions is always the hardest part about defining my femininity.
My family has such a utilitarian approach to boobs. They have a function, and besides that there is no point in having them. I was just thinking about this regarding straps. When I was growing up, the only colors I owned were nude and white. There was nothing cute or sexy about it. The first time I bought a lace bra, my mom was like, “What’s that for? What’s the point of that? You are wearing it under your clothing, no one is going to see it.” So even with thin-strapped dresses, my mom was like, “You need to wear a bra that doesn’t have straps because you will see them” The idea that you see what’s under your clothing is such a negative thing and the point of your boobs is for having children and not for anything other than that. That also influences how you see your relationship with bras as well.
Chelsea: My boobs are really big as well, but I’ve never thought about getting a reduction. I feel like I was conditioned to feel like if you have big boobs there is no way in hell you can go braless. Like, that’s pornographic, that’s crazy. And I grew up with all these skinny girls that would just run around without their bras on and I was always super jealous of that because I could never do it. Underwire, to me, is so uncomfortable and I put up with it for so long. Recently, in the last year of so, I started dipping my toe into the world of going braless. I remember the first time I did it, I felt crazy. I was like, “Everyone is staring at me, I feel so uncomfortable. People are just watching my tits jiggle, this is so weird.” Then I was like, fuck that, I’m gonna do what I want. I think it looks good, and I’m not going to let myself talk myself out of it. So then I just started doing it more and more, and now I rarely ever wear a bra. When I was wearing bras, they were those bullshit, beyond double D letters. Some guy asks, “What size bra are you?” And you’re like “I’m a 38 J,” He’s like, “That’s not a thing”. There is such a weird societal thing around the cup sizes as well. I never really felt comfortable wearing bras and it’s just so expensive. Every time I wear one now I’m like, “Get it off of me!!!”
When I got my nipples pierced, I did have to start wearing bralettes so I also feel the bralette struggle for big chested girls, it’s so annoying.
Maria: I’ve given up on hiding the nipple.
Chelsea: I think the nipple is so sexy, I love seeing nipple through dresses or shirts.
Kejal: I like seeing other people’s nipples but I get self-conscious about my own.
Maria: For me it depends on the environment. I feel like we are so lucky to be in a work space where I honestly don’t feel anxious about my nipples. But as much as I love my boobs, still in public, like if I’m on the bus or the train, and I feel like I’m surrounded by men, I definitely feel this subconscious thing to be aware of how erect my nipples are.
Chelsea: I don’t know what happened to cause me not to care about it, but I had a conscious shift. I started hanging out with a lot more women who were so unapologetic about it which made me more unapologetic about it. I got my nipples pierced because I wanted more prominent nipples. My areola is pretty big and my nipple is pretty small and when you get it pierced it raises the nipple so I am constantly hard. My nipples are always erect, and I love it. It doesn’t bother me when I’m in public.
Miranda: When I was a teenager I developed late, around 17, and all of a sudden I was a D cup. At that time I really liked push-up bras, and cleavage, but in the last couple of years I don’t really like how that looks on me anymore. I’ve started wearing bralettes, or a bandeau with straps because I think they are really cute, and I sleep in a sports bra.
Kelly: I only every wore padded, underwire bras because of that conditioning mentioned earlier. Having to perform your femininity. And it wasn’t until I came more into my sexuality that I was like, this is not for me. Even so, I don’t know when I stopped wearing bras, but today, I had to ask you guys, can I pull this dress off without a bra? And it’s not like this is the first time I haven’t worn a bra, but it’s like you have to still verify it with someone you trust. I only really wear a bra now if I know it’s going to be seen, for fun.
Chelsea: I also feel like there is a huge cultural shift from the early 2000s when we were all coming into our own. It was such a weird, waxed, pop-star waxed, mentality. And now, I feel like the conversation has shifted about what is acceptable for women, it’s almost like a 70s resurgence.
Kejal: I always talk about culture as a pendulum, and you have the 60s and 70s on one side, where women were burning their bras, and people were embracing their bodies. Very crunchy and natural. And the reaction to that was the 80s and 90s, where everything was super artificial, not a hair out of place. And now we are swinging back to that, in all aspects of culture. The way we talk about our bodies and our body hair, but also in clothing and food and the maker movement. Everything is getting back to the homemade, real, and authentic.
Maria: I feel like I’m still stumbling in the direction of full comfort. It’s a constant battle, some days I feel dope, other days I feel like a trash can. And not even a cool trashcan from Ikea.
Kejal: Good talk, I feel like we’ve really full explored this topic.
Maria: I felt very ~*supported*~