A Social History of the Bra

Posted on September 1, 2007 

A Social History of the Bra

The bra was invented by an engineer of German extraction called Onto Titzling in 1912. He was living in a New York boarding house, and one of his neighbours, a voluptuous opera singer called Swanhilda Olafson, complained that she needed a garment to hoist her vast bosom aloft every evening — so Titzling obliged, using some cotton, elastic and metal struts. Unfortunately, he failed to patent the device and, in the early 1930s, a Frenchman named Philippe de Brassière began making a suspiciously similar object. Titzling took him to court, but the unscrupulous Frenchman won the day. And that’s why the garment all the ladies are wearing is called a brassiere, not a titzling.

Bette Midler sang about this court case in the film Beaches, so obviously it’s true, isn’t it? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a total fabrication, based on a spoof 1971 history by Wallace Reyburn, and is just one of a thousand tales and myths that punctuate the history of the small double-dome of cloth that encases the female chest.

Credit for the first brassiere usually goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, a 19-year-old girl-about-Manhattan who, in 1910, bought a sheer evening gown for a party. The whalebone corset that was supposed to define her figure actually poked out of the plunging fabric. What was a girl to do? She and her maid dug two silk hankies out of a drawer, sewed them on to a length of pink ribbon, added some string and tucked her breasts in place. Girlfriends asked if she would make a similar device for them. Then somebody paid her a dollar to do so, and she took the hint.

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