Today’s lesson is a bit of fun, and a subject close to my heart (and closer to womens’ hearts!) In the world of steampunk we see the corset over and over again. It has become quite the fashion accessory, in much the way we expose mechanical works, the corset has been exposed and styled to overtly display the fantasy of the genre. While the Victorian society was prudish and tight on the surface, steampunk is incredibly sexy, optimizing the ratio between vintage fashion and modern visual appeal. However, a fact many don’t know is that the modern brassiere has an ancestor dating back to the 19th century (and further).
Since time immemorial, women have attempted to support, restrain, and shape their bosoms. Cloth wrapping and rib mounted under support were the standard for centuries. Here is the west, both in Europe and North America, the corset became the method of choice, often attributed to Catherine de’ Medici–though this is reportedly without support Steampunk Corset. The female figure has been a linchpin of fashionable society, and since artificial augmentation is always simpler than cultivating a strong, shapely body (nevermind the incomplete knowledge of physiology…) they chose to tightly wrap and minimize the waist, and emphasize the bust and hips. However, there were many women who simply couldn’t bear the discomfort, and a few of them actually did something about it.
Skipping past some of the earlier advances and departures from traditional corsetry, appearing through the middle 19th century in response to health and comfort concerns (yes, proper corsets caused severe health problems! It is never a good idea to restrict internal dynamics; including breathing and intestinal function) and we will move straight to Herminie Cadolle in 1889. The French innovator took her patented design of a separate waist corset and bust support, called the “corselet gorge” (later to be known as le bien-être–”the well-being”) to the Great Exhibition of 1889. Shortly after the turn of the century, the top half was being sold separately under the still-used-in-France-but-who-cares-because-they’re-French name “soutien-gorge”. Madame Cadolle’s company is still in business today.
In the United States, circa 1893, a woman by the name of Marie Tucek patented something a bit more closely resembling a modern bra. It pocketed each breast separately, and had a metal plate underneath (a precursor to underwire) and was shoulder strap supported with hook-and-eye closure. Unfortunately, her business model never developed properly, and her peers and successors have left her but a shadow in history.
Shortly before the Great War, Mary Phelps Jacob was awarded a patent for the first brassiere recognizable by today’s standards. As the story goes, she needed a better undergarment than the obtrusive corset for an evening gown she was wearing, and so she fashioned together two handkerchiefs and some ribbon, and the idea grew from there. Her design was a smash hit that she went into business with, but soon found support to be below sustainable levels. She eventually sold the patent, and her successors and their competitors have since turned the bra into a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business.
So there you have it, folks. A brief history of the brassiere. There is certainly more to learn, and a book to help you in that venture is “Hoorah for the Bra: A Perky Peek at the History of the Brassiere”. You can, of course, scour the internet for all the information you could ever want as well. Go on an academic adventure, you will certainly come out of it a bit more knowledgeable.