As one would expect, you won’t find a history of this particular female accessory without an accompanying explanation of shifting views and perspectives of the female form during various time periods. Even though they didn’t necessarily perform the same function as today’s bra, there have been similar garments noted throughout history ever since the Minoan Civilization that thrived in the 1300s B.C. Then there are other garments–such as the corset–that not only provided support but actually lifted the breasts into a more perky position (and constricted them more severely). This phenomenon began in the 1300s A.D. and lasted throughout the nineteenth century. That’s when the bra became the standard method of support for two of the most talked about parts of the female body.
The ancient world had a variety of customs depending on where one lived. In Egypt, most women wore nothing over their torso. They certainly weren’t modest about the female body by today’s standards. In India, you can find examples of women wearing something that bears similarity to today’s bra. It was perhaps Greece that made this type of garment a bit more mainstream, as art from the time period seems to exemplify.
In one of the greatest examples of changing perspectives from one era to another, the denizens of ancient Rome considered large breasts laughable at best. They weren’t regarded with the appeal. This is why adolescent girls would wear a restrictive “breast band” in order to limit the size of breasts during development. Whether or not this actually worked is surely up for debate. This is in stark contrast to the modern age since many men in developed nations seem to consider size a matter of import (when in public, that is. Surveys seem to indicate the matter isn’t nearly as important as many might expect).
We know that some women during the early Middle Ages wore garments to support their breasts, but it seems they were the exceptions. As time dragged on, these kinds of garments became more common and certainly more fashionable, especially among the upper classes. When the Renaissance finally unfolded, support became much more routine, as did management. Breasts were certainly becoming more sexualized by this time period, and firm breasts were desirable. This is why the wealthy generally handed their children over to wet nurses when it came time to breastfeed instead of taking care of the business at hand themselves.
It was also during the Renaissance that clothing developed to compress and push the breasts upward in order to keep the torso as flat as possible. Corsets and tight-laced garments were often used. This evolved further during the Victorian Age, when the female form, in general, seemed more compressed by clothing. They tightlaced the waist, and used corsets to accentuate the breasts, but they were not exposed.
The bra as it is known today came to be in part because health professionals worried about the effects of constraining clothing, and a movement helped spur a change in the way people viewed traditional clothing of the past. Although during the 20th century the female figure is now less encumbered by clothing and more sexualized because of past social movements on either side of the spectrum, we unfortunately still blame a variety of sexual violence towards women on the way they dress–even though that has nothing to do with when or why these acts are committed in the first place.