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Brassiere

Q From Grahame Gould: A page at snopes.com gives some insight into the origins of the word brassiere and related issues. As you are the one source I implicitly trust on matters relating to etymology etc, and because your reporting is always interesting, I desire to see an article on same by you.

A You’re very kind! I’m not well informed about the history of women’s underwear, and so can’t say anything much about the details of the evolution of the garment presented in the article. However, I can say something about the history of the word itself.

As the piece says, one problem with tracing its evolution is that brassière has been used in French for several centuries, at first for a soldier’s arm guard or shield (it derives ultimately from bras, arm). Later, it became a term for a military breast plate, and later still for a type of women’s corset. As an aside on the way words can shift in meaning over time and between languages, a brassière in modern French most commonly refers to a baby’s vest (in the British sense of an undershirt) or to a lifebelt, while the usual word for a bra in that language is soutien-gorge, literally a bosom support.

This last name seems to have been bestowed by Herminie Cadolle, who marketed the first type recognisable as its modern form in France in 1905. Though the early history is somewhat confused and open to conflicting claims, the first American patent was issued in 1914 to Mary Phelps Jacob (so it is sometimes said that the bra is 90 years old this year). If you have heard a story about its creation by a New York garment maker named Otto Titzling, don’t believe a word of it — it was a hoax perpetrated by Wallace Reyburn in 1971 in a book entitled Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra.

Its early history suggests that the word ought to appear in English in the second decade of the twentieth century, and the Oxford English Dictionary indeed dates its first example of the word brassiere to 1911. However, I’ve been able to track down large numbers of examples of the term in the years before this (it became especially common in advertisements in American newspapers from about 1907 onwards), though this was a direct borrowing of the then usual French term for a bust corset. For example, this appeared in the Syracuse, New York Evening Herald in March 1893: “Still of course the short waisted gowns mean short waisted corsets and those ladies who wish to be in the real absolute fashion are adopting for evening wear the six inch straight boned band or brassiere which Sarah Bernhardt made a necessity with her directoire gowns.”

The abbreviation bra, by the way, is recorded from the mid-1930s, though an earlier abbreviation was bras, which — despite its apparent plural form — was a singular noun.

Page created 21 Aug. 2004

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Last modified: 21 August 2004.