Most cultures have enhanced the penis and breasts in one way or another, sometimes in extremely bizarre ways. Among New Guinea peoples, men wrap their todgers in eighteen-inch-long sheaths to give the appearance of a constant hard-on. But no body part has received as modification, and all round attention, as female breasts.
Throughout history, the female bosom has gone in and out of favour and in and out of public view. Around 2000 BC, Minoan women on the Greek isle of Crete wore “bra bands” that lifted their bare breasts entirely out of their garments.
The Minoan bra band was history’s first bust enhancement of its kind.
Roman women in the fourth and fifth centuries BC wore simple, sensuous, draped tunics, tied at the waist with cord. The Romans made no attempt to enhance the breast to prominence or to re-contour it by artificial means. It appears that the Romans regarded large breasts as comical or characteristic of older women.
Exceptions were made for female athletes, for women who had physically demanding jobs or women with overdeveloped breasts. These women contained their “rack” in a breast band of soft beaten leather, a mamillare, which tied in the back with leather straps. An ancient mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale shows two women, perhaps jugglers, in outfits that look exactly like modern bikinis. This Roman garment, meant merely to contain a full bosom, is history’s first brassiere.
Most women did not wear this kind of bra. In the male oriented classical world, many Greek and Roman wives, and most virgins, strapped on a breast band to minimise their bust size. A decent woman was not supposed to draw attention to her most obvious erotic zone. Men did not want the daily distraction, and husbands and fathers did not want other men staring at their wives and daughters.
The wonderful Martial, the Roman poet, wrote of the perfect breast “as not overflowing one hand”
Downsizing the bosom by use of a breast band reached new heights of popularity during the early tears of Christianity. An edict from the Holy Roman Empire dated 1370 stated:
No woman will support the bust by disposition of a blouse or tightened dress.
It was recommended that women conceal their breasts as much as possible, as large breasts were seen as indecent by men, in an attempt to keep themselves virtuous. Even then body shape played a large part in how men viewed women, as Protestant reformer Martin Luther states in Table talk (1566)
Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and wide hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon to keep house and raise children.
The Jesuit traveller, Teilhard de Chardin writes of the Georgian and Circaassian women “of having the most beautiful breasts in the world, and are so jealous of their small but firm contours that they refuse to nourish their children in the normal way”.
”The formulas for reducing and firming up the breasts are countless” noted Dr Auguste Cabanes, a 19th century medical historian, citing a French handbook from 1544, the Bastiment des recepte.
To make small breasts remain in that state and to reduce the size of large ones, take the main viscera (heart, liver, spleen and lungs) of a hare, mince them and mix with an equal part of ordinary honey. Apply this as a poultice to the breasts and surrounding areas and renew the application when dry.
The very first modern bra was introduced to the ladies of New York by Mary Phelps Jacob (1891 -1970), a prominent socialite.Her primary concern was not comfort, bearing in mind corsets were still in vogue, but appearance. In 1913, in preparing to go to a swanky ball, she decided to buy an expensive evening gown. The sheer, thin fabric revealed the rigid lumps and bumps of her corset, so with the help of her maid she put together a bra made from two white handkerchiefs, a piece of pink ribbon and a piece of cord.
Female friends who admired this new device later received one as a gift. This trend snowballed and soon Mary Jacob was making dozens of bras, but not for money. It was a letter from a total stranger, containing a dollar bill and a request for “one of your contraptions” that prompted her to patent her design. She then went into business with some of her friends and produced several hundred of these new fangled titty holders; but sadly her marketing skills proved rather poor and the venture soon came to a halt.
The story does not end there though. A few months later whilst at a society event she was introduced to a man from the Warner Brothers Corset Company and she sold the patent for fifteen hundred dollars. In hindsight, perhaps not the greatest piece of business ever done, as bra manufacture is now a multibillion-dollar industry.