Though the credit for inventing the modern brassiere goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, women have had the additional sartorial challenge of containing the breasts in order to ease movement since the dawn of time. We have wrapped and padded ourselves variously to suit the both the whims of fashion and the variety of size and shapes among women.
DeBevoise ad circa 1915
Early bras were thought of as promoting health, as well as offering "protection," (from what, we're no longer sure.) As usual, advertising played a large role in establishing womens need for this specialty undergarment.
In 1946, a film called "The Outlaw" was released starring an unknown actress named Jane Russell. Though it had been filmed five years earlier, producer Howard Hughes had a tough time getting the picture past the censorship board due to the way it portrayed the generous assets of the full-figured Russell. Hughes had a new bra designed for Russell, with an underwire that created structure independently of the straps.
The release of this film was a bit of a turning point in the consciousness of the male viewer.
What this did to the undergarment industry was that now, instead of concealing and controlling, (you know, for our health,) women's breasts were the main attraction, meant to be out front, practically on the attack, like a torpedo or bullet.
And oh yes, it's all about the male gaze.
In the 50s, the Maidenform ad campaign made quite an impression, though I wonder if many women saw these fantasies of being in their underwear in public as more of a nightmare.
Now in 2010 we have what's-her-name's secret, constantly reminding us about our standing on the "hotness" scale, and celebutantes bragging about their plastic surgery.
Being modestly endowed myself, all I need is a plain cotton sports bra and I'm good to go. I own two. Take that, advertisers.