The Story of Herminie Cadolle, Innovator of the Modern Bra

By Faith Duval –

Many of the works of vintage advertising art on our website were created to advertise lingerie, such as this gorgeous piece of vintage art created in 1937 for Cadolle:

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The company is named after its founder, Herminie Cadolle (1845–1926), who Life magazine called the inventor of the modern bra.

In fact, the bra had no single inventor. Many different people, all around the same time, had roughly the same idea – and Herminie Cadolle was among them.

Corsets had been briefly unpopular during the French Revolution of 1789, when they were associated with the aristocracy. But they soon returned to prominence as the political mood settled again. It would take another revolution to conclusively unseat the corset.

From the middle of the 19th century, gradually, the corset came under more and more criticism. Advocates for women’s rights and physicians highlighted its role in causing physical discomfort and health problems. Corsets also made it difficult to digest food, restricting women’s dietary choices.

Cadolle was a close friend of the insurrectionist Louise Michel, who participated in the Paris Commune of 1871. Fearing state repression after the murderous defeat of the Commune uprising, Cadolle fled for safety to Buenos Aires.

There, she opened a shop selling made-to-measure underwear – before returning home to Paris in 1889 and opening a shop on the Chaussée-d’Antin.

Cadolle’s attitude remained radical – Herminie saw the corset as an instrument of bourgeois oppression of women. As women entered public life more and more in the late 19th century, corset-wearing became impractical. Society was crying out for a more functional garment. And Cadolle was happy to assist.

At the 1889 grand exhibition, she first presented to the world the corselet gorge – so called because it was a corset divided in two. It was the embryo of the modern bra. The top part supported the breasts by means of shoulder straps, while the lower part was a corset for the waist.

It was certainly an innovation, and a revelation for women who had suffered in those restrictive corsets; Cadolle was also the first to use elastic in lingerie.

At the 1900 Grand Exhibition in Paris she treated the world to her le bien-être, ‘the well-being’, another corset divided in two. By 1905 its upper part, the bra, was being sold alone, called a soutien gorge, ‘support for the throat’ (bras in France are still called by this rather curious name!).

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Cadolle continued to work into the 1920s. Her efforts were spurred by the First World War, which saw women enter the factories when male workers left for the trenches. Comfort rather than beauty was paramount in those days, so the corset was out and the bra was in.

Interestingly, the need for steel in the war effort also encouraged women to give up their corsets – 28,000 tonnes of steel was gathered for the war in this way. New social attitudes grew out of the war and the 1920s saw the rise of the flappers – independent-spirited women with bobbed hair and flat busts, for whom Cadolle was happy to provide fitting and fashionable lingerie – including tubular camisoles and lace bandeaux.

She worked for royals, dancers, actresses — even the exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari (below) was among her customers — and bequeathed a business which still has a major role in lingerie today. Her work was continued by her daughters.

Though the bra’s origins are functional, couture has developed a rich artistry of the bra. And advertisers have followed suit. 1940s and 1950s advertisements in France represent the peak of advertising art, and the many pieces on our website are testament to that. Our collection of authentic vintage posters charts the history of couture and feminine style, and comprises retro wall art that can play a significant role in the preservation of tradition.

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