A brief history of the bra
I was recently invited by artist Rosalie Schweiker to give a talk to her bra research group, as part of an ongoing project to start a bra shop for large cup and plus sizes which “thrives on cheap humour, not overpriced sexism”. Here is a summary of what I covered in my talk. It’s a bit of a long post, but I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth it! I’d love to do the talk again – as I enjoy sharing all the fun snippets of information and archive discoveries I made along the way – so please get in touch if you’d like to book me for a spot of bra history.
The bra is one of the most complex garments that is worn today, due to considerations of fit/support and comfort, in addition to the overall design and style. Summing up over a century of developments in just 45 minutes was quite tricky, but I think I did a better job than the recent three minute video from Mode.com which wasn’t terribly historically accurate! My research was specifically concerning technological developments in the bra, so hopefully this angle adds a fresh perspective. I have condensed everything I’ve discovered into the key points for each decade, and then came up with a (totally subjective!) title that I think sums it all up.
Initially sold as ‘bust improvers’ or ‘breast supporters’, many of these garments were simply designed to cover the breasts when underbust corsets became fashionable, so that there was some coverage underneath sheer Edwardian blouses. The name brassiere first appeared in 1904 (see Uplift, p.18) and the supposed health benefits of this new underwear was advertised, as the freedom of movement and ability to breathe was greater than when wearing an old style (overbust) corset.
This was the decade when the brassiere became more than a passing fad and when the purpose of the garment became to mould the breasts to the latest fashionable shape. The monobosom look was popular and so there was no separation of the breasts. Brassieres were still sold and fitted in corsetry departments and, although you could probably still make one yourself, the benefits of buying one ready made (and altered to fit you) were promoted. Around this time lots of people patented brassiere designs and/or claimed to be the inventor of the bra.
Bandeau styles with ribbon straps were popular, and this is where we see the first of many features we still have in bras today – hook and eye fastenings. These were not always at the centre back though. Some fastened at the side or down the front as bras were a lot deeper than they are today (more like a modern ‘longline’). The first of many new fabrics, rayon, took the underwear market by storm as an affordable alternative to silk. Although we think of the entire 1920s as being about the flat-chested ‘boyish’ look, it’s worth noting that bra designers had started to move away from this by the end of the decade.
This is when the breasts started to be treated as two separate entities in bra design, with styles such as the famous Kestos providing delicately shaped cups and a new style that suited the flowing fashions of the era. In 1935, Warner officially marketed its A’lure Bra, shortening the word brassiere to bra, and then many other companies followed suit (see Uplift, p.73). Adjustable or elastic straps became more common and stretch fibre Lastex was introduced, giving underwear much more flexibility. Underwiring and graded cup sizes were first introduced in the US in the 30s, but didn’t make it over to the UK in a big way until after WW2.
Cup construction becomes more pointed and many different stitching techniques were trialled to create more uplift. Embellishment was less popular due to WW2 restrictions (including rationing and the Utility Clothing Scheme). Understandably, I found relatively few 1940s bras in the archives I visited during my Master’s research.
This was the era when bra manufacturers trialled pretty much everything they could think of! Underwiring became more common once the wartime restrictions had been lifted and easy care nylon bras were popular. Warner’s iconic ‘Merry Widow’* was named after the 1952 Lana Turner movie and still inspires lingerie today. Many different padding options were trialled by bra manufacturers – built in, removable and entirely separate, for use in any bra – and bras like the Peter Pan Hidden Treasure* pretty much stood up by themselves. A process called pre-forming (see photo above*) was developed to allow cups to become even more structured! Following on from ‘small’ and ‘medium’ cup bras, lettered cup sizes were introduced by many UK brands (but only A, B and C so far). Lycra was introduced in 1959, so things became even more comfortable in the decade that followed.
Adjustable stretch straps, like those on most 21st century bras, became the norm. The iconic Wonderbra* was first introduced in 1963, and the less glamorous but just as supportive Playtex ‘Cross Your Heart’ bra* followed in 1965. The structured look of the 50s continued until the late 1960s with bright youthful styles popular, even more so when printed patterns became possible on nylon. Heralding a return to softer shapes and fabrics, Janet Reger started her lingerie business in 1967. However… women didn’t burn their bras! See my blog post from January for details on what actually happened.
The last major new bra development took place in this decade – moulding. Before this, all bra cups had to be made from multiple pieces of fabric, or use darts/ruching. Now they could each be made from one piece of fabric with the shape heat moulded, allowing for very soft bras which gave the illusion that you weren’t wearing one under your blouse. This ‘natural’ bra-less look became increasingly popular, freeing up women who wanted to ditch their bras and remain fashionable but also providing less restrictive options for those who preferred support. Speaking of support, in 1977 the first sports bra was developed. Called the ‘Jogbra’, it was made out of two jockstraps! Standard bras were now available in the UK up to a DD cup.
Sports bras become increasingly popular and brands marketed multiple bra styles ‘for every occasion’. The Playtex ‘WOW’ bra* (With-Out-Wire) tackled the issue of uncomfortable underwiring, but can’t have been terribly successful as they don’t appear to have made them for long! A marketing campaign for Lycra in the 80s increased its popularity, and cotton became fashionable again though a similar marketing campaign which positioned it as a luxury fibre.
The underwear-as-outerwear trend which started in the 80s increased, necklines plunged and so push-up bras rose in popularity, especially when Kate Moss said that even she gets cleavage wearing one! Gossard’s UK licence for the Wonderbra name wasn’t renewed in 1994, so they launch their Ultrabra to compete with the original Wonderbra (which was now being made by Playtex). No one could escape this news, as billboards and TV screens across the UK were bombarded with both brands’ advertising. Microfibres were introduced in this decade (extremely fine synthetic fibres that allowed softer, more breathable fabrics to be produced from nylon and polyester), and helped make our underwear even softer. UK brands Agent Provocateur (1994) and Ultimo (1996) both launched.
By now, the moulding techniques of the 70s had been applied to foam, resulting in one-piece bra cups that created a perfectly smooth silhouette under t-shirts. Market saturation of these moulded plunge bras – revealing cleavage but concealing nipples – was reached in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The vast majority of bra options were now underwired, with even more cup sizes available on the high street. Wonderbra launched their Ultimate Strapless in 2009, which provided yet another alternative to underwiring with hand-shaped supports.
An ever increasing choice of band and cup sizes are now available online. Triumph launched their Magic Wire in 2014, using silicone support instead of underwiring. Sheer fabrics and bras with no padding have made a comeback, and there has been an increase in retro styling options, including soft bras with no underwire at all. Most of all, the search for the holy grail of all-day comfort continues!
*These bras were all part of the collection I amassed during my Master’s research and have now been donated to the LCF Archives. Do make an appointment to visit if you are interested in seeing them up close!
References: ‘Uplift: The Bra in America‘ by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau; and ‘An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality‘ by Jill Fields; and my own MA Dissertation ‘From Kestos to Ultrabra: Technological Changes to the Bra in the UK, 1930-1994‘ which is available in the LCF Library. All images, apart from the M&S bra, via Rosalie Schweiker.