views updated Jun 27 2018


A brassiere is a garment worn next to the skin with two shaped cups or pockets to hold female breast tissue; it is supported by a chest bandeau and generally two over-the-shoulder straps. It may have elastic, wire, padding, lace trim, and a variety of other parts. Strapless versions are also used on occasions where the shoulders are exposed. Specialized brassieres are made for holding breast prostheses of those with surgical removal of one or both breasts, in addition to the particular needs of maternity and nursing mothers. Brassiere styles are often dependent on the fashionable silhouette of the time: breast-flattening bands of the early 1920s, softly curved bias-cut styles of the 1930s, structured and circular stitched "torpedo" shapes of the 1940s and 1950s, unstructured and naturally shaped bras of the 1960s and 1970s, until the introduction of the Lycra-based knitted fabric sports bras of the 1980s. Any of those could be found in lingerie wardrobes, along with the ultimate in uplift and underwire by Wonderbra, Victoria's Secret, Warnaco, and others. It is not anatomically or physiologically necessary to support the breasts, but is strictly a fashionable or socially demanded item.

Breast coverings, in the form of tight bandeaus, have been worn throughout history and by many different ethnic groups of women, but the particularly designed and shoulder-supported garment we know today was a product of the nineteenth-century Dress Reform. United States patent #40,907 issued to Luman L. Chapman in 1863 may be the first recorded design in America, but is almost certainly not the first such garment produced for women wishing to substitute a more comfortable garment for their fashionable tight-laced corsets.

A Norman French word for a child's undershirt, the term "brassiere" was adopted in America about 1904 when it appeared in New York advertising copy of the DeBevoise Company to describe their latest bust supporter, thus giving it French cachet. Prior to that time,

the garments specifically designed for breast covering and support were designated variously as bust, bosom, or breast supporters or corsets. Occasionally they were patented as braces, waists, foundation garments, halters, or simply covers. The term "brassiere" became widespread in English-speaking nations within a few years, but the French have maintained their designation of soutien-gorge (literally "bosom supporter"). In the 1930s, when slang shortened words like pajamas to "pj's," brassieres became "bras." Custom-made in the nineteenth century, the brassiere made its entrance into mass production in the early twentieth century in the United States, England, western Europe, and other countries influenced by Western lifestyles.

The brassiere had early prototypes in undergarments worn by late eighteenth-century Western European women with the lightweight columnar fashions that emphasized the breasts and deemphasized the natural waist. Those unstructured pouchlike garments, fitted by draw-strings, and commonly held by shoulder straps, may have inspired the dressmakers and reformers who attempted to produce garments later in the nineteenth century. One function that corsets provided was to help disperse from the waist, the weight of the crinolines, petticoats, and skirts, which may have been as much as thirty-five pounds. A garment with shoulder straps could transfer this weight to the shoulders by hitching lower garments to hooks and tapes. Dress Reformers, including about half of the doctors in a survey of the mid-nineteenth-century medical literature, encouraged women to wear garments that would not impede their digestion, lung capacity, or reproductive system; the new designs maintained the fashionable shape without harming the physique.

Several dozen American entrepreneurs patented breast-supporting garments in the decades up to World War I; about half were women. Olivia Flynt, Marie Tucek, Caroline Newell, and Gabrielle Poix Yerkes were early patentees and producers, with dozens following in the twentieth century. In the undergarment industry, enterprising women found opportunities in design, production, and management not readily available to them in other clothing manufacture. Dr. Jeanne Walters patented rubber brassiere designs with weight-loss claims; and Herma Dozier, R.N., patented three maternity and nursing bras for her company Fancee Free. The latter employed adjustable flaps to allow nipple access without removing the supporting garment. By the end of World War II, the vast majority of fashion-conscious women in America and Europe were wearing brassieres. Western fashions introduced the brassiere to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

There have been many attributions about the invention of the brassiere. One oft-repeated story concerns Mary Phelps Jacob (a.k.a. Caresse Crosby), a self-described New York socialite who patented a bias-cut brassiere in 1914; it was neither first nor successful. Frenchwoman Herminie (Hermoinie) Cadolle set up a lingerie business in Argentina just as rubber fabric became available and parlayed her elastic insert brassieres (not unlike L. L. Chapman's 1863 design) into a fortune and eventually moved back to Paris, where her business survives in the early 2000s. Claims to her invention of the shoulder strap are misplaced. The Warner Corset Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, also professed invention, but can only declare innovation and patents for several excellent designs, mostly after 1890. The Gossard Company dominated the English market for many years, with many unique adaptations in brassieres. In fact, there were hundreds of innovators. Not all patented designs, but many found success in the marketplace as women demanded more comfort in their clothing and fashion moved away from the rigid silhouettes of the nineteenth century. In a changing society, women entered universities and work places in great numbers, they took part in sports like hiking, tennis and bicycling, and they drove cars, activities that demanded greater freedom of movement and lung capacity than allowed by restrictive corsets.

As the idea of the brassiere became popular, patterns for the home seamstress were available, but the intricacy of stitching required skills practiced by specialists. Dozens of small entrepreneurial firms entered the market to supply the growing demands for brassieres. Production could be mastered and as assembly lines using readily available components were set up in small quarters, the industry flourished. Designs were patented by the hundreds, along with specialized machinery for cutting, sewing, making fasteners, and even packaging as sales of brassieres increased. Special industries produced the rust-proof wires, hooks, fasteners, and straps in addition to the fabrics, elastics, lace trims, stitching machines, and molding units. Brassiere construction involves up to forty components per garment, using specialized machines for cutting and sewing. In early designs, chromium wire fasteners were the norm; these have been largely replaced by plastic components, which like straps are produced by specialized firms. Improvements in rubber and synthetic elastics have resulted in their almost universal use in brassieres. Fabric selection for brassieres has evolved from the firm coutil and twill weaves used in the nineteenth century to the fine cottons, embroidered polyester blends, delicate silks, fiberfill, and soft knits of the twenty-first century. The brassiere business gave opportunity to women in ownership, administration, design, and manufacturing not readily available in other fields. There were some self-regulatory aspects within the industry, particularly regarding nomenclature. What differentiated a bandeau from a brassiere was more than two inches of length below the breasts. Until war shortages created problems with supplies, there were few government regulations for work standards or for wages.

By the 1910s, retailers featured specialist "fitters" in departments devoted to corsets and brassieres, which did not have universal cup sizing until the early 1930s. Brassieres, like other items of clothing, were sewn in small production companies, often by sweated labor. Despite demands of complicated designs, sewers were expected to produce items of uniform style and size. The term "cup" was not used until 1916, and letter designation for cup size was first used about 1933 by S. H. Camp and Company to imply progression in volume of breast tissue to be replaced with their prostheses. The under-breast circumference or band dimension is one part of early twenty-first-century brassiere size, with the cup volume designated in letters AA thru I available in retail outlets. Introduction of the minimally shaped "training bra" in the 1950s opened the fashion door for countless adolescents.

Fabrics that could be sewn with flat-felled or bias-tape covered seams were used to ensure comfort to the wearer. In pre-1900 brassieres, linen, cotton broadcloth, and twill weaves were favored. "Whirlpool," or concentric, stitching shaped the bra structure of some designs after 1940. As man-made fibers were introduced, these were quickly adopted by the industry because of their properties of easy care. Since a brassiere must be laundered frequently, this was of great importance. Zippers were used in some designs, as well as Velcro, but these fasteners caused discomfort or caught on clothing and complicated laundering.

Small, medium, and large companies were making brassieres in America during the 1930s and 1940s. Some fell prey to shortages of material during World War II, others to changes in business practices in the drive for export markets. There were union problems, and in later decades challenges switching to computer-aided design. The need to supply and advertise to a nationwide market stretched some firms to the breaking point. Offshore production was initiated to save labor costs following the war, eroding influence of garment workers' unions. Introduction of self-service in lingerie departments was another cost-cutting measure, but did not stem the loss of declining brands. Individual brand-name manufacturers have been taken over by conglomerates, which resulted in fewer available designs and less attention paid to quality, in part due to manufacturing processes being moved offshore. Brassiere manufacturing companies like Kabo of Chicago and Kops of New York were in business from the 1890s until the mid-1960s. Many like G. M. Poix, Treo, Model, Dorothy Bickum, Van Raalte, and Lovable lasted fifty or more years, often run by successive family generations. Maiden Form (until 1948, when it changed to Maidenform) began production in 1922 as a direct competitor to the New York–based Boyshform Company, who made bandeau flatteners for the slim styles of the times. After being a leader in the industry and developing through their advertising campaigns one of the best recognized brand names in history, Maidenform continues eighty years later with a smaller market share. Familiar names like Olga, Bali, Exquisite Form, and Play-tex played important roles in the brassiere industry but are now owned by conglomerates.

Eroticism is associated with breasts and brassieres, and brassieres do play a role in the fetish and transvestite dressing by males; however, the garment was designed with the female shape in mind. One prominent promoter of eroticism with a twist of humor was Frederick's of Hollywood, who has been almost eclipsed in the early 2000s by the very market-savvy Victoria's Secret Company. The latter has parlayed lingerie into an art form, taking eroticism from the boudoir to the front parlor in an upward thrust of lace. Décolletage, whether natural or enhanced by padding, is emphasized with the underwired push-up brassiere and by silicone gel in the cups. The metallic wire in many brassieres has been replaced by flexible plastic, perhaps in an attempt to increase comfort and durability. Brassiere designs have been adapted over the decades to fashions of backless dresses, open to the waist in center front, or completely strapless. The Bleumette brassiere and other brands featured gummed cup-shaped supports to the breasts directly when both bandeaus and straps were eschewed.

In 1969, a planned demonstration by a group of feminists who protested the proceedings at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, to call attention to their cause resulted in the myth of bra-burning; however, no fire was ever lit, and participants claimed that the bra, high heels, cosmetics, and girdles thrown into the "freedom trash can" were to be a non-pyrotechnic display. The assembled press reported the incident in ambiguous terms, leading many to believe the fire had consumed the offending brassieres. A few more aggressive feminists urged the disposal of all bras; however the majority of American women clung to their familiar fashions, if not their personal comfort.

The elasticized knitted fabric bras introduced in the 1970s and 1980s are now widely worn by athletes and nonathletes alike as comfortable substitutes for the underwired wonders of this age. As female athletes doff their jerseys to reveal brand-name sports bras, few eyebrows are lifted. In the later decades of the twentieth century, the structured brassiere continued its popularity with the majority of women in the middle of the age spectrum, but the youngest and oldest have often either resisted or refused to wear them. Whether for reasons of comfort or personal choice, many women in the twenty-first century are choosing not to wear brassieres.

See alsoFasteners; Lingerie; Underwear .


Banner, Lois W. American Beauty: A Social History Through Two Centuries of the American Ideal, and the Image of Beautiful Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Boucher, Françoise, and Yvonne Deslandres. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Cunnington, Cecil Willette. The Perfect Lady. London: Max Parrish and Company, 1948.

——. Feminine Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century. London: Heinemann, 1955.

Cunnington, Cecil Willette, and Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.

Ecob, Helen Gilbert. The Well-Dressed Woman. New York: Fowler, 1982.

Ewing, Elizabeth. Underwear: A History. New York: Theater Arts Books, 1972.

——. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1978.

Farrell-Beck, Jane, and Colleen R. Grace. Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Flower, B. O. "The Next Step Forward; or Thoughts on the Movement for Rational Dress." The Arena 6 (1892): 635–644.

Flynt, Olivia. Manual of Underdressing for Women and Children. Boston: C. M. S. Twitchell, 1882.

Gersheim, Alison. Victorian and Edwardian Fashions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981.

Lane-Claypon, Janet E. Hygiene of Women and Children. London: Henry Frowde and Hodder and Stoughton, 1921.

Newton, S. M. Health. Art and Reason: Dress Reformers of the Nineteenth Century. London: John Murray, 1974.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume: From Ancient Mesopotamia through the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Steele, Valerie Fahnestock. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

——. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Treves, Frederick. Dress of the Period and Its Relations to Health. London: Hillman and Son, 1882.

Verbrugge, M. H. Able-Bodied Women: Personal and Social Change in Nineteenth Century Boston. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Vicinus, M., ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1973.

Woolson, Anna G., and C. Hastings, eds. Five Essays on Women's Health: Dress Reform, 1874. New York: Arno Press., Reprint, 1984.

Colleen Gau


views updated May 29 2018



Derived from the french word meaning upper arm, the brassiere is a mass-produced support undergarment worn by women that consists of two fabric cups attached to two side panels, a back panel, and shoulder straps (unless strapless) that fits snugly. They are sized according to a universal grading system first introduced by Ida Rosenthal, the founder of Maidenform, in 1928. Two measurements are crucial to determining bra size: the chest circumference below the underarm and the fullest part of the breast. Cup size is calculated from the difference between the two measurements. The greater the difference the larger the cup size. Brassieres support breasts, separate them, and give them a shape or form.

These undergarments are made of many different materials including cotton, rayon, silk, spandex, polyester, and lace. They are available in many styles from cups that come without any padding (and are quite sheer) to those that add significantly to the size and shape of the cup. A woman can alter her silhouette by simply purchasing a brassiere with cups that are designed to render a specific shape.


Prior to the advent of the modern bra, a term coined in 1937, corsets were the only support garments available. Originally fashioned with whalebones, the one-piece corset was made popular by Catherine de Medici's demand for slim-waisted court attendants during her husband's—King Henri II—reign in France in the 1550s. The corset's popularity was withstanding and lasted over 350 years, with whalebone being replaced by steel rods. The corset design changed to accommodate the reigning ideal figure, pushing bust and hips around according to the fashionable silhouette.

In the late nineteenth century, several precursors to the modern bra were developed. In 1875, a loose, unionsuit was manufactured by George Frost and George Phelps. During this period, corsets were lengthened to produce the fashionable figure type, the top of the corset dropped low, often not supporting or covering the breasts. As added support, fabric undergarments called bust bodices were worn over the corset to cover and shape the breasts (by pushing them together but not separating them), somewhat similar to the modern brassiere. In 1889, a Frenchwoman named Mme. Herminie Cadolle devised the a garment called the Bien-Etre (meaning well-being), which connected with sashes over the shoulders to the corset in back.

Early in the twentieth century, the need for a less obtrusive undergarment became necessary as the fashions changed. In 1913, the modern brassiere was born out of necessity when New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs' whalebone corset poked up above her low cut gown. Fashioned from silk hanker-chiefs and ribbons, the mechanism proved useful and Jacobs filed the first patent for a brassiere and began producing brassieres under the name Caresse Crosby. Jacobs sold the patent and business to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500.

Raw Materials

The raw materials gathered for the production of brassieres vary tremendously depending on the product. Some are all cotton, some are all polyester, some are combinations of natural and synthetics, and so forth. Most brassieres include an elastic material of some sort on the back panel that allows some expansion and movement of back muscles. Spandex, a modern synthetic fiber extensively processed from Malaysian tree sap, must be processed prior to the assembling of the brassiere because it is, in some products, the most important material in the brassiere. A closure of some sort (most often metal hooks and eyes) must be included on the brassiere unless it is an elastic sports brassiere which can be put on over the head. Cups, padding, and straps vary not only from manufacturer to manufacturer but by style.


The design process for developing a new brassiere style is an important part of the manufacturing process. Brassiere manufacturers, like other clothing manufacturers, must supply not just a functional item but one that appeals to a large enough segment of women that the products can be sold with a profit. Before a new product or product line is designed, the marketing and sales departments review data on the current line of products. They examine comments from retailers as to what they feel might sell well, female consumer attitudes in general and trends in women's purchasing habits. They may also talk to focus groups who offer their opinions on products and needs.

By the time this review is complete, the marketers and designers have decided on the next season's collection. Decisions are based on how the new styles will be positioned within the collection, special features, cut, sizing, production costs, market pricing, quality specifications, and when the new product will be launched publicly. These general specifications are essential for the designers and design engineers to use as guidelines once they leave that meeting.

Prototype drawings are made, pattern pieces are designed, and often the pattern pieces are devised using computerized programs. Components of the brassiere—cup top and bottom and side, central and back panels—render the shape. These components are cut out of cardboard using a computerized cutter. This prototype is assembled and is subject to important fine-tuning and modification. It is important to note that more styles and prototypes are created than the company intends to produce. After modifications, the appropriate prototypes are selected. Computer production of pattern is useful to size the pattern in order to fit different sizes of women.

Final selections are tested by laboratories to ensure quality, fit, sizing, etc. Then, the prototype is manufactured in the factory in some quantity and tested once again by everyone from designers to shop foremen to marketers. When all agree in the quality, fit, and market appeal, the brassiere is ready to be produced in quantity.

The Manufacturing

The methods for constructing brassieres vary from one company to the next. It is a product that is still pieced out in some plants, meaning that the sewing that connects all the components may be contracted out of the plant to smaller sewing operations. In addition, materials utilized in the construction of the brassiere affects the manufacturing method. For example, if an undergarment company utilizes spandex within the product, they may manufacture the material on premises. If a company uses cotton, it may be supplied from a manufacturer who makes the material based on their specifications.

Cutting out the components

  • 1 The components of the brassiere—the cup top and bottom (if seamed), the straps, and the central, side and back panels—must be cut out according to the pattern specifications residing in the computerized specifications. Many layers of fabric are cut out at a time using either a bandsaw-like shearing device or a more contemporary computer-controlled laser. The cups, panels, and straps are cut; kept together in stacks via style; and sent out to various locations to be sewn.


  • 2 The stacks may be sent to different parts of the factory or even off premises to piece workers who assemble the brassieres using industrial grade sewing machines. However, large operations send the pieces through on a line in which machines sew parts in quick succession. (Cups might be sewn onto a side panel, the parts move along and another piece is sewn on, etc.) In larger facilities, humans rarely sew anything onto the brassiere unless it is a peculiar or unusual design.

Closures and labels

  • 3 The brassiere, assembled a bit at a time as it moves through the machinery, is ready for the closures. Coated metal hooks and eyes are both sewn in by machine and heat processed or ironed into the two halves of the back panel. The label is usually machine-stitched into the back or side panel as well at this time.


  • 4 The completed brassieres are sent (either transported in a bin or on a line) to another location and sorted by style and folded (either by hand or machine depending on the size of the operation). Boxes into which many brassieres come arrive at the manufacturer completely flat. Machines must crease and fold the packages that are fed into the machine and a rectangular box is created. A worker called a picker puts a brassiere into the box, the box is closed, and then sent down a chute. A laser reads that the box is fully packed and ready to go to the holding area, awaiting transportation to the wholesaler.

Quality Control

Quality is controlled in all phases of the design and manufacture of the brassiere. First, experienced designers and design engineers understand the requirements of the wearer as well as the marketers and design with activities and cleaning requirements in mind. Second, a very important part is procuring fabrics and components (underwire, hooks and eyes, or buckles) that are durable. Testing of materials include assessing shrink-resistance, color-fastness and durability, shape-retention, stretch, manufacturing stability, and comfort. Companies work with suppliers in order to acquire new materials that provide service as well as value. In fact, some manufacturers have developed their own fabrics or underwire because all other similar support materials on the market were inferior. Third, prototypes are extensively examined by many members of the company and problems are discovered and solved when many are involved in the assessment of new products. An essential part of this is when the prototype moves from a single example to early manufacturing. Those involved in the manufacturing assist in solving the problems that can occur in the initial stages of manufacturing. Finally, manufacturers must offer consumers brassieres that fit well. In prototyping and in manufacturing, the brassieres are inspected and expected to be within 0.125 in (0.3175 cm) of the desired measurements (one French company requires that the brassiere must not deviate from the standard pattern more than 1 mm[0.0394 in]). If not, the brassiere is rejected as an inferior or second.


Fabric wastes are the primary byproducts of this manufacturing process. They may be recycled or discarded.

Where to Learn More


Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. London: Anchor Press, Ltd: 1987.

Fontanel, Beatrice. Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras. Translated by Willard Wood. Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Hawthorne, Rosemary. Bras: A Private View. Souvenir Press Ltd., 1993.


Dowling, Claudia Glenn. "Ooh-la-la! The Bra." Life (June 1989): 88.

Wadyka, Sally. "Bosom Buddies" Vogue (August 1994): 122.


Bali Company. (June 7, 1999).



views updated May 29 2018

brassière The word ‘brassière’ as a description for a woman's undergarment to support and shape the breasts was first used in American Vogue magazine in 1907. In French the word originally described a small silk or velvet jacket worn under a woman's robe from the late fourteenth century, but the term is rarely used in France to describe the modern brassière. The preferred term has always been soutien-gorge (bust support), and this first appeared in 1904. So it looks as if the term ‘brassière’ was an American invention.

Women had worn corsets for centuries prior to this; they were formed and laced to control the shape and dimensions of the breasts, waist, and hips. The fashionable silhouette, at any given date, was moulded by the corset, which was always the principal structural undergarment from c.1500. However, when the corset gradually shrank in length from c.1902–8, settling below the line of the breasts, a cover and/or support was needed for them. Essentially, this already existed in various forms such as camisole tops or corset covers in lightweight fabrics, but in 1889 there was a new garment called the ‘bust bodice’. This was worn above the corset; it was lightly boned, and laced at the front and back. By 1904 bust bodices were considered essential if only for modesty, and the health-conscious firm of Jaeger produced a ‘burst girdle’ in that year, possibly one of the earliest brassières. By 1913 it was possible to buy a ‘corset cover and brassière combined’, and in 1916 it was being reported that ‘French and American women all wear them and so must we; a modiste will insist on a brassière to support the figure and give it the proper up-to-date shape’.

These early examples were fairly light, insubstantial pieces of underwear, often just bands of fabric with only the most rudimentary shaping and support, akin to the American Caresse Crosby's two triangles of fabric attached to ribbon straps, which she invented to wear under an evening dress in 1913. She sold the idea to Warner Brothers, the corset firm founded in 1874, for $1500, and later claimed the credit for having invented the brassière. These early examples gave limited support, sizing was inaccurate, and the idea of separating the breasts and having a proper fitting and assessment of correct size came only in the 1930s when Warners devised A to D cup measurements.

Brassières could flatten the breasts, as they did in the 1920s when an androgynous silhouette was fashionable, or they could divide, enhance, and uplift them, as became increasingly common from the 1930s onwards. They were also hybridized, with brassière tops being added to corsets to form the corselette, or attached to petticoats, and so forth. Experiments led to strapless versions for evening wear. Stitching, padding, and underwiring of the cups could rectify apparent deficiencies of nature, just as ‘bust improvers’ had done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Much of the innovative work on the construction and sizing of brassières — or bras, as they tended to be called from the late 1930s — was American. The American film industry quickly recognized the potential of well-endowed actresses with breasts engineered into pointed uplift by padded, whorl-stitched, cone shaped bras, which also produced the required cleavage. The sweater girls of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Jane Russell and Lana Turner, influenced young women around the world and created demand for bras which would emphasize and uplift the breasts. Many surviving bras of this period seem to have a life of their own, with a rigidity of construction which explains the enhancing effect they could create. The reaction against this came in 1965, when Rudi Gernreich designed the ‘no-bra bra’, a lightweight, minimalist alternative which outlines the natural shape of the breast but no more. Ironically, it was only three years later, in 1968, that Gossard launched the Wonderbra, which fought back courageously for cover-girl curves. Created from twenty-six separate pieces, this was a lightly padded bra that separated and uplifted each breast to offer a décolletage of impressive grandeur with increased comfort for the wearer.

Improvements in manufacture, in the use of man-made fibres such as Lycra, and in marketing a constantly changing range of styles and colours, made underwear a fashion statement in its own right. This occurred against a background of feminist questioning of male exploitation of female sexuality. At the time of the ‘bra burning’ campaign of the 1970s, groups of young women decided to abandon bras altogether. This liberation of the body, although fine in principle, was less comfortable for larger, fuller-breasted women than for their slim, small-breasted sisters. Stretchy sports bras without hooks which could be pulled on over the head and gave light, natural support became an attractive compromise. More conventional women could select from ever wider ranges of size, style, and colour to suit their bodies and the changes in fashions worn over bras.

By the 1990s there were bras for every figure and circumstance, from pubescent teenagers to the elderly. The combined advertising power of contemporary personalities, such as the American singer Madonna's use of a designer corset and cone-shaped bra as a touring costume in the 1980s, top models promoting structural underwear such as the Wonderbra and the bustier (an elongated strapless bra), and fashions for sheer shirts, have reinvigorated the market for brassières in every size, colour, and construction. Less glamorous but equally important lines include diminisher bras for the overendowed, posture bras to reduce hunched shoulders a variety of styles for full figures which can be worn at night, and so forth. There are sports bras, nursing bras, bras designed to take prosthetic breasts for women who have undergone mastectomies. All this suggests that as an under-garment the brassière has become essential to the majority of the female population in the Western world. Despite this popularity, however, it is known that many women have never undergone a fitting for a bra and few know how to measure correctly in order to ensure that what they wear is the ultimate in comfort and support.

Valerie Cumming


Cartec, A. (1992). Underwear: the fashion history. Batsford.
Cunnington, C. W. and and P. (1981). The history of underclothes, (revised edition). Faber and Faber.
Ewing, E. (1971). Fashion in underwear. Batsford.
Probert, C. (1981). Lingerie in Vogue since 1910. Condé Nast.

See also clothes; female form.


views updated May 18 2018


A garment made to cover, contain, and support women's breasts, the brassiere has long been identified with femininity, female sexuality, and even female oppression. Invented during the early 1900s, when women were beginning to gain some independence, the brassiere, or bra, represented freedom from much more restrictive undergarments, such as tight corsets, a tightly fastened body suit designed to push up or flatten a woman's breasts or to hug her waist until her figure assumed an "hourglass" shape. By the second half of the century, the bra itself had come to represent restriction and many women rebelled against wearing it.

As the era of the stiff corset came to an end in the late nineteenth century, fashion designers, along with women themselves, began to seek alternative undergarments. In 1914 a young New York socialite named Polly Jacob (she later used the name Caresse Crosby) tied two handkerchiefs together with ribbon to make the first brassiere. She eventually sold the right to make the new garment to Warner Brothers Corset Company. At almost the same time in France, designer Paul Poiret (18791944) created a similar garment. These early bras were designed to flatten the breasts, since small breasts were fashionable at the time. By the end of the decade another New Yorker, Ida Cohen Rosenthal (18861973), had designed a new, more fitted brassiere, with cups. She started the Maidenform Company to manufacture and sell the new bra.

A larger bustline was popular during the 1930s, and designers introduced an "uplift" bra, with padding and extra reinforcement to help women maximize their figures. Padded bras became popular again during the 1950s, when big breasts were in style again. The increasingly casual style of the 1960s led to a "braless" look. For those too timid to give up bras altogether, there were soft, stretchy bras that combined the braless look with a little support. Going braless became a form of political statement among many in the women's rights movement, as many feminists rebelled against society's rules about how women were supposed to dress. At the 1968 Miss America contest, feminists (supporters of equal rights and treatment for women) protested male beauty standards by throwing curlers, makeup, and bras into a garbage can. Although no bras were burned, the media exaggerated the event, and the term "bra-burner" became a synonym for feminist.

The jogging craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s led many women back to bras for support. Two University of Vermont students, Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl, sewed two men's athletic supporters to elastic straps and created the first jogging bra. Soon jogging bras, or "sports bras," were designed so that they could be worn without a shirt. During the 1990s the exposure of cleavage, the depression between a woman's breasts, came back into style and another new type of bra was developed. Called the Wonderbra, this bra pushed the breasts up so that even small-breasted women could have a fashionable bustline.


Dowling, Claudia Glenn. "Ooh-la-la! The Bra." Life (June 1989): 8896.

Farrell-Beck, Jane. Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Hawthorne, Rosemary, and Mary Want. From Busk to Bra: A Survey of Women's Corsetry. Cincinnati, OH: Seven Hills Book Distributors, 1987.

[See also Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Corsets ; Volume 5, 19802003: Wonderbra ]


views updated May 18 2018

bras·siere / brəˈzi(ə)r/ • n. full form of bra.


views updated May 29 2018

brassiere XX. — F. brassière camisole, etc., f. bras arm (see BRACE1).