The bra has come a long way, from being designed to flatten the bust in the 1920s, to pushing the breasts together and upwards using the infamous Wonderbra in the 1990s.
Due to different shapes and sizes of women’s breasts, it seems that the bra has been quite possibly one of the most difficult garments to have been engineered. It has been redesigned by men and women from all kinds of backgrounds, from dress makers, to home sewers to engineers!
So let’s dive right and see how the brassiere evolved from the 1920s through to the 1960s.
The bra came about as a direct result of the corset shortening during the early 1900s. The corset was in the process of morphing into a girdle and therefore provided zero support to the bust. In the absence of any other garment, women resorted to wearing bandeaus which were effectively a strip of fabric that was wrapped around the bust.
The fashion in the 1920s was androgynous and boyish, women’s curves were downplayed, which was helped by corsets becoming less curvaceous and the breasts being flattened by bandeaus.
Although bandeau ‘bras’ worked for women with small busts, women with larger busts would have struggled with the fashion and lack of support. These women wore products such as the Symington Side Lacer which did little more than flatten their busts.
Thankfully separate bra cups weren’t too far behind. In the early 20s, a woman named Ida Rosenthal opened a dress shop and called it Maidenform. She designed bras as accessories to improve the fit of her dresses, and in comparison to bandeaus, the emphasis shifted from minimising the breasts to uplifting and accentuating them. Maidenform can also be credited with realising that one bra would not fit two women with the same dress size, and made different bras sizes according to bust sizes.
The fashion for women in the 1930s returned to ‘feminine’ silhouettes with long form fitting, bias-cut dresses. Women no longer wanted to flatten their chests, instead they wanted to emphasise their busts to further accentuate their new silhouettes, as such new form fitting bras were in high demand.
Bra designers became incredibly innovative and added elastic, adjustable straps, padding for smaller busts and… sized cups! This is actually the era that the ‘lift and separate’ phrase came from. In 1932, Camp correlated the size and… um… ‘pendulouslness’ of a woman’s breast to letters of the alphabet, sizes A, B, C and D. Later on, adjustable bands were also introduced using multiple hook and eye positions.
Bras had became a major industry and became affordable for most women, and meant that women no longer needed to make their own versions at home. Major manufacturers in the 1930s included Triumph, Maidenform, Gossard, Spirella, Spencer, Twilfit, Camp and Symington.
The Second World War had a major impact on clothing. Women left their traditional role of housewife and helped with the war effort by transforming themselves into mechanics, engineers, factory workers and other roles previously filled by men.
Willson Goggles, an American firm that manufactured safety equipment for manual workers, invented the most ridiculous bra I have ever seen in my life, the “SAF-T-BRA”. It looked like two miniature hard hats joined by a strap and was designed to help women protect their breasts whilst on the factory floor. Someone clearly thought women would get their breasts caught in the machinery…
Military terminology began to creep into bra marketing. You may have heard of ‘torpedo bras’ or ‘bullet bras’? Well it all stems from WW2 marketing! The bullet bra was made famous by the Sweater Girl (think Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and other famous women who wore tight sweaters over pointy bras).
The underwire started to appear in the 1940s and was pioneered by Howard Hughes the airplane designer. Yes, you read that correctly, it blows my mind too. He engineered a new style of bra for the gorgeous Jane Russell in her movie, The Outlaw, so that her bust could be properly supported. After seeing Ms Russell in her new style of bra, women everywhere sought to recreate the look on themselves.
The 1950s were all about ‘accentuated glamour’, think big breasts, small waists and big hips. And if you didn’t have that shape naturally, not to worry, there were foundations for every need.
Long line bras were especially popular during this era as they were said to “slim the diaphragm, control and uplift.” They had uplifting cups (cathedral, bullet etc.) and boned support down to the middle waist. Paired with a girdle, the longline bra created a smooth silhouette.
Women with smaller breasts could rely on several contraptions to get the bust size and shape they desired. Rubber or foam ‘falsies’ were very popular as they could be inserted into the bra cups to pad them out. The inflatable bra was also an option for a while, although it was prone to bursting, leaving the wearer red faced!
Bras also became available without straps. This allowed for women to wear a different style of dress such as halter-necks, and strapless designs.
Although great advancements had been made to elasticating sections of the brassiere in the 50s, these sections often disintegrated rapidly. In the 60s, elastometrics transformed foundation garments with power net fabric and old elastic bra backs and straps were replaced by the newer Courtauld’s Spanzelle or Lycra fittings.
By 1964 Rudi Gernreich had designed the ‘no bra bra’ which was light, made of see through stretch netting and very simply shaped, but was only suitable for the small busted woman. It was effectively a bralet and came in sizes 32-36 with A and B cups. This new minimalist bra was a revolutionary departure from the heavy, torpedo-shaped bras of the 1950s, initiating a trend toward more natural shapes and soft, sheer fabrics.
This marked a change in attitudes towards body shapes and fashion. Although the older generation would have worn very traditional aforementioned undergarments with padding and boning, the younger generation was starting to wear what she wanted to wear, rather than what she was expected to wear.
What’s your favourite era of bra?