A brassiere (pronounced UK: /ˈbræzɪər/, US: /brəˈzɪər/; commonly referred to as a bra /ˈbrɑː/) is a woman's undergarment that supports the breasts. The primary purpose of a bra is to enhance the wearer's comfort by supporting her breasts, but women also wear bras to attract attention, to minimize attention, and for fashion reasons.
Women sometimes wear bras to conform to informal or formal social norms such as a business dress code. In Western countries, it is estimated that from 75% to 90% of women wear a bra. A minority do not wear a bra, sometimes for health or comfort reasons, or because they believe they don't need one. Some garments, such as camisoles, tank tops and backless dresses, have built-in breast support, alleviating the need to wear a separate bra.
Manufacturers' standards and sizes vary widely, making it difficult for women to find a bra that fits correctly. Bra-measurement methods vary, and even professional bra fitters can disagree on the correct size for the same woman. Women's breasts vary widely in size and shape; most are asymmetric to a degree and can change from month to month depending on the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or weight gain or loss. As a result, from 75–85% of women wear an incorrect bra size.
The bra has become a fashion garment with sometimes erotic attributes and a feminine icon or symbol with cultural significance beyond its primary function of supporting breasts. Some feminists consider the brassiere a symbol of the repression of women's bodies. Culturally, when a young girl gets her first bra, it may be seen as a rite of passage and symbolic of her coming of age.
The term "brassiere" was first used in the English language in 1893. It gained wider acceptance when the DeBevoise Company invoked the cachet of the French word “brassiere” in 1904 in its advertising to describe their latest bust supporter. That product and other early versions of the brassiere resembled a camisole stiffened with boning. Vogue magazine first used the term in 1907, and by 1911 the word had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. On 13 November 1914, the newly formed U.S. patent category for "brassieres" was inaugurated with a patent issued to Mary Phelps Jacob. In the 1930s, "brassiere" was gradually shortened to "bra."
In the French language, the term for brassière is soutien-gorge (literally "throat-support"). In French, gorge (throat) was a common euphemism for the breast. This dates back to the garment developed by Herminie Cadolle in 1905. The French word brassière refers to a child's undershirt, underbodice or harness. The word brassière derives from bracière, an Old French word meaning "arm protector" and referring to military uniforms (bras in French means "arm"). This later became used for a military breast plate, and later for a type of woman's corset.
In the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, both soutien-gorge and brassière are used interchangeably. The Portuguese word for bra is sutiã, while the Spanish use the word sujetador (from sujetar, to hold). The Germans, Swedes, Danes and Dutch all use the acronym "BH" which means, respectively, büstenhalter, bysthållare, brysteholdere and bustehouder (bust-holder). In Esperanto, the bra is called a mamzono (breast-belt). Despite the large number of nicknames for breasts themselves, there are only a couple of nicknames for bras, including "over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder" and "upper-decker flopper-stopper"; both of these nicknames are somewhat misleading as to the function of brassieres, and may contribute to the number of women who wear an incorrect size.
Throughout recorded history, women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, or elevate their breasts. Brassiere or bikini-like garments are depicted on some female athletes in the 14th century BC during the Minoan civilization era. Similar functionality was achieved by both outerwear and underwear. In China during the Ming Dynasty a form of foundation cloth complete with cups and straps drawn over shoulders and tied to the girth seam at the lower back called a dudou (literally 'belly cover') was in vogue among rich women. Popularity continued into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In English they were known as "stomach protectors" or "tummy covers". Primitive iterations of a brassiere are depicted in early Roman art in the ruins of Pompeii. These depictions date back to as early as 62 AD.
Bras were also worn in the 15th century, since stays were worn primarily to achieve a specific silhouette instead of alteraing the shape of the body or supporting the breasts. As fads changed and the stays tightened or loosened, lengthened or shortened, the need for bra-like undergarments also fluctuated, but they appear to have vanished by the 18th century.[28 ]
In the latter part of the 19th century, clothing designers began experimenting with various alternatives to the corset, trying things like splitting the corset into multiple parts: a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso, and devices that supported the breasts around the upper ribcage and from over the shoulder (or, as the Wikipedia article mistakenly surmises, "suspended the breasts from the shoulder for the upper torso").
Garments which more closely resembling contemporary bras emerged by the early 20th century, although large-scale commercial production did not occur until the 1930s. With metal shortages, World War II encouraged the end of the corset. By the time the war ended, most fashion-conscious women in Europe and North America were wearing brassieres. From there the brassiere was adopted by women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Like other clothing, brassieres were initially sewn by small production companies and supplied to various retailers. The term “cup” was not used to describe bras until 1916, and manufacturers relied on stretchable cups to accommodate different sized breasts.:73 Women with larger or pendulous breasts had the choice of long-line bras, built-up backs, wedge-shaped inserts between the cups, wider straps, power Lastex, firm bands under the cup, and even light boning.
In October 1932, the S.H. Camp and Company correlated the size and pendulousness of a woman's breasts to letters of the alphabet, A through D. Camp's advertising featured letter-labeled profiles of breasts in the February 1933 issue of Corset and Underwear Review. In 1937, Warner began to feature cup sizing in its products. Adjustable bands were introduced using multiple eye and hook positions in the 1930s.
Since then, bras have replaced corsets and bra manufacture and sale has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Over time, the emphasis on bras has largely shifted from functionality to fashion.
There is an urban legend that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling ("tit sling") who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere ("fill up the brassiere"). This originated with the 1971 book Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra and was propagated in a comedic song from the movie Beaches.
In ancient Egypt, women were generally bare breasted. The most common items of female attire were the skirt and the sheath dress, also described as a tunic or kalasiris, a rectangular piece of cloth that was folded once and sewn down the edge to make a tube. The kalasiris might cover one or both shoulders or be worn with shoulder straps. While the top could reach anywhere from below the breast to the neck, the bottom hem generally touched the ankles. A variant was a single cross strap, partially over the left breast. The shorter kalasiris was mostly worn by common women or slaves, to be more comfortable when working.
Although majority of female figures in ancient Indian sculptures are devoid of a blouse, there are several instances of ancient Indian women wearing brassieres. The first historical reference to brassieres in India is found during the rule of King Harshavardhana (1st century AD). Sewn brassieres and blouses were very much in vogue during the Vijayanagara empire and the cities brimmed with tailors who specialized in tight fitting of these garments. The half-sleeved tight bodice or kanchuka figures prominently in the literature of the period, especially Basavapurana (1237 AD), which says kanchukas were worn by young girls as well.
Wearing a specialized garment designed to restrain a woman's breasts may date back to ancient Greece. Wall paintings in Crete, the centre of the Minoan civilization, show what has been described as a 'bikini', apparently a woman performing in athletics. Similar depictions have been found in ruins from 4th Century Sicily at the Villa Romana del Casale.
Minoan women on the island of Crete 3,000 years ago apparently wore garments that partially supported and also revealed their bare breasts; the best known example of this style is the Snake Goddess. Their clothing look somewhat like modern fitted and laced corsets or a corselette. The support device was worn outside other clothing and supported and exposed the breasts, pushing them upwards and making them more visible. The succeeding Mycenaean civilization emphasized the breast, which had a special cultural and religious significance.
Women in Classical Greece are often depicted loosely draped in diaphanous garments, or with one breast exposed. Women wore an apodesmos (later stethodesmos or mastodeton), a band of wool or linen that was wrapped across the breasts that was tied or pinned at the back.
A belt could also be fastened over a simple tunic-like garment or undergarment, just below the breasts or over the breasts. When the apodesmos was worn under the breasts, it accentuated them. Another word for a breast-band or belt was strophion. However, the most famous depiction of women exercising in Sparta, by Degas shows the women wearing only loincloths. The basic item of classical Greek costume was the peplos, later the chiton (two rectangular pieces of cloth partially sewn together on both sides, with a 12" to 15" overfold or apotygma), which evolved into the chemise, the commonest item of under clothing worn by men and women for hundreds of years, also variously known as a smock or shift. In Sparta, women usually wore the chiton completely open on the left side.
Roman culture emphasised breasts less than the Greeks. Roman men and women wore a loose flowing tunica, sometimes with a girdle, and an outer cloak (palla). Women sometimes wore a band of cloth or leather (strophium or mamillare) to support the breasts. Younger women wore a fascia, a band of cloth, over the breast to restrict their growth, or a mamillare to conceal larger breasts. Roman dress was one step closer to the later Empire Gown, being gathered slightly under the bust, with no waist.
n China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), a form of foundation cloth complete with cups and straps drawn over the shoulders and tied to the girth seam at the lower back called a dudou (literally 'belly cover') was in vogue among rich women. While they first arose in the Ming Dynasty, they were also common in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).
It was thought until recently that in the Middle Ages it was exceptional for women to restrict or support their breasts, and if they did, they probably used something like a cloth binder, as evidence suggests in descriptions of the time. A widely quoted statement is that an edict of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire, dated 1370 states, "No woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or by tightened dress" (however, an exact source has not been located). By the time of Charles VII of France (1403–1461), a gauze drape was often used over the bust.However, the recent discovery of very modern-looking bras from the late 15th century in Austria indicate that perhaps medieval women are due more credit for their creativity than we have given them. Because they are made of linen, these particular specimen suffered greatly from the test of time, but the fact that they survived at all is somewhat miraculous. The existence of these undergarments indicates that early stays were not necessarily worn as tight as originally thought, nor were they necessarily as supportive, and that their function may have been more for smoothing the outer expensive fabric of a gown than anything.
Generally, in the Middle Ages the breasts were minimized in dresses with straight bodices, full skirts and high necklines, designed primarily for function rather than emphasis on form, especially in the lower classes. Some sources say late medieval dress bodices were fitted precisely and snuggly to the body and functioned as breast support; depictions of women in 14th and 15th century art show a high, rounded breast silhouette, a look which is not possible without support. The 15th century ideal form was small breasted and full figured, symbolizing abundance of fertility. By the time of the Renaissance, décolletage became very fashionable. There was some status to firm breasts in the upper classes, and to maintain this, noble women did not breastfeed, instead hiring wet nurses for their infants. Among the wealthier classes, the corset was beginning to appear by the mid-15th century. Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589, wife of King Henry II of France) is widely, and wrongly, blamed for the corset. She was reported to have prohibited wide waists at court in the 1550s, legend suggesting she made them wear steel framework corsets
Elaborate constraints placed on women's figures over the years were not universal. Corsetry made it virtually impossible to do heavy work, so simpler functional garments were worn by women who worked inside or outside the home. Support for the breasts was often provided by a simple tie under the breast line, in the bodice.
Renaissance and 18th century EuropeEdit
Early corsets of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries provided all the breast support a woman needed. The ideal form was a conical torso, a silhouette which pushed up the breasts and often flattened them a great deal.
The only period in which breasts were somewhat liberated was after the French Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, during which time any garment associated with the aristocracy was frowned upon, including corsets. With the degree of inspiration drawn from ancient Greece, early revolutionary fashions saw the breasts often supported by a tie below the bust, or perhaps a band of fabric not unlike the apodesmos. There is some evidence that some women even displayed their breasts openly. The short stay, a garment that looks surprisingly like a modern brassiere, was developed initially for women with larger breasts who could not sport the fashions of flimsy muslin and empire waist (or "regency") dresses without some assistance, though those with a desire for more serious figure control continued to wear longer corsets.
19th century Europe and Victorian eraEdit
Short stays grew longer again around 1820, when the fashionable waistline drifted downward with wide waistbands from below the breasts to something closer to a natural one, which was often accented by a belt, and skirts became much stiffer and fuller. These changes meant that corsetting of the upper torso became a necessity for an attractive silhouette but also both support and weight distribution of the gowns.
The 1830s saw the waistline return to its natural place, where it would stay (with a few modifications, such as the bodice which tapered to a long point in front that was fashionable in the 1840s) for more than 40 years, when the narrowing of skirts on the sides and in front and the advent of the bustle necessitated longer and lower corsets to maintain the slender silhouette. Corsets were heavily boned with whalebone or steel, and larger breasts were minimized throughout the era for the sake of a lithe and lissom torso, while smaller breasts were simply incorporated into the slope-shoulder wasp-waist silhouette. As a stark contrast, the Artistic Dress Movement eschewed tight corsets and bustles in favor of styles based loosely on medieval fashions, and breasts often went unbound.
In the 1880s and 1890s corsets grew shorter again, and larger busts became fashionable with a new S-shaped silhouette and fuller hips.
Fitting a BraEdit
See main article: Bra Fit
Statistics indicate that anywhere between 60-80% of women wear the wrong size. Wearing the wrong size bra can impact a woman's health and contribute to not only superficial temporary discomfort such as red marks, chafing, and shoulder pain but also more serious complaints such as bad posture and chronic back pain.
Signs of Poor FitEdit
The most common signs of a badly fitted bra include:
- The bra band rides up in the back instead of sitting in a straight line, and creates bulges of flesh around the band, indicating that the band size is too big.
- The bra rises on the bust when the wearer raises her arms and requires readjustment, showing breast tissue ("underboob") and indicating that the band size is too big.
- The straps dig in or slide off, which means that the band size is too big.
- Breasts overflow the cup, or the underwire digs in and does not contain all the breast tissue, which means that the cup is too small, usually accompanied by a band that is too big.
- If the center gore does not rest on the sternum, again, the cup is too small and the band is likely too big.
Signs of a Good FitEdit
- The band should hug the ribcage closely, so that only two or three fingers can fit underneath it.
- Cups should be smooth across the top of the breast and the underwire should frame all the breast tissue, pointing to the center of the armpit.
- The center gore should lay flat against the sternum.
- Straps should not dig in or slide off.
- The bustline (the largest point of the bust) should sit at or above the midpoint between the elbow and the shoulder.
- In bras with no underwires, the structure of the cup should still encase all the breast tissue, including that under the arm.
- Sempstress' musings on the fit of early corsets, and her theory that stays may have added size to the waist to achieve a longer torso line.
- Marie-Chantal believes breast-taping may be the answer to an appropriately smooth silhouette and breast support in Italian Renaissance fashion.
- BBC History Magazine's article on the medieval undergarments found in Lenberg Schloss in Austria and their social implications.
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