The term brassiere was used by the Evening Herald in Syracuse, New York, in 1893. It gained wider acceptance in 1904 when the DeBevoise Company used it in their advertising copy—although the word is actually Norman French for a child's undershirt. In French, it is called a soutien-gorge (literally, "throat-supporter"). It and other early versions resembled a camisole stiffened with boning.
Vogue magazine first used the term brassiere in 1907, and by 1911 the word had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. On 3 November 1914, the newly formed U.S. patent category for "brassieres" was inaugurated with the first patent issued to Mary Phelps Jacob. In the 1930s brassiere was gradually shortened to bra.
Wearing a garment to support the breasts may date back to ancient Greece. Women wore an apodesmos, later stēthodesmē, mastodesmos and mastodeton, all meaning "breast-band", a band of wool or linen that was wrapped across the breasts and tied or pinned at the back.
Fragments of linen textiles found in East Tyrol in Austria dated to between 1440 and 1485 are believed to have been bras. Two of them had cups made from two pieces of linen sewn with fabric that extended to the bottom of the torso with a row of six eyelets for fastening with a lace or string. One had two shoulder straps and was decorated with lace in the cleavage.
From the 16th century, the undergarments of wealthier women in the Western world were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the later 19th century, clothing designers began experimenting with alternatives, splitting the corset into multiple parts: a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso, and devices that suspended the breasts from the shoulder to the upper torso.
Women have played a large part in the design and manufacture of the bra, accounting for half the patents filed. The Dresden-based German Christine Hardt patented the first modern brassiere in 1899. Sigmund Lindauer from Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Germany, developed a brassiere for mass production in 1912 and patented it in 1913. It was mass-produced by Mechanischen Trikotweberei Ludwig Maier und Cie. in Böblingen, Germany. In the United States, Mary Phelps Jacob received a patent in 1914 for the first brassiere design that is recognized as the basis for modern bras. Mass production in the early-20th century made the garment widely available to women in the United States, England, Western Europe, and other countries influenced by western fashion. Metal shortages in World War I encouraged the end of the corset.
Brassieres were initially manufactured by small production companies and supplied to retailers. The term "cup" was not used until 1916, and manufacturers relied on stretchable cups to accommodate different sized breasts. 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 light boning.
In October 1932, the S.H. Camp and Company correlated the size and pendulousness of breasts to letters 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 hook and eye closures in the 1930s. By the time World War II ended, most fashion-conscious women in Europe and North America were wearing brassieres, and women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America began to adopt it.
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") 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.
Mass-produced bras are manufactured to fit a prototypical woman standing with both arms at her sides. The design assumes that both breasts are equally sized and symmetrical.
A bra is one of the most complicated garments to make. A typical design has between 20 and 48 parts, including the band, hooks, cups, lining, and straps. Bras are built on a square frame model. Lingerie designer Chantal Thomass said,
It’s a highly technical garment, made of lots of tiny pieces of fabric, with so many sizes to consider for the different cups, etc. It’s a garment you wash every day, so the seams and structure need to be extremely robust. It’s very different from a piece of clothing; it’s in direct contact with the skin, it needs to be super solid.
The bra's main components are a chest band that wraps around the torso, two cups, and shoulder straps. The chest band is usually closed in the back by a hook and eye fastener, but may be fastened at the front. Sleep bras or athletic bras do not have fasteners and are pulled on over the head and breasts. The section between the cups is called a gore. The section under the armpit where the band joins the cups is called the "back wing".
Bra components, including the cup top and bottom (if seamed), the central, side and back panels, and straps, are cut to manufacturer's specifications. Many layers of fabric may be cut at the same time using computer-controlled lasers or bandsaw shearing devices. The pieces are assembled by piece workers using industrial sewing machines or automated machines. Coated metal hooks and eyes are sewn in by machine and heat processed or ironed into the back ends of the band and a tag or label is attached or printed onto the bra itself. The completed bras are folded (mechanically or manually), and packaged for shipment.
The chest band and cups, not the shoulder straps, are designed to support the weight of women's breasts. Strapless bras rely on an underwire and additional seaming and stiffening panels to support them. The shoulder straps of some sports bras cross over at the back to take the pressure off the shoulders when arms are raised. Manufacturers continually experiment with proprietary frame designs. For example, the Playtex "18-Hour Bra" model utilizes an M-Frame design.
Bras were originally made of linen, cotton broadcloth, and twill weaves and sewn using flat-felled or bias-tape seams. They are now made of a variety of materials, including Tricot, Spandex, Spanette, Latex, microfiber, satin, Jacquard, foam, mesh, and lace, which are blended to achieve specific purposes. Spandex, a synthetic fiber with built-in "stretch memory", can be blended with cotton, polyester, or nylon. Mesh is a high-tech synthetic composed of ultra-fine filaments that are tightly knit for smoothness.
Sixty to seventy percent of bras sold in the UK and US have underwired cups. The underwire is made of metal, plastic, or resin. Underwire is built around the perimeter of the cup where it attaches to the band, increasing its rigidity to improve support, lift, and separation.
Wirefree or softcup bras have additional seaming and internal reinforcement. T-shirt bras utilize molded cups that eliminate seams and hide nipples. Others use padding or shaping materials to enhance bust size or cleavage.
In most countries, bras come in a band and cup size, such as 34C; 34 is the band width, which is the measurement directly underneath the breasts, and C is the cup size, which refers to the volume of the breasts. Most bras are offered in 36 sizes; the Triumph "Doreen" comes in 67 sizes, up to 46J. Bra cup size is relative to the band size, as the volume of a woman's breast changes with the dimension of her chest. A B cup on a 34 band is not the same size as a B cup on a 36 band. In countries that have adopted the European EN 13402 dress-size standard, the measurement is rounded to the nearest multiple of 5 centimetres (2.0 in).
A poorly fitted bra can cause back and neck pain. Women with larger breasts tend to buy bras that are too small, while smaller-breasted women do the opposite. Because manufacturing standards vary widely, finding a correctly fitting bra is difficult. Women tend to find a bra that appears to fit and stay with that size, even though they may lose and gain weight. In a survey in the United Kingdom, 60% of over 2,000 women between the ages of 16 to 75 said they had had a bra fitting, and 99% said that fit was the least important factor when selecting a bra. Increased publicity about the issue of poorly fitted bras has increased the number of women seeking a fitting. The UK retailer Marks & Spencer stated that about 8,000 women are fitted for bras in their stores weekly. Despite this, about 80–85% of women still wear the wrong bra size.
Bra experts recommend professional bra fittings from the lingerie department of a clothing store or a specialty lingerie store, especially for cup sizes D or larger, and particularly if there has been significant weight gain or loss, or if the wearer is continually adjusting her bra. Women in the UK change their bra size on average six times over their lifetimes.
Symptoms of a loose bra band include the band riding up the back. If the band causes flesh to spill over the edges, it is too small. A woman can test whether a bra band is too tight or loose by reversing the bra on her torso so that the cups are in the back and then check for fit and comfort. Experts suggest that women choose a band size that fits using the outermost set of hooks. This allows the wearer to use the tighter hooks as the bra stretches during its lifetime.
Bras can enhance or minimize the size of breasts, create cleavage, and in the case of nursing bras, aid breast-feeding. Bras are built into some swimsuits, camisoles and dresses. Compression sports bras push against and minimize the breasts, whereas encapsulation bras have cups for support.
Common styles include backless, balconette, convertible, shelf, full cup, demi-cup, minimizing, padded, plunge, posture, push-up, racerback, sheer, strapless, T-shirt, underwire, unlined and soft cup.
Bras are not anatomically required to support breasts, but are worn in response to cultural influences. Women's choices about what bra to wear are consciously and unconsciously affected by social perceptions of the ideal female body shape, which changes over time. As lingerie, bras are also about expressing female sex appeal and expressions of sexual fantasy. Bras are also used to make a statement as evidenced by Jean Paul Gautier's designs and Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour.
In the 1920s in the United States, the fashion was to flatten the breasts as typified in the Flapper era. During the 1940s and 1950s, the sweater girl became fashionable, supported by a bullet bra (known also as a torpedo or cone bra) as worn by Jane Russell and Patti Page. in the early 1960s, smaller breasts gained popularity, and in the late 1990s larger breasts became more fashionable. Iris Marion Young described preferences in the United States in 1990: "round, sitting high on the chest, large but not bulbous, with the look of firmness." This is regarded as contradictory in several ways.
As outerwear, bras in the form of bikini tops in the 1950s became the acceptable public display in modern times. During the 1960s, designers and manufacturers introduced padded and underwire bras. After the Miss America protest in September 1968, manufacturers were concerned that women would stop wearing bras. In response, many altered their marketing and claimed that wearing their bra was like "not wearing a bra". In the 1970s women sought more comfortable and natural-looking bras.
Victoria's Secret commissions a fantasy bra every fall. In 2003 it hired the jeweller Mouawad to design one containing more than 2,500 carats of diamonds and sapphires; valued at USD$10 million, it was the world's most valuable bra at the time.
It became fashionable from the early 1990s to wear clothing that showed bra straps. Sports bras, in particular, are often worn as outerwear. Versace's Fall 2013 Couture collection featured fashions that were open in the front, revealing underwire bras.
Madonna was one of the first to start showing her bra straps, in the late 1980s. A corset she wore as outerwear during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour sold for USD$52,000 in 2012 at the Christie's Pop Culture auction in London.
Wearing clothes that reveal the bra or straps became so common that Cosmopolitan created guidelines in 2012 on how to expose them. Advice included avoiding plain, flesh-toned, smooth-cup bras, so that the exposure does not appear accidental; making sure the bra is in good condition; and wearing a style that either matches the colour of the outerwear or is dramatically different.
Bras are not worn around the world; in some third-world countries bras may cost up to 10–30 hours of a woman's wages, making them unaffordable to most of the population. As of 2011, women in Fiji needed to pay up to a week's wages for a new bra. Bras are highly prized at second-hand markets in West Africa. The Uplift Project provides recycled bras to women in developing countries. Since 2005 they have shipped 330,000, including to Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and Cambodia.
In 2009 Somalia's hard-line Islamic group Al-Shabaab forced women to shake their breasts at gunpoint to see if they were wearing bras, which they called "un-Islamic". A resident of Mogadishu whose daughters were whipped said, "The Islamists say a woman's chest should be firm naturally, or flat." In 2009, Elena Bodnar invented the Emergency Bra, which doubles as a gas mask; she came up with the idea when as a young doctor she witnessed the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She received the Ig Nobel Public Health Prize for her design.
Surveys have reported that 5–25 percent of Western women do not wear a bra. A Harris Poll commissioned by Playtex asked more than 1,000 women what they like in a bra. Among the respondents, 67 percent said they prefer wearing a bra to going braless, while 85 percent wanted to wear a "shape-enhancing bra that feels like nothing at all." They were split as regards underwire bras: 49 percent said they prefer underwire bras, the same percentage as those who said they prefer wireless bras.
According to underwire manufacturer S & S Industries of New York, who supply bras to Victoria's Secret, Bali, Warner's, Playtex, Vanity Fair and other labels, about 70 percent of bra-wearing women wear underwire bras.
In an online survey for All You magazine in 2013, 25 percent of women reported that they do not wear a bra every day. A "National No-Bra Day" was first observed in the United States on 9 July in 2011. Women posted on Twitter about the relief they feel when taking off their bra. More than 250,000 people expressed an interest in "attending" the day on a Facebook page.
Consumers spend around $16 billion a year worldwide on bras. In the US during 2012, women owned an average of nine bras and wore six on a regular basis. That increased from 2006, when the average American woman owned six, one of which was strapless, and one in a colour other than white. British women in a 2009 survey reported that they owned an average of 16 bras.
The average bra size among North American women has changed from 34B in 1983 to a 34DD in 2012–2013, and from 36C last year to 36DD in the UK during 2014–2015. The change in bra size has been linked to growing obesity rates, breast implants, increased birth control usage, estrogen mimicking pollutants, the availability of a larger selection of bras, and women wearing better fitting bras.
Bras are made in Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, India, and China. While there has been some social pressure from the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization movements on manufacturers to reduce use of sweatshop labour, most major apparel manufacturers rely on them directly and indirectly. Prior to 2005, a trade agreement limited textile imports to the European Union and the US. China was exporting US$33.9 billion in textiles and clothing each year to the EU and the US. When those quotas expired on 1 January 2005, the so-called Bra Wars began. Within six months, China shipped 30 million more bras to the two markets: 33% more to the US and 63% more to the EU. As of 2014, an average bra cost GBP29.8. As of 2012, Africa imported USD$107 million worth of bras, with South Africa accounting for 40%. Morocco was second and Nigeria third, while Mauritius topped purchasing on a per capita basis.
In countries where labour costs are low, bras that cost US$5–7 to manufacture sell for US$50 or more in American retail stores. As of 2006, female garment workers in Sri Lanka earned about US$2.20 per day. Similarly, Honduran garment factory workers in 2003 were paid US$0.24 for each $50 Sean John sweatshirt they made, less than one-half of one percent of the retail price. In 2009, residents in the textile manufacturing city of Gurao in the Guangdong province of China made more than 200 million bras. Children were employed to assemble bras and were paid 0.30 yuan for every 100 bra straps they helped assemble. In one day they could earn 20 to 30 yuan.
Informal surveys have found that many women began wearing bras to be fashionable, to conform to social or maternal pressure, or for physical support. Women sometimes wear bras because they mistakenly believe they prevent sagging breasts. Very few cited comfort as the reason. While many Western women recognize that they have been socialized to wear bras, they may report feeling exposed or "subject to violation" without one, or that wearing one improves their appearance.
Feminists began arguing in the 1960s and 1970s that the bra was an example of how women's clothing shaped and even deformed women's bodies to male expectations. During a protest organized by New York Radical Women outside the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on 7 September 1968, hundreds of women symbolically threw feminine products, including bras, into a large trash can. Professor Lisa Jardine listened to feminist Germaine Greer talk about bras during a formal college dinner in Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1964:
At the graduates' table, Germaine was explaining that there could be no liberation for women, no matter how highly educated, as long as we were required to cram our breasts into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses, two stitched white cantilevered cones which bore no resemblance to the female anatomy. The willingly suffered discomfort of the Sixties bra, she opined vigorously, was a hideous symbol of female oppression.
Greer's book The Female Eunuch (1970) became associated with the "bra burning" movement because she pointed out how restrictive and uncomfortable a bra could be. "Bras are a ludicrous invention", she wrote, "but if you make bralessness a rule, you're just subjecting yourself to yet another repression." While women did not literally burn their bras, some stopped wearing them in protest.
Feminist author Iris Marion Young wrote that the bra "serves as a barrier to touch" and that a braless woman is "deobjectified", eliminating the "hard, pointy look that phallic culture posits as the norm." Without a bra, women's breasts are not consistently shaped objects but change as the woman moves, reflecting the natural body. Academic Wendy Burns-Ardolino wrote in 2007 that women's decision to wear bras is mediated by the "male gaze".
Susan Brownmiller in her book Femininity (1984) took the position that women without bras shock and anger men because men "implicitly think that they own breasts and that only they should remove bras." Young wrote that, in U.S. culture, breasts are subject to "[c]apitalist, patriarchal American media-dominated culture [that] objectifies breasts before such a distancing glance that freezes and masters." Other arguments include that training bras are used to indoctrinate girls into thinking about their breasts as sexual objects and to accentuate their sexuality.