Edinformatics - Educational Resource

One of the 100 Greatest Inventions


A brassiere or bra is a foundation garment for women consisting of shoulder straps, two cups, a center panel, an underbust band, sides, and a back. Bra types are quite varied, depending on style, function, and materials. Styles include front-closure, back-closure, strapless, convertible, push-up, demi-bra, full-cup, three-quarters cup, half-cup, longline, underwire, padded, triangle, soft-cup, shelf-bra, and T-shirt.

The upper part of a bikini is similar, but with the social difference that it is part of a swimsuit and not underwear, i.e. in western cultures it is considered suitable for exposure in a swimming pool, on the beach, and in other recreational situations.

In French, brassière now refers to a baby's vest, although it is now sometimes used for the 'bra-top' without formed cups. The word brassière derives from bracière, an Old French word meaning "arm protector" and referring to military uniform (bras in French means "arm"). This later became used for a military breast plate, and later for a type of woman's corset. (The modern French word for a bra is soutien-gorge.) Note that this only applies to European French. In Quebec, soutien-gorge and brassière are synonyms.

All kinds of bras have been created for every conceivable purpose, to do all the things that corsets have done in previous generations: minimize, uplift, show cleavage, maximize, or plain show off. Training Bras, which are smaller than standard bra sizes, were invented in the 1950s in response to the desire of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls to "fit in" amongst their more developed peers who could fill a standard bra, but otherwise they serve no functional purpose. In reality though, "the 'training' that a training bra was supposed to accomplish was the first step toward motherhood and a sexually alluring figure, as it was defined in the 1950s...the invention of training bras loom large in the history of adolescent girls because they foreshadowed the ways in which the nation's entrepreneurs would accommodate, and also encourage, precocious sexuality."1 Jogging or sports bras are a more recent innovation for the woman who wants to work out, and some are meant to be worn as outerwear, though unlike training bras, sports bras do provide a functional purpose which is added comfort during high impact exercises. Statistics show the average American woman today owns six bras. Out of those six, one of is a strapless bra and one is a color other than white.

Bra sizes

The size of breasts is often expressed in terms of bra size, which consists of two measurements to determine band size and cup size. Band size is determined by measuring body circumference under the breasts and then adding a specified number of inches to make the number even. Various manufacturers and boutiques recommend adding different numbers in determining band size, generally from 4 to 6. When the under the bust measurement is 35 in (89 cm) or more, 3 in (76 mm) is generally added to determine the band size. An alternative method to determine band size involves measuring under the arms and across the top of the breasts, rounding up to an even number, if necessary. The second measurement is similar but passes over the breasts. The first result is then subtracted from the second. For many manufacturers, a difference of 1 inch (25 mm) requires an A cup size; 2 inches (50 mm), a B cup; 3 inches (75 mm), a C cup; and 4 inches (100 mm), a D cup, but this is by no means universal, as a simple Internet search reveals. There are probably more than a dozen systems for determining bra size, including calculators that can be used online.

Larger cup sizes can be confusing, since some manufacturers use multiple letters (such as DD or EEE) instead of proceeding in alphabetical order. There are also size differences between countries that go beyond giving the band size in the centimetres. The only real way to determine one's bra size is by trying them on.

Bras and pregnancy

Due to the increase in size of the breasts at the final stage of pregnancy it is recommended that under-wired bras be avoided. A special bra (called a maternity bra or nursing bra, but not all of the former equate to the latter) may be worn when a woman chooses to breastfeed, allowing easy access to the nipple when the infant is to be fed.

Full Support Bras

Full support bras are a type of bra that usually has an underwire or plastic boning holding them up. They can be worn by women of any breast size, and are specially suited for those with larger cup sizes. These bras offer a shapely cut and are built more like bikini tops than underwear. These also come in padded or unpadded version and are flattering on any figure type.

Push Up Bras

Push-up bras, once called padded bras, are a type of bra that lifts the breasts and add shape to them with extra padding. Some more innovative push-up bras use silicone inserts or water sacks to imitate the fullness of a natural breasts. They are said to "lift and separate", creating a full cleavage look on breasts of all sizes. These bras always offer lots of support.

Shelf Bras

Shelf bras are designed with cups that lift and support the breasts, but the cups come just under the nipples, putting the breasts and nipples on display.

Brassieres and breast sagging

Breasts naturally sag as women grow older. Bra manufacturers, however, have promoted the belief that wearing a bra will help preserve the youthful shape of breasts. There are now claims that this is a misconception since some researchers have found that breast movement stimulates the lymphatic system and helps removes toxins from the body (see the external link below for detailed information). While a woman may choose to wear a bra for social reasons or comfort, there is no proven medical reason to do so. Neither is there evidence to support the notion that a woman's breasts will sag lower over her lifetime if she doesn't wear a bra. "…wearing a bra…has no medical necessity whatsoever... Except for the women who find bras especially comfortable or uncomfortable, the decision to wear or not wear one is purely aesthetic--or emotional... If you don't enjoy it, and job or social pressures don't force you into it, don't bother." Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, by Dr. Susan Love Some medical professionals believe that wearing a bra can actually increase breast sagging later in life. This is because the chest muscles that support breasts are used less and atrophy from lack of use, just as our leg muscles are weaker if we do not run regularly. Health benefits of breast sagging have also been suggested but not substantiated.


The concept of covering or restraining the breasts dates back to 6,500 years ago in Greece. Minoan women on the island of Crete 4,500 years ago wore brassieres that revealed their bare breasts. A binding known as an apodesmos, or mastodeton was worn by Greek women for exercise in those city-states that supported women's sports, e.g. Sparta. It is said that brassieres were invented by men so that women's breasts would be smaller, and thus more like a man's.

A bra-like device to give a symmetrical rotundity to the breasts was patented (nr 24,033) in 1859 by Henry S. Lesher of Brooklyn, New York; although it is recognisably a bra, the design looks uncomfortable by current standards.

In 1889 Herminie Cadolle of France invented the first modern bra, a two-piece undergarment called le bien-être (the well-being). The lower part was a corset for the waist, the upper supporting the breasts by means of shoulder straps. By 1905 the upper half was being sold separately as a soutien-gorge ("breast-supporter", using a euphemism for breast that usually means "throat"), the name by which bras are still known in France. Cadolle's business (http://www.cadolle.com) is still going strong.

In America, Mary Phelps Jacob was granted the first U.S. patent for the brassiere (nr 1,115,674), in 1913. She was aided in this work by her French maid, Marie. Her invention is most widely recognized as the predecessor to the modern bra. She sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500 (or over $25,600 in today's money). Warner eventually made an estimated $15 million off Caresse's patent.

In 1922, Ida Rosenthal, a seamstress at the small New York City dress shop, Enid Frocks, along with shop owner Enid Bissett and husband William Rosenthal, changed the look of women's fashion. The "boyish figure" then in style downplayed women's natural curves through the use of a bandeaux brassiere. Their innovation, designed to make their dresses look better on the wearer, consisted of modifying the bandeaux bra to enhance and support women's breasts. Hence, the name "Maidenform". A later innovation is the development of sized brassieres. The company they founded became the Maidenform manufacturing company (http://www.maidenform.com/).

In 1960's, many women publicly discarded their bras as a symbol of female liberation as a form of protest; however, "burning the bra" was not a widespread practice. [1] (http://www.snopes.com/history/american/burnbra.htm) The oft-repeated story that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling (giving the humorous name tit-sling) is false (http://www.snopes.com/business/origins/bra.asp). References


  • Smithsonian Institute, Museum of American History Archives MAIDENFORM COLLECTION, 1922-1997 #585. (35 CUBIC FEET: 54 DB; 10 [.5] DB; 19 F/O; 4 card-file boxes; 1 O/S Fldr.) by: Jennifer Snyder and Mimi Minnick, August 1997-July 1999. (Revised: February 3, 2004). Retrieved Jun 2004 from (http://americanhistory.si.edu/archives/d7585.htm#top. E-mail: archivescenter@si.edu.