The modern bra was introduced in the early 1900s, and the word brassiere was first seen in Vogue magazine in 1907. Until then, women were bound for centuries by various iterations of corsets, preceded in the Middle Ages by strips of fabric slung under the breasts and over the shoulders.
Though there are conflicting stories about who invented the bra, much of the credit for the brassiere as we know it today goes to Mary Phelps Jacob. She was a handy New York socialite who didn’t like wearing corsets made of whalebone and steel rods under her diaphanous evening gowns, so she created a bra using cord, ribbon and two hankies. She patented it in 1914, then later sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company (now called Warnaco).
The most significant changes since then have been push-up bras in the 1950s, sports bras in the 1970s and padded bras in the 1980s. In terms of the way they are made, most bra retailers say it’s the material that has transformed this essential garment.
‘Bras are now made of innovative fabrics like spacer’a lightweight three-dimensional knit with an open weave’and even memory foam,’ says Diane Thomson, owner of Diane’s Lingerie in Vancouver. ‘Many are breathable, provide nipple coverage and have a natural shape. The advances in fabric provide women with a high-quality product that feels great to wear and gives a seamless, natural shape under any outfit.’
What’s popular now in bra style and design can be credited, in part, to the media. ‘Television shows like Mad Men, for example, have had an influence on lingerie,’ says Thomson. ‘They have influenced women to think about a lingerie outfit as a whole, versus just focusing on the bra. There has been an increase in long-lined bras, high-waist panties and stylish shape-wear garments.’
A key to shopping for a bra, of course, is getting the right fit. An ill-fitting bra is uncomfortable’if it’s too tight, your breasts pillow out, and if it’s too loose, it will gap at the sternum between your bra and your breasts. But more than that, it can cause health problems. Some of the more common perils include back pain in well-endowed women if their breasts are not getting enough support, pain from poor posture, premature sagging of the breasts, and skin abrasions from too-tight or poorly made straps.
‘Bras that are too tight can also cause candida, or yeast infection, under the breasts,’ says Amy Pruett, a nurse practitioner in Fenelon Falls, Ont. ‘Yeast loves skin folds, and the undersides of our breasts are a perfect place for it.’ See your doctor if you suspect this.
Generally, though, the bra problems most women have are due to not getting professionally fitted. According to bra retailers, about 80 percent of North American women are wearing the wrong size. The right brassiere not only makes you more comfortable, it boosts your bust and your confidence’and can make you look 10 pounds thinner.
You’ll find the best fit when you visit a department store or boutique that offers expert fittings. Interestingly, the tape-measure method that bra fitters have been using for decades was recently turned on its ear by a British professor. A recent study at the University of Portsmouth, conducted by sports scientist Jenny White, found that the focus should be on these four criteria instead of the inches on a tape measure: how the cups fit; whether the front band touches the sternum; the shape of the underwire; and the length of the straps.
But Jennifer Klein, owner of Secrets From Your Sister Bra Fitting Boutique in Toronto, finds the tape-measure method a useful tool. ‘It gives fitters a starting point. We use it to get a woman’s band size and look at the bosom’s depth, so we can establish her size.’
The rule of thumb? You should try to get fitted once a year, says Thomson. ‘Weight change, pregnancy and hormones can cause breast size to change.’