A brassiere (pronounced Template:IPA-en, Template:IPA-en; commonly referred to as a bra Template:IPA-en) is an article of clothing that covers, supports, and elevates the breasts. Since the late 19th century, it has replaced the corset as the most widely accepted method for supporting a woman's breasts.

Women wear bras for a variety of purposes, for support, to improve the shape of breasts, to reduce or to enlarge the perceived breast size, to restrain breast movement during an activity such as during exercise, to enhance their cleavage or to facilitate nursing. Most bras are designed to be form-fitting and to lift the breasts off the chest wall if they sag and to restrain their movement. Bra designers strive to produce a garment that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

For some people, the bra has become a garment with erotic significance and a feminine icon or symbol with political and cultural significance beyond its primary function. Some feminists consider the brassiere a symbol of the repression of women's bodies.[1] Historically, when a young girl gets her first bra, it may be symbolic of her coming of age.[2]

Etymology Edit

File:Soutien des seine par une brassiere.jpg

The French word brassière refers to a baby's vest (undershirt) or lifebelt, 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. The current French term for brassière is soutien-gorge, literally, "held under the neck" or "throat-support". In French, gorge (throat) was a common euphemism for the breast.[3] This dates back to the garment developed by Herminie Cadolle in 1905.

The term "brassiere" seems to have come into use in the English language as early as 1893.[4] Manufacturers were using the term by about 1904, Vogue magazine first used it in 1907,[5] and by 1911 the word had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.[3] On November 13, 1914, the newly formed U.S. patent category for "brassieres" was inaugurated [6] with a patent issued to Mary Phelps Jacob.[7] In the 1930s, "brassiere" gradually came to be shortened to "bra." In the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, both soutien-gorge and brassière are used interchangeably.

There is an urban legend that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling 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 song from the movie Beaches.[8]


File:CorsetLeonJulesRAINAL Freres13b.png
Main article: History of brassieres

During 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 1400s 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 was in vogue among rich women.[9] Popularity continued into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In English they are known as "stomach protectors" or "tummy covers".[10]

From the 1500s onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 1800s, 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 suspended the breasts from the shoulder for the upper torso.

By the early 1900s, garments more closely resembling contemporary bras had emerged, although large-scale commercial production did not occur until 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.[11][12]

Construction and fitEdit

A brassiere usually consists of two cups for breasts, a centre panel (gore), a band running around the torso under the bust, and shoulder straps. Some bras are strapless. Bras are typically made of a fabric such as cotton or polyester. Spandex and lace may also be used for various parts of the bra. The cups may be supported by underwires made of metal and sometimes coated in plastic. Strapless bras usually use embedded underwire to support the breasts. Wirefree bras support breasts using strengthened, larger cups and wider bands.

These bras are sometimes referred to as softcup bras. The underwire shares the breast weight with the shoulder straps.[13] The bra is usually fastened with a hook fastener on the band, typically at the back. In some bras the fastener is in the front, between the cups. Others are pulled on over the head and have no fasteners. Some bras contain padding to improve comfort, conceal the nipples, or enhance bust size. Bust size and cleavage are also enhanced with breast pads inside the cups and by wearing push-up bras.


A correctly fitting bra[14] should have the following features:[15]

  • When viewed from the side, the chest band should be horizontal, should not ride up the back, and should be firm but comfortable.
  • Each cup's underwire at the front should lie flat against the sternum (not the breast), along the infra-mammary fold, and should not dig in to the chest or the breasts, rub or poke out at the front.
  • The breasts should be enclosed by the cups and there should be a smooth line where the fabric at the top of the cup ends.
  • The apex of the breast, the nipple, must be in the center of the cup.
  • The breast should not bulge over the top or out the sides of the cups, even with a low-cut style such as the balconette bra.[16][17][18]
  • The straps of a correctly fitted bra should not dig into or slip off the shoulder
  • The back of the bra should not ride up but should remain parallel to the floor.
  • The breasts should be supported primarily by the band around the rib cage, rather than by the shoulder straps.
  • The wearer should be able to breathe and move easily without the bra slipping around.

Nevertheless providing a well-fitting bra continues to prove a major challenge to manufacturers, since the garment is designed to form fit, yet individual women exhibit a large range of shapes and sizes.[19]

Bra sizesEdit

Main article: Brassiere measurement

There is considerable variation in women's breast volume, shape, size and spacing. The majority of a woman's breast volume may be towards the bottom, sides or top of her bosom, which affects the bra size actually needed. Manufacturers make standard bra sizes that provide women a "close" fit, however women can have a difficult time finding a correctly fitted bra because of the variations in sizes between different manufacturers. A correctly fitted bra is determined by accurately calculating a woman's chest size (or band size) and her breast volume (the cup size). The band size can be adjusted slightly using the two or three alternate sets of fastening hooks and eyes in the clasp. The bra straps (over the shoulders) can usually also be adjusted slightly.

File:Sexy Sam.jpg

Surveys of bra sizes tend to be very dependent on the population studied and how it was obtained. For instance, one study reported that the most common size was 34B, followed by 34C, that 63% were size 34 and 39% cup size B. However, the survey sample was drawn from 103 Caucasian student volunteers at a Midwest U.S. university aged 18–25, and excluded pregnant and nursing women.[19]

In a study of 103 women seeking mammoplasty, researchers concluded that "obesity, breast hypertrophy, fashion and bra-fitting practices combine to make those women who most need supportive bras the least likely to get accurately fitted bras."[20] Their research found that bra measuring systems often lead women to choose an incorrect size, most commonly resulting in too large a cup size (by a mean of three sizes) and too small a band size (by a mean of four sizes).[20]

Mechanical designEdit

Bra designers liken designing a bra to building a bridge, because similar forces are at work. Just as a bridge is affected vertically by gravity and horizontally by earth movement and wind, forces affecting a bra's design include gravity and sometimes tangential forces created when a woman runs or turns her body.[21] "In many respects, the challenge of enclosing and supporting a semi-solid mass of variable volume and shape, plus its adjacent mirror image—together they equal the female bosom—involves a design effort comparable to that of building a bridge or a cantilevered skyscraper."[21]

Commenting about brassiere design, British Chiropractic Association representative Tim Hutchful said, ""Bras are like suspension bridges. You need a well-engineered bra so your shoulders don't end up doing all the work. Bras that don't fit will affect the shoulders and chest, and will almost certainly cause back pain as you get older."[22]

Calculating cup volumeEdit

Bra designers can calculate the volume of a brassiere cup in several ways depending on the shape of the breast. If the breast is round and essentially the shape of a half-sphere, any of three formulas might be used.[21]

$ V={D^3 \times .5236 \over 2} $

$ V={r^3 \times 4.1888 \over 2} $

$ V={4 \pi r^3 \over 2} $

where V equals the volume of one-half sphere, D equals the diameter of the sphere, and r equals the radius of the sphere.

If the breast is shaped more like a cone, the designer might use a formula like the following:[21]

$ V={D_b^2 \times h \times .7845 \over 3} $

where Db equals diameter of the cone's base and h equals the height of the cone. Other formulas can be derived as needed to design bras for differently shaped breasts.

The chest band and cups should provide support for most of the weight of the breasts, rather than the shoulder straps. Over-reliance on the straps for support can result in health problems for the woman. In most bras the straps are adjustable by sliding fasteners, and are usually made of a stretchable material such as spandex.

The average breast weighs about Template:Convert.[23] Each breast contributes to about 4-5% of the body fat and thus 1% of the total body weight of an average woman. One of the principal functions of a bra is to elevate and "support" the breasts, that is, to raise them from their normal position lying against the chest wall. This is considered the defining characteristic of the bra: supporting the weight from the back and shoulders, as opposed to lift solely from below (as corsets do).[1] Over-reliance on the shoulder straps for support can lead to poor posture, back pain and neck pain due to pinched nerves. In a well-fitted bra, 80% of the breast weight is supported by the chest band, something which is particularly important to women with larger breasts.[16]

The major engineering weakness of the bra, particularly if poorly fitted, is that it acts as a pulley, transferring the weight of the breasts from the lower chest wall to higher structures such as the back, shoulder, neck, and head. This can result in pain and injury in those structures, especially for women with pendulous breasts.[24]

Types of braEdit

File:Circa 1975 Wonderbra.jpg
Main article: brassiere designs

There is a wide range of brassiere styles available, designed to match different body types, situations, and outer garments. The degree of shaping and coverage of the breasts varies between styles, as do functionality, fashion, fabric, and color. Common types include backless, balconette, convertible, cupless, demi cup, front-fastening, full coverage, halter, longline, minimizing, padded, plunge, push-up, racerback, sports/athletic, sheer, strapless, strapless-backless, t-shirt, underwire, wireless, sports bra, and invisible.[25] Some designs combine one or more these styles.

Cultural significanceEdit

The bra as a fashion itemEdit

File:Young woman in dessous.jpg

Many Western women place a great deal of importance on their physical appearance, especially their body shape and body image. The Western media, especially advertising, emphasizes a woman's body shape, especially her breasts. The majority of adult women in the United States are not happy with their breasts.[26]

Firm, upright breasts are typical of youth.[27] Within Western cultures that place great value upon youth, bras are marketed to emphasize their ability to preserve a youthful appearance. The design of fashionable rather than solely functional bras[28] has been influenced by changing fashions in outerwear and in popular culture.

File:Jane Russell in Yank Magazine.jpg
In the United States, the shape of bras has changed. During the 1920s, the fashion for breasts was to flatten them as typified by the Flapper era. In the 1930s, Maidenform developed cup sizes, helping to provide added support to individual breasts. During the 1940s and 1950s, the sweater girl became fashionable, supported by a bullet bra (known also as a torpedo or cone bra) like that worn by Jane Russell in the The Outlaw.[29]

During the 1960s, bra designers and manufacturers began introducing padded bras and bras with underwire. Women’s perception of undergarments changed, and in the 1970s, they began to seek more comfortable and natural looking bras.[29] In response to the feminist era, many bra manufacturers' marketing claimed that wearing their bra was like not wearing a bra.[30] Although in popular culture the invention of the bra is frequently attributed to men, in fact women have played a large part in bra design and manufacture, accounting for half of the patents filed.[1]

Social pressures and trendsEdit

File:Bra Fence Wikipedia.jpg

The average American woman today owns six bras, one of which is a strapless bra, and one in a colour other than white.[31][32] Consumers spend around $16 billion a year on bras.[5] In the last 15 years alone, the average bust size among North American women has increased from 34B to 36C.[5] A number of sources state that about 90% of Western women wear bras, although no authoritative source for this fact is available.[33][34][35] Some women wear bras because of notions of modesty; others because they believe that it is part of their cultural norm and that not wearing a bra would lead to ostracism. Some wear bras because they believe it improves their appearance; while others because they find wearing a bra more comfortable than going without.

Bras are a relatively recent invention and are by no means universally worn around the world. In a cross-cultural study of bra size and cancer in 9,000 women during the 1960s, a Harvard group found 93% of women wore bras (from 88% in the UK to 99% in Greece), but could not find enough women in Japan who wore bras to complete their study.[36] In a number of cultures, including Europe and other Westernized countries outside the United States, there are no social restrictions against sunbathing or swimming topless.[37] There is less emphasis on the necessity to wear a bra as well.

The prevalence of the bra, and perceived social expectation to wear one, does not imply that openly displaying it is encouraged. On the contrary, it is often not considered suitable to expose one's brassiere in public in western cultures, even partially, despite the fact that it is similar in appearance to the upper part of a bikini; to do so may be considered sexually provocative.[38]

Even considering this relative cultural taboo, being seen in one's bra is still more socially acceptable than exposing the bare breasts. Indeed, women may choose to be seen in just a bra to make a specific point. For instance, bras have recently been used by organisations like breast cancer charities to raise money, either by sponsored walks[39] or to sell bras owned or decorated by celebrities.

In 1994, a significant shift in advertising lingerie occurred when advertising executive Trevor Beattie working for TBWA/London featured Eva Herzigova in a close-up of her black Wonderbra and cleavage with the title, "Hello boys." Looking down at her breasts, it's not clear whether she's addressing male admirers or her breasts. The ground-breaking, racy ad campaign resulted in many imitations along with a few complaints that the photograph demeaned women.[40][41] The influential poster was featured in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London[42] and it was voted in at number 10 in a "Poster of the Century" contest.[43]

Bralessness in publicEdit

There has been increasing comment that many entertainers, actresses and members of the fashion industry have chosen not to wear bras. A well known example is a member of the BBC Gardening's Ground Force, Charlie Dimmock.[44] Other celebrities noted for public bralessness include Britney Spears,[45] Clare Danes,[46] Lindsay Lohan,[47] Nadine Coyle,[48] Mischa Barton,[49] fashion executive Tamara Mellon,[50] and former model and France's first lady Carla Bruni, who welcomed Russian president Dimitry Medvedev at a state dinner in tight, revealing dress.[51][52]

Brassieres and securityEdit

The United States Transportation Security Administration recommends against underwire bras because they can set off the metal detectors,[53] though some travelers say they wear them and they don't set off the detector every time. Film maker Nancy Kates claims that she was "forced to strip off her bra and walk through airport security without support" when the underwires in her bra set off a metal detector.[54] 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 bra labels, about 70 percent of women wear steel underwire bras.[55]

In response, Triumph International, a Swiss company, launched what it called a "Frequent Flyer Bra" in late 2001. The bra uses metal-free clasps and underwires made of resin instead of metal that are guaranteed to not set off metal detectors.[55]

Opposition to brasEdit

Some feminist writers have considered the bra as an example of how women's clothing has shaped and even deformed women's bodies to historically aesthetic ideals, or shaped them to conform to male expectations of what is desirable. Professor Lisa Jardine observed feminist Germaine Greer talking about bras at a formal college dinner:


Some people question the medical or social necessity of bras.[56] This has been referred to as breast freedom, bra freedom, or simply going braless.[57][58][59][60]

In October 2009, Somalia’s hard-line Islamist group Al-Shabaab forced women in public to shake their breasts at gunpoint to see if they wore bras, which they called "un-Islamic". Those found to be wearing a bra were publicly whipped because bras are seen as "deceptive" and to violate their interpretation of Sharia law.[61][62]

Health issuesEdit

Ptosis (sagging)Edit

Template:See also

Anatomically, the breasts are composed of soft, glandular tissue, with few support structures, such as connective tissue. Breasts are composed of the mammary glands, which remain relatively constant throughout life, as well as the adipose tissue or fat tissue that surrounds the mammary glands. It is the amount and distribution of adipose tissue and, to a lesser extent, glandular tissue that leads to variations in breast size. In addition, the breasts contain ligaments, although their exact function as related to breast support has not been agreed upon by experts. These ligaments, and the overlying skin (referred to as the dermal brassiere)[63][64] help determine the resulting breast shape.

As the breasts mature, they fold over the lower attachment to the chest wall (infra-mammary fold), and their lower (inferior) surface lies against the chest wall when vertical. In popular culture, this maturation is referred to as "sagging" or "drooping", although plastic surgeons refer to it as ptosis. The surgical procedure to lift the breast is called mastopexy.[65][66]

Although the exact mechanisms that determine breast shape and size remain largely unknown,[67] it has long been claimed that this occurs because the normal anatomical support is inadequate, especially in older women and those with larger breasts. Hence the bra is often proposed as a means of providing artificial support, based on the presumption that the breasts cannot support themselves.[68] Health professionals have, however, found no evidence to suggest that the bra slows ptosis of breasts.[69] Bra manufacturers have also stated that bras only affect the shape of breasts while they are being worn.[70]

Indeed, there are indications that wearing a bra may have an effect opposite to that which was intended. In a Japanese study, 11 women were measured wearing a standardised fitted bra for three months. They found that breasts became larger and lower, with the underbust measurement decreasing and the overbust increasing, while the lowest point of the breast moved downwards and outwards. The effect was more pronounced in larger-breasted women. This may be related to the particular bra chosen for the experiment. There was some improvement after changing to a different model.[71] These findings were confirmed in a much larger French study of 250 women who exercised regularly and were followed by questionnaires and biometric measurements for a year after agreeing not to wear a bra. While there was some initial discomfort at the first evaluation, this gradually disappeared and by the end of the year nearly all the women had improved comfort compared to before the study. The measurements showed firmer, and more elevated and youthful breasts. One example is given of a woman who had breasts that were uncomfortably large, and who had improvement after two years of being without a bra.[72][73]

While some may dispute the reasons why breasts change in shape with age and argue over whether or not the process can be delayed or reversed by wearing a bra, it is a natural process of bodily change. Health ethicists are concerned that plastic surgery and implants have altered our concept of what is "normal" and medicalised women's bodies by making a normal process a "disease."[74]



Fibrocystic disease and breast painEdit

Some women experience breast pain (mastodynia, mastalgia), particularly when performing strenuous physical activity or exercise. A properly fitted bra reduces such pain and the sports bra has been specifically designed for this purpose.[20][75] Sports bras were found to be more effective than ordinary bras for reducing breast pain caused by exercise.[76] However, the need for wearing a bra at all during exercise has been questioned following extensive studies on athletes and sportswomen.[72]

Numerous websites and publications dealing with fibrocystic disease and breast pain state that a well-fitting bra is recommended for treatment of these conditions.[77][78] For fibrocystic disease there are no studies to support these statements. For breast pain a 2006 clinical practice guideline,[79] makes this statement as level II-3 evidence and a grade B recommendation. However, this rests solely on two short communications of uncontrolled studies.[75][80] In the 1976 UK study, 114 women complaining of pain were professionally fitted with a special bra. 26% of women who completed the study and wore the bra properly had relief of pain, 49% improved, 21% did not, and 4% were worse. There were a lot of dropouts from the study. In the 2000 Saudi Arabia study, 200 women were randomly allocated to either a drug (danazole) or a Sports bra. 58% of the danazole group improved compared to 85% in the sports bra group.[75] No details of what the women wore prior to the study was given. Neither study had an untreated control, and there was no blinding. Breast pain has a very high placebo response (85%)[79] so that a response to any intervention might be expected. It is not clear whether the interventions described can be generalized to a large population. A similar number of websites claim improvement after stopping wearing bras. These are based on anecdotes, since there are no formal studies.

In the specific case of larger breasts, the bra lifts the breasts away from the chest and can prevent two skin surfaces from rubbing together. Without the bra, maceration (loss of skin), intertrigo (rash) and fungal infections are possible.[20]

Cause and impact on shoulder painEdit

File:Floé Kühnert cropped.jpg

Standard, well-fitting bras are constructed in the form of a "square frame", anchored by a chest band, with all dimensions fitted (i.e., adjusted) for each woman in a normal standing position with arms at their sides assuming that both breasts are equally sized and positioned. When a woman performs an activity which requires her to lift her arms above the shoulders, the bra's frame is strained and weight is transferred from the chest band to the shoulder straps, putting direct pressure on the trapezius muscles. Even a well-designed bra can thus cause or aggravate shoulder pain. This problem can affect female participants of sports such as volleyball, high jump, or long jump who must continually raise their arms during competition. Some occupations also require repeatedly raising the arms above the shoulders. Women may also experience shoulder pain when elevating their arms if they wear narrow ("spaghetti") strap, poorly designed, or badly fitted bras.[11][81] Each of these concentrates pressure on the trapezius muscle, which may result in neck and shoulder pain, numbness and tingling in the arm, and headaches.[82] Strapless bras put all the weight of the breasts onto the chest band, and extra strain onto the rib cage and back.[83]

To compensate, female athletes can wear athletic or sports bras that offer improved support. Sports bras do not meet some larger busted women's needs, however. "Larger-breasted women, and women who are breast-feeding, often have trouble finding a sports bra that fits, feels comfortable and provides sufficient motion control."[84]

In a five-year study, 100 women who developed pain in their shoulders were given the option to remove the breast weight from their shoulders by not wearing a bra for two weeks. In that two-week period, many experienced relief from pain. Relief was complete among 84% of women who did not elevate their arms. However, their pain symptoms returned within an hour of resuming bra use. Three years later, 79% of the patients had stopped wearing a bra "to remove breast weight from the shoulder permanently because it rendered them symptom free." Sixteen percent worked in occupations requiring them to elevate their arms daily, and this group only achieved partial improvement. Of these, 13 of the 16 ceased to wear a bra, and by six months all were without pain.[83]

Back painEdit

Back pain is particularly common among large-breasted women who wear bras which offer insufficient breast support. Bra fitting experts from Bravissimo, who specialize in large cup size bras, say that wearing the wrong size bra can lead to back pain:

Overestimating the width of their back and underestimating cup size... results in the weight of the breasts being carried by the shoulders rather than supported around the chest, and contributes to back pain.[85]

Upper back, shoulder, and neck pain can also be experienced by unusually large-breasted women no matter what size or style bra they wear, leading some women to seek breast reduction surgery.

Possible negative health consequencesEdit

While bras prevent the breasts from sagging against the chest wall they may cause negative health consequences. Bras that are too tight can actually compress the breasts against the chest, possibly constricting the lymphatic system and inhibiting its beneficial effect upon breast tissue.[86][87] Too tight bras also pull the upper thoracic and cervical vertebrae (spine) forward and down, interfering with back, shoulder and chest movement.[20] Others[88] believe that wearing a bra can actually increase the downward movement of the breasts with age, because the chest (pectoralis) muscles that support breasts are used less and atrophy from lack of use.[89]

Like corsets, health professionals have also had concerns about the constricting effects of brassieres, although this varies considerably with design and the relative size of the bra and the breast. While at least sports bras do not usually cause any significant impairment in respiration,[90] some bras may put pressure on nerves.[91][92]

Of particular concern have been claims that the bra causes or contributes to breast cancer. This is denied by major cancer organisations but frequently expressed by women. The major study on which this theory is based is a cross cultural cohort study, which was published as a book "Dressed to Kill" by two epidemiologists, Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, who noted low rates of cancer in cultures that do not use bras. The theory is based on the idea that constriction interferes with lymphatic drainage and heats the breast. No prospective study has attempted to confirm or refute this, although there are substantial difficulties associated with this given the many risk factors already known and confounding with cultural factors. Nevertheless such theories continue to be raised in the medical literature.[93]

See alsoEdit

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  • Bras, the Bare Facts. Channel 4 (UK), November 2000

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