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The history of the bra and the perfect fit

5 min read

The history of the bra and the perfect fit

Learn how the bra came to be, and how to find the right size for you

When you think of getting dressed in the morning, you are likely to start with your bra and knickers! For a piece of clothing mostly hidden from view under clothes, the bra is a feat of engineering.  

The changing trends in bras reflect the changing roles of women and society. Clothes have multiple functions, and while the bra supports breasts, it also reflects changing fashion as it shapes the breast to give the required look.   

A brief history of the bra 


Bras have been around in some form for thousands of years

The first documented bras are from the Bronze age. They were a linen or leather band, called a mastoeides, which held the breasts underneath, rather like a shelf or push up bra, but left the breasts themselves exposed. In Ancient Greece women wore what look like bandeau bras over their clothes and by the Romans cloth was wound tightly around the breasts under the clothes. 

From approximately the 15th century onwards the corset came into fashion, longer than a bra, reaching down the trunk to both lift the breasts and give shape to the body. The structure of corsets and girdles changed over the following four centuries to create different figure shapes according to fashion. In 1869, Herminie Cadolle split the corset into two, with the upper part being a brassiere and the lower part the corset for the waist, perhaps inventing the first bra. 

At the end of the 19th century, when the rational dress movement began, it was felt that corsets, in particular tight fitting corsets, posed a risk to health. And so the tight fitting corsets over time were replaced with looser garments and bras.  


It wasn't until the First World War, when metal was scarce, that corsets were replaced by brassieres

It was actually the events of the First World War which sped up this progress as all available metal was used for the war effort, leaving none for corsets, and women took on more work which would be impractical if they were still corset bound. The word brassiere was first used in the fashion magazine Vogue in 1907, and was included in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time in 1911.   

By the 1930s, the bra as we recognise it now and cup sizes appeared, though these initially were cups A-D and were given the nicknames: egg cup, tea cup, coffee cup and challenge cup! By the 1970s, the first sports bra was invented, initially from two jockstraps sewn together. It was called the “jogbra” to be used, well, when jogging!  

"Just as events in history have shaped the bra, so too has the bra shaped the world"

And still, fashion changes and global developments play a role. Research during the coronavirus pandemic showed that women moved from buying structured wired bras to softer fitting ones, and more recent research suggests that the trend is reverting after restrictions ended.   

But just as events in history have shaped the bra, so too has the bra shaped the world.  The first spacesuits used technology for bras and were made by Playtex

How to find the right bra size 


Taking measurements is very helpful to finding the right bra size, but be aware that there is no standardisation between companies

Despite versions of bras being around for hundreds and hundreds of years, it is commonly quoted that 80 per cent of women are wearing an ill-fitting or wrong sized bra. This is hardly surprising as there is no standardisation between companies, or even within companies, about what bra sizes mean, and the systems of measuring and sizing differ globally. After all, what does a size 34C actually mean and is a 34C the same in every brand? Unfortunately not.    

Actually, the size of the bra itself does not matter, what is important is whether or not the bra fits. Having a basic understanding of bra sizing and how to measure yourself is a useful starting point, but then when you start trying, even if you have the assistance of a bra fitter, there is always an element of trial and error! 

"80 per cent of women are wearing an ill-fitting or wrong sized bra"

First measure the band size, by measuring in inches under the bust. If the number is even, then add four inches, if it is odd add five. For example if you measured 30 inches with your tape measure, your band size would be 34, if you measured 31 inches it would be 36. 

Then measure the bust size around the fullest part of your breast (generally around the nipple), but don’t pull too tightly—the tape measure should not dig into your breasts,—rounding up to the nearest inch. Subtract the band size from your bust measurement to calculate the cup size. Each inch is a letter, so if the difference between a band size of 36 inches and a bust measurement of 40 inches is four, this means that your cup size is a D.   

The cup size is not the volume of the breast as the volume a bra holds also depends on the band size, meaning that a 36B bra is bigger than a 34B bra, even though they both are a B cup. This means that you can move between sizes—if you find that your bra is too big on the cup you can move up a band size but down a cup size. For example, if a 36D bra is too big on the cup, then move to a 38C, increasing the band size to compensate, called sister sizing.   


The breasts should fit in the cups without bulging or gaping, and the centre of the bra should sit flat against the breastbone

In a well-fitting bra the band should be level all the way round, meaning that the back of the bra should not rise up but be level with the front of the band. This may be lower than you think. It should fit snugly but not too tightly, being able to slide no more than one finger underneath on the loosest hook (as all bras loosen with age).   

"If you find that your bra is too big on the cup you can move up a band size but down a cup size"

Adjust the straps so they neither dig in nor are too loose.  The breasts should fit in the cups without bulging or gaping, and the centre of the bra should sit flat against the breastbone. Bra fitters are helpful but it is important to know and be able to look after your breasts, and for many people bras are a part of that! 

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