The tale of a lingerie obsession

Retro lingerie by Kiss Me Deadly
Lingerie by Kiss Me Deadly

I have always had a passion for clothing and, more recently, underwear. A personal search for a decent suspender belt a decade ago began an obsession with the design of lingerie, and my subsequent discovery of several UK-based retro brands gave me a surprising insight into the lingerie styles and tastes of the mid 20th century onwards. However, despite finding undergarments to fit and flatter the bottom half of my body, bra fit was always a problem for me and I never had a clear idea what I was supposed to be doing to find my perfect size. This began my fascination with the size and fit of bras as well as the design and construction.

A fitting appointment at large cup retailer Bravissimo was a turning point for me, as I was shown a way to find a bra which fits by looking at what is wrong with the fit of the bra you are currently wearing. I left the appointment with well fitting lingerie and the knowledge of what I should be looking for in the fit of a bra. The main points were:

  • A snug band which rests horizontally across the back.
  • Straps which can be adjusted to allow only an inch of stretch on the shoulders.
  • Underwires that sit flat to the chest and do not press against breast tissue.
  • Cups which encapsulate without either bulging or excess fabric.

They also taught me the best way to put on a bra and that you should use the loosest clasp first, tightening as needed when the elastic stretches due to washing and wear. Once I knew all this, I was surprised that it had not been mentioned at every bra fitting I have ever had. Instead, fitters had used a tape measure to determine my size but had then provided very little assistance afterwards.

Fleur Bra by Bravissimo
Lingerie by Bravissimo

After looking at the ranges offered by Bravissimo – including brands like Curvy Kate, Freya and Panache – I then became fascinated by the number of cup sizes now available in the UK and the consumers’ apparent lack of understanding of them. This prompted me to ask several questions regarding bra sizing and fit. When were cup sizes first introduced, who started using them in the UK, and when was the range of available sizes expanded? How was bra size first determined and has this approach to measurement changed? Do UK women currently know how to determine their own bra size? Is there any standardisation in the sizing adopted between brands in the UK, and around the world? I then began some preliminary research, online and in the London College of Fashion library, to see if any of these questions could be easily answered.

The modern bra is perhaps unique amongst garments in its requirements for fit, comfort, support and style. Yet all of the books that I have read so far on the subject of women’s underwear in general, or bras specifically, have focussed on only one of those aspects: the design and aesthetics of lingerie. Many books predominantly focus on the styles and trends of bra design since the garment first appeared as a breast supporter or “bust improver” – a companion to underbust corsets – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is often little or no mention of the sizing or fit of these garments, which is something that would have been of vital importance to the women wearing them. Considering that the introduction of cup sizes was an important change to the way bras were designed, manufactured and worn, I considered this to be a large gap in the current research. In addition, many readily available books on lingerie appear to be either lacking in references for the information they provide, or are simply full of photographs and little else.

Triumph advert from Draper's Record, 1965
1960s advertisement for Triumph in The Draper’s Record. EMap and the London College of Fashion Archives

The books I have found which do cover the fit and sizing of bras in more detail fall into two main categories: sewing manuals and fitting guides by self proclaimed bra experts. It would appear that many people feel that there is much money to be made from the average woman’s lack of understanding of bra sizing and fit, which goes some way to explain a near constant repetition of the widely held belief that 70-85% of women are wearing the wrong size bra. All this led me to propose a Master’s project, for my MA History and Culture of Fashion course, based on bra fit and sizing in the UK but I have since realised that my initial concept was too narrow. I have now expanded my remit to cover technical advancements which supported changes in bra design between 1930 and 1990. Cup sizing was an important change in the way bras were designed and manufactured, but we wouldn’t have the modern bra at all without the development of elastic fibres and the introduction of adjustable straps and fastenings.

M&S Underwear Innovations, 1960
M&S Underwear Innovations, 1960. Marks & Spencer Company Archive

I will look at archive garments from different UK brands and eras: comparing the construction methods, fabrics and fastenings used; and taking measurements to determine any connection with the physical dimensions and the size on the label. I will also use printed archive material to investigate ways in which the construction of the bra was adapted to support the ever changing fashionable female silhouette of the mid-twentieth century. This could include manufacturers technical specifications, advertising material, trade journals and consumer magazines. I hope to use the Marks and Spencer Company Archive in Leeds and the Symington Collection of corsetry, foundation garments and swimwear in Leicestershire as my primary sources for two case studies. In addition, I shall contact other museums and archives across the UK and hope to arrange visits if they hold objects that appear to be relevant to my research. It’s a lot to do by November 2014 (especially alongside a full-time job), but I’m up for the challenge!

So, a search for a suspender belt led to four acaademic essays on lingerie, one on technical innovation in swimwear and a dissertation on bras. Has a shopping trip, or other small frustration/realisation resulted in a large change to your life? If so, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your stories!

Images via Kiss Me Deadly, Bravissimo and the M&S Heritage Twitter account. The third image was taken by me in the LCF Archives.

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