History of the Bra: but… how does it feel?

There are many things that can be learnt about fashion history by studying surviving garments, but there is one question that I always get asked when I show my own personal research collection which is really tricky to answer simply by looking, or by touching the fabric with your fingers. How does it feel to wear?

When twenty-first century hands touch mid-twentieth century nylon, it can feel hard and sometimes scratchy. Some 1940s rayon bras seem stiff compared to the equivalent styles you might buy today. 1950s bras can appear to be uncomfortable and unyielding. Of course, some of this is all about context – for example, if you were used to wearing only close fitting clothing with no stretch fabrics at all, then wearing a bra that’s made out of heavy cotton probably wouldn’t feel at all strange. However, we can’t really begin to attempt to answer the question ‘how did that bra feel to wear?’ without at least trying it on.

As most of my own personal collection is way too small for me, and everyone’s perception of what’s comfortable is different, I am looking to recruit some participants for a little research project. There are two ways of taking part in this: attend a workshop and try on one or more of the bras that I will provide or, if you own any vintage bras that fit you, try on your own garments at home. In addition to taking notes on how the bras feel to wear, we will also be able to note how they look on the body. Depending on the size and structure of the bra, this will sometimes be very different to how they look on a mannequin or dress stand!

Option 1: Attending a workshop
I have around 30 vintage bras in my collection dating from 1930s to 1990s and am looking to gather data on how they look and feel when worn. Participants need to be willing to try on some of the bras and, for any which fit reasonably well, be recorded (audio only) speaking about how the garment feels, both physically and emotionally/psychologically. I shall also take photographs (shoulders to waist only, no one’s face will be visible) to show the shape and silhouette that the bra gives the body*.

As the bras vary in size, I am looking for participants who wear contemporary bra sizes ranging from 28AA to 34F (roughly UK clothing sizes 6 to 16) as these are the most likely to fit into at least one of the bras in my collection. I have one workshop date planned so far and it will take place on Thursday 7th July from 5.30pm until 7.30pm at London College of Fashion, 20 John Prince’s Street, London W1G 0BJ. The closest Tube station is Oxford Circus. Please note that, although the workshop space will be private, there will not be a separate changing room so participants need to be comfortable in a communal environment.

I am also hoping to do a second workshop in another location (most likely, Leeds). If you are interested in attending either of these sessions, please email me for further information.

A dramatic pointed cup shape on a bra dating from the 1940s.

Option 2: Trying on your own garment(s)
If you have a collection of your own (however small!) and have bras in it that you know you can fit into, you can also take part in the project as a remote participant. I will provide instructions for how to take the photos, and a list of questions that I’d like you to record yourself answering whilst wearing the bra. You would then save the image(s) and the recording(s) to a Dropbox folder. If you are interested in taking part this way, please email me to discuss it.

Please Note: The images taken in the workshop and shared by the remote participants will primarily be used for reference purposes by the researcher (Lorraine Smith) and will only be used in published academic research with express permission of the participant. The audio recordings will not be published, only excerpts from anonymised transcripts. Consent forms with full details of the project will be provided. Participants can opt out at any time.

Label from a St Michael (Marks & Spencer) strapless bandeau bra from the 1980s.

2 thoughts on “History of the Bra: but… how does it feel?

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  1. Hi Lori I would be interested in your project. I have a small collection of bras from the 50s and 60s but mostly longline and also a couple of merry widows and a full corselette. I would be able to photograph them and document them remotely.

    1. It would be so good to have you involved in the project. I’ll message you soon with more details. Thank you!

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