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A brassiere (Brit. /'bɹæzɪə(ɹ)/; U.S. /bɹə'ziɹ/, commonly referred to as a bra, /bɹɑ/) is an article of clothing that covers, supports, and elevates the breasts.

The bra is considered a foundation garment, as well as an undergarment, because of its role in shaping the wearer's figure. It was originally developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to replace the corset, and has now become, in many parts of the world, the most popular form of undergarment for the upper body.

The bra may be worn to support and enhance breast shape during everyday activities and a specialized bra, the sports bra to support and restrain breasts during exercise. The bra may also be worn to observe modesty or to present a certain image of femininity. Bras are typically designed to lift the breasts into a particular position, for a more youthful look or for enhancing cleavage. These roles are sometimes conflicting. Some designers aim at producing a garment that fulfills a practical role as well as making it look attractive. Bras are also used during pregnancy (when breasts are enlarged and more sensitive), and for nursing (see nursing bra) to support and provide access for breast feeding.

Some have questioned the practical need for the bra given that some women prefer not to wear a bra and go braless on a regular basis. The bra has become charged with political and cultural meanings that overlay its practical purpose. Traditionally it is viewed as symbolic of a young girl's coming of age. It can also be interpreted as a feminine icon. On the other hand, some feminists consider brassieres symbols of the repression of women's bodies



Support of the bosom by a bodice (French: brassiére from 1900)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. 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. Manufacturers were using the term by about 1904, Vogue magazine first used it in 1907, and by 1911 the word had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. On 13 November 1914, the newly formed US patent category for "brassieres" was inaugurated with a patent issued to Mary Phelps Jacob.

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.

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 seventh century BC during the Minoan civilization era. Similar functionality was achieved by both outerwear and underwear.

From the 16th century onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 19th century, 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 20th century, 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 (although some prefer camisoles), 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.

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 the rich women. (Oriental Clothing and Modern Fetishism, various authors, ed. Partho Shanner, 1996, Yeti, Hong Kong). While they first arose in the Ming Dynasty, were also common in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In English they are known as 'stomach protectors' or 'tummy covers'

Construction and fit

A brassiere usually consists of two cups for breasts, a centre panel (gore), a band running around the torso under the bust, and a shoulder strap for each side. Brassieres are typically made of a fabric, such as cotton or polyester. Spandex and lace are also often used for various parts of the bra. The cups for the breasts may be reinforced by underwires made of metal sometimes coated in plastic. 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 at all.

Some bras contain padding, designed either to increase comfort, to conceal the nipples, or to make the breasts appear larger. Breast pads, commonly known as "falsies" or "cutlets", are sometimes worn between the breasts and the bra to create the illusion of a larger cup size. Push-up bras in particular are designed to enhance the cleavage and use padding and the cut of the pattern to achieve this effect.


The backstrap (underband) and cups should provide most of the support, rather than the shoulder straps, which are responsible for a number of health problems (see Mechanical principles, below).

When viewed from the side, the underband that runs around the body should be horizontal, should not ride up the back, and should be firm but comfortable. The underwires at the front should lie flat against the rib cage (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.

There should not be a ridge or any bulging over the top or sides of the cups, even with a low-cut style such as the balconette bra.

Mechanical principles

The average breast weighs about 0.5 kg (1.1 lbs). 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 from below (as corsets do). Over-reliance on the platform (backstrap) for support will lead to undue compression of the breasts, so much of the weight tends to be carried by the shoulder strap, particularly for larger breasts.

The major engineering weakness of the bra 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.

Size and measurement

The comfort and function of any given bra is highly dependent on the correct size and fit. A large range of sizes are available to cater to the wide variety in the size of women's breasts and bodies. Bra sizes typically vary in two ways: the volume of the cups that fit over the breast, and the length of the back strap that goes around the body. It is essential that the bra fit correctly in both of these dimensions. There is typically some ability to adjust the band size, since bras usually have three or four alternative sets of fastening hooks. The shoulder straps of a bra are also almost always adjustable. The size of women's breasts is often expressed in terms of her usual bra size. Note on cup size vs. volume, in US fluid ounces and cubic centimeters - A = 8 fl. oz. = 236 cm³, B = 13 fl. oz. = 384 cm³, C = 21 fl. oz. = 621 cm³, D = 27 fl. oz. = 798 cm³, reference from History of Bras show on Discovery Health.

Measurement systems

Although all bras are labeled by size, many women find that the only way to obtain a bra that fits properly and achieves the effect they want is by trying a bra on with each bra type, model and brand.

Though many countries use the metric system, the majority of nations still use imperial units to determine the underband size of the bra itself.

There are several methods which may be used to provide an approximate size by taking measurements. However, bra sizing systems differ widely between countries, between manufacturers, and between brands and designs, which can create many problems. Many researchers have demonstrated that these problems arise because fit requires knowing the breast volume, not the body circumference (the distance around the body), which is what is actually measured. Although bra sizing uses the circumference to estimate the volume, this has been shown to be highly unreliable.

The size of a bra is commonly described by two values. The first is the band size (underband), a number based on the circumference of the chest under the bust, excluding the breasts. The second is the cup size given by a letter of the alphabet, and relating to the volume of the breasts themselves. For example, a 30D bra has a 30-size band and a D-size cup. Cup sizes typically start with AA, the smallest, and increase alphabetically. Double or triple lettering systems are also used, e.g. DDD for F or AA for a size smaller than A.

To provide women with better fitting bras, manufacturer Playtex recently introduced a range of half-sizes between cup sizes A and D. These half sizes are denoted by fractions, so that Playtex now provides bras in A, A½, B, B½, C, C½, and D cups.

Band size is usually determined by measuring body circumference under the breasts as tight as possible. A second measurement is a loose fit taken of the chest circumference over the fullest part of the breasts (overbust). The cup size can then be calculated with tables or a conversion tool from the difference between these two measurements.

The mean underband circumference in the UK is 34 inches (86 cm). For the overbust measurement, this is 40 inches (101 cm), for women 18–64 years.

Fitting difficulties

Women often find it difficult to find the correct bra size. To achieve perfect sizing consistently, a bra would have to be custom made, because a "one-size-fits-all" manufacturing process is fraught with difficulties. Breasts vary in the position on the chest, and in their diameters.

A number of stores have certified professional bra-fitters specialists. However, even bra fitters have been shown to be quite variable in their recommendations. Buying "off-the-shelf" or "online" bras is unwise if the buyer has never tried on the brand and type of bra that they are interested in buying.

Some bra manufacturers and distributors state that trying on and learning to recognize a proper fit is the best way to determine a correct bra size, much the same as with shoes. Some critics observe that measuring systems such as the one described above often lead to an incorrect size, most commonly too small in the cup, and too large in the band. For anyone, especially cup sizes larger than a D, one should get a professional bra fitting from the lingerie department of a clothing store or a specialty lingerie store.

Some women intentionally buy larger cups and pad them, while yet others buy smaller cups to give the appearance of being "full". Finally, the elastic properties of the band make band size highly unreliable, and in one study the label size was consistently different from the measured size. Fashion and image drive the bra market, and these factors often take precedence over comfort and function.

As already noted, there is no agreed standard across all manufacturers for measuring and specifying bra size. Obtaining the correct size is further complicated by the fact that the size and shape of a woman's breasts fluctuate during her menstrual cycle, and also with weight gain or loss. Even breathing can substantially alter the measurements. It is frequently stated, from the results of surveys and studies in many different countries, that between 70 and 100% of women wear incorrectly fitted bras. Larger breasted women tend to wear bras that are too small, and smaller breasted women, ones that are too large. Larger women are more likely to have an incorrect bra fit. This may be partly due to a lack of understanding of how to correctly determine bra size; it may also be due to unusual or unexpectedly rapid growth in size brought on by pregnancy, weight gain, or medical conditions including virginal breast hypertrophy.

As breasts become larger, their shape and the distribution of the tissues within them changes, becoming ptotic and bulbous rather than conical. This makes measurements increasingly unreliable, especially for large breasts. Similarly the heavier a build the woman has, the more inaccurate the underbust measurement as the tape sinks into the flesh more easily. Finally, most women are asymmetrical (10% severely), with the left breast being larger in 62%, especially when the breasts are large.

Many of the health problems associated with bras are due to fitting problems and are discussed further below, under health problems. However, finding a comfortable fit is described as very difficult by many women, which has affected sales. Medical studies have also attested to the difficulty of getting a correct fit. Scientific studies show that the current system of bra sizing is quite inadequate.

External links

Examples of bras

This article is about Lingerie and undergarments
Main article and index is at Lingerie

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