Lorraine Hamilton Smith, Yarwood Grant winner 2014

From Kestos to Ultrabra: Technological Changes to the Bra in the UK, 1930-1994

Although it is important to both fashion history and women’s history, the bra is often overlooked or only discussed from a purely aesthetic or erotic perspective. I aimed to address this with my Master’s research. My dissertation looks at the technological developments which led from the subtle uplift of the 1930s to the ego-boosting cleavage of the 1990s, discussing how these developments were used by manufacturers and retailers to sell bras to the consumer.

Although this topic appeared at first to cover well-trodden ground, closer examination of the literature currently on offer indicated otherwise. While there are plenty of books available on the history of lingerie, the vast majority of them are not academic texts and are filled with images but little or no references for the reported facts they include. Some books are dedicated entirely to the bra but there is not much space devoted to anything other than design, and even less coverage of the technological developments which made those designs possible.

The recurring themes which emerged from the lingerie, bra and textiles books I explored indicated that brassiere design and the development of manmade fibres are vastly intertwined and have had an influence on women’s lives that is far greater than that of the majority of other individual garments or technologies. This highlighted a need for a more comprehensive and balanced history of the bra, as remarked upon by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau in their book Uplift: The Bra in America. Nothing similar is currently available regarding the history of the bra in the UK.

Receiving the Yarwood Award enabled me to not only arrange trips to two extremely useful archive collections outside London, but it also ensured that I had funds to build a personal collection which would provide further evidence of the developments I had read about. The collection includes British garments which highlight key developments – including new fabrics, construction, printing techniques and support, such as underwiring – and also includes a lingerie catalogue from the late 1970s. This collection has now been donated to the London College of Fashion Archives, allowing it to be used by students and researchers to inform their own work. If you are interested in viewing any of the objects, email archives@fashion.arts.ac.uk to book an appointment.

It was evident from the garments viewed during my research that, although technological advancements have played an extremely important part in the development of the bra since 1930, there have been relatively few new features introduced since the late 1970s. Most of the pattern cutting developments in bra cup construction took place in the decades from 1930s to 1950s, with underwiring and graded cup sizes becoming features of some styles of bra in the UK towards the end of this period. Padding and pre-forming have also been used since the 50s with colourful printed fabrics and adjustable stretch straps, like those on the majority of twenty-first century bras, available from the 1960s. Advances in moulding technology gave bra wearers seam-free cups in the 1970s but, since then, any new developments appear to have merely been improvements to the comfort of styles and features that were already available.

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