A brassiere (pronounced UK: /ˈbræzɪə/, US: /brəˈzɪər/; commonly referred to as a bra /ˈbrɑː/) is an article of clothing that covers, supports, and elevates the breasts. Since the late 19th century, it has replaced the corset as the most widely accepted method for supporting a woman's breasts. Bras are these days worn by women in almost all parts of the world.
Women wear bras for a variety of purposes, for support, to improve the shape of breasts, to reduce or to enlarge the perceived breast size, to restrain breast movement during an activity such as during exercise, to enhance their cleavage or to facilitate nursing. Most bras are designed to lift the breasts off the chest wall if they sag and to restrain them from movement. Bra designers strive to produce a garment that is both practical and attractive.
The bra has become a feminine icon or symbol charged with political and cultural meanings that overlay its practical purpose. Some feminists consider the brassiere a symbol of the repression of women's bodies. Historically, when a young girl gets her first bra, it may be symbolic of her coming of age.
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 November 13, 1914, the newly formed U.S. 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.
There is an urban legend that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere (fill up the brassiere). This originated with the 1971 book Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra and was propagated in a song from the movie Beaches.
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 1400s BC during the Minoan civilization era. Similar functionality was achieved by both outerwear and underwear. 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 rich women. Popularity continued into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In English they are known as "stomach protectors" or "tummy covers".
From the 1500s onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 1800s, 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 1900s, 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 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.
A brassiere usually consists of two cups for breasts, a centre panel (gore), a band running around the torso under the bust, and shoulder straps. Some bras are strapless. Bras are typically made of a fabric such as cotton or polyester. Spandex and lace may also be used for various parts of the bra. The cups may be supported by underwires made of metal and sometimes coated in plastic. Strapless bras typically rely on support using underwires. Bras without underwires rely on support provided by the band under the bust. These bras are sometimes referred to as softcup bras.
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.
Some bras contain padding, designed to increase comfort and to conceal the nipples through the material. Breast pads are also sometimes used inside the cups to create the illusion of a larger breast size. Push-up bras are designed to enhance cleavage and use padding and the cut of the pattern to achieve this effect.
The chest band and cups should provide support for most of the weight of the breasts, rather than the shoulder straps. Over-reliance on the straps for support can result in health problems for the woman. In most bras the straps are adjustable by sliding fasteners, and are usually made of a stretchable material such as spandex.
The average breast weighs about 0.5 kilograms (1.1 lb). Each breast contributes to about 4-5% of the body fat and thus 1% of the total body weight of an average woman. 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 solely from below (as corsets do). Over-reliance on the shoulder straps for support can lead to poor posture, back pain and neck pain due to pinched nerves. In a well-fitted bra, 80% of the breast weight is supported by the chest band, something which is particularly important for larger breasts.
The major engineering weakness of the bra, particularly if poorly fitted, 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.
There is considerable variation in women's breast volume, shape, size and spacing. A woman's breast volume may be more at the bottom, sides or top, and this will affect the bra size actually needed. Bra sizes are merely a way of standardizing these factors for a "close" fit, which are not necessarily the correct fit. A correctly fitted bra is determined by accurately calculating a woman's chest size (on the bra called the band size) and her breast size (called the cup size). The band size can typically be adjusted, using the two or three alternate sets of fastening hooks that are usually provided. Most bra straps can also be adjusted.
There are several labeling systems in use that provide approximate bra sizes. Unlike dress sizes, international manufacturers have not agreed on a single standard. British bra brands can range in cup size from A to K, while most Americans can find bras with cup sizes ranging from A to G, although some brands go as high as L. In 2009 the most sold bra size in the US was 36DD, an increase of one cup size compared to 2008. Manufacturers' marketing and advertising often appeals to fashion and image over fit, comfort and function. Many physicians have found in their research that bra size is meaningless because breast volume is not calculated accurately.
The current popular system of determining bra size is inaccurate so often as to be useless. Add to this the many different styles of bras and the lack of standardization between brands, and one can see why finding a comfortable, well-fitting bra is more a matter of educated guesswork, trial, and error than of precise measurements.
Women often have a difficult time finding a correctly fitted bra because of the limitations of standard bra sizes. In a study of 103 women seeking mammoplasty, researchers concluded that "obesity, breast hypertrophy, fashion and bra-fitting practices combine to make those women who most need supportive bras the least likely to get accurately fitted bras." Their research found that bra measuring systems often lead women to choose an incorrect size, most commonly resulting in too large a cup size (by a mean of three sizes) and too small a band size (by a mean of 4 sizes).
In November, 2005, Oprah Winfrey produced a show devoted to bras and bra sizes, during which she revealed research that eight out of ten women wear the wrong size bra. Some bra manufacturers and distributors state that trying on and learning to recognize a properly fitting bra is the best way to determine a correct bra size, much like shoes.
Larger-breasted women tend to wear bras that are too small, and conversely, smaller-breasted women bras 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 breasted women. The heavier a woman's build, the more difficult it is to obtain accurate measurements, as measuring tape sinks into the flesh more easily. Finally, most women's' breasts are asymmetrical (10% severely), with the left breast being larger in 62%, especially when the breasts are large.
The results of a number of surveys and studies in many different countries show that between 70% to 100% of women wear incorrectly fitted bras. Normally a perfect fit can only be achieved by purchasing a custom-made bra, which takes into account the position of a woman's breasts on her chest and asymmetrical positioning and size of her breasts.
Bra experts recommend that women, especially those whose cup sizes are D or larger, get a professional bra fitting from the lingerie department of a clothing store or a specialty lingerie store. 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. One study found that the label size was consistently different from the measured size. Even breathing can substantially alter the measurements. So it is not surprising that even professional bra fitters have been shown to produce different recommendations for the same woman. A 2004 study found that 80% of department store bra fittings resulted in a poor fit.
The British Chiropractic Association warned that wearing the wrong bra size can lead to a number of problems, including back pain, restricted breathing, abrasions, breast pain and poor posture. Many of the health problems associated with bras are due to fitting problems. Finding a correct fit can be very difficult for 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.
There is a wide range of brassiere styles available, designed to match different body types, situations, and outer garments. The degree of shaping and coverage of the breasts varies between styles, as do functionality, fashion, fabric, and color. Common types include backless, balconette, convertible, cupless, demi cup, front-fastening, full coverage, halter, longline, minimizing, padded, plunge, push-up, racerback, sports/athletic, strapless, strapless-backless, t-shirt, underwired, wireless, sports bra, and invisible.
Many Western women place a great deal of importance on their physical appearance, especially their body shape and body image. The Western media, especially advertising, emphasizes a woman's body shape, especially her breasts. By far the majority of adult women in the United States are not happy with their breasts.
Perky breasts are widely considered to be a marker of youth. Within Western cultures that place great value upon youth, bras are marketed to emphasize their ability to preserve a youthful appearance. The design of fashionable rather than solely functional bras, has been influenced by changing fashions in outerwear and in popular culture. In the United States, the shape of bras has changed. During the 1920s, breasts were from flat as typified by the Flapper era. In the 1930s, Maidenform developed cup sizes and breasts got some support, developing a rounded look. During the 1940s and 1950s, a conical shape like the bullet bra worn by Jane Russell in the The Outlaw, which featured a special bra designed by Howard Hughes (though unknown to Hughes she declined to wear it).
In the 1970s, the "natural" shaped bra became fashionable. In response to the feminist era, many bra manufacturers' marketing claimed that wearing a bra would be like not wearing a bra. Although in popular culture the invention of the bra is frequently attributed to men, in fact women have played a large part in bra design and manufacture, accounting for half of the patents filed.
The average American woman today owns six bras, one of which is a strapless bra, and one in a colour other than white. Consumers spend around $16 billion a year on bras. In the last 15 years alone, the average bust size among North American women has increased from 34B to 36C. While reliable data is hard to obtain, it is thought that in the Western world about 90% of women wear bras. Some women wear bras because of notions of modesty; others because they believe that it is part of their cultural norm and that not wearing a bra would lead to ostracism. Some wear bras because they believe it improves their appearance; while others because they find wearing a bra more comfortable than going without.
Bras are a relatively recent invention and are by no means universally worn around the world. In a cross-cultural study of bra size and cancer in 9,000 women during the 1960s, a Harvard group found 93% of women wore bras (from 88% in the UK to 99% in Greece), but could not find enough women in Japan who wore bras to complete their study. In a number of cultures, including Europe and other Westernized countries outside the United States, there are no social restrictions against sunbathing or swimming topless. There is less emphasis on the necessity to wear a bra as well.
The prevalence of the bra, and perceived social expectation to wear one, does not imply that openly displaying it is encouraged. On the contrary, it is often not considered suitable to expose one's brassiere in public in western cultures, even partially, despite the fact that it is similar in appearance to the upper part of a bikini; to do so may be considered sexually provocative.
Even considering this relative cultural taboo, being seen in one's bra is still more socially acceptable than exposing the bare breasts. Indeed, women may choose to be seen in just a bra to make a specific point. For instance, bras have recently been used by organisations like breast cancer charities to raise money, either by sponsored walks or to sell bras owned or decorated by celebrities.
The Transportation Security Administration recommends against underwire bras because they can set off the metal detectors, though some travellers say they wear them and they don't set off the detector every time. According to underwire manufacturer S & S Industries of New York, who supply bras to Victoria's Secret, Bali, Warner's, Playtex, Vanity Fair and other bra labels, about 70 percent of women wear steel underwire bras.
In response, Triumph International, a Swiss company, launched what it called a "Frequent Flyer Bra" in late 2001. The bra uses metal-free clasps and underwires made of resin instead of metal that are guaranteed to not set off metal detectors.
Some feminist writers consider the bra as an example of how women's clothing has shaped and even deformed women's bodies to historically aesthetic ideals, or shaped them to conform to male expectations of what is desirable. Professor Lisa Jardine observed feminist Germaine Greer talking about bras at a formal college dinner:
At the graduates' table, Germaine was explaining that there could be no liberation for women, no matter how highly educated, as long as we were required to cram our breasts into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses, two stitched white cantilevered cones which bore no resemblance to the female anatomy. The willingly suffered discomfort of the Sixties bra, she opined vigorously, was a hideous symbol of male oppression.
Another movement, sometimes called topfreedom, questions the medical or social necessity of bras.
In October 2009, Somalia’s hardline Islamist group Al-Shabaab forced women in public to shake their breasts at gunpoint to see if they wore bras, which they called "un-Islamic". Those found to be wearing a bra were publicly whipped because bras are seen as "deceptive" and to violate their interpretation of Sharia law.
Anatomically, the breasts are squishy areas of glandular tissue, with few support structures, such as connective tissue. Breasts are composed of the mammary glands, which remain relatively constant throughout life, as well as the adipose tissue or fat tissue that surrounds the mammary glands. It is the amount and distribution of adipose tissue and, to a lesser extent, glandular tissue that leads to variations in breast size. In addition, the breasts contain internal ligaments, although their exact function as related to breast support is controversial. These ligaments, and the overlying skin (referred to as the dermal brassiere) help determine the resulting breast shape.
As the breasts mature, they fold over the lower attachment to the chest wall (infra-mammary fold), and their lower (inferior) surface lies against the chest wall when vertical. In popular culture, this maturation is referred to as "sagging" or "drooping", although plastic surgeons refer to it as ptosis. The surgical procedure to lift the breast is called mastopexy.
Although the exact mechanisms that determine breast shape and size remain largely unknown, it has long been claimed that this occurs because the normal anatomical support is inadequate, especially in older women and those with larger breasts. Hence the bra is often proposed as a means of providing artificial support, based on the presumption that the breasts cannot support themselves. Health professionals have, however, found no evidence to suggest that the bra slows ptosis of breasts. Bra manufacturers have also stated that bras only affect the shape of breasts while they are being worn.
Indeed, there are indications that wearing a bra may have an effect opposite to that which was intended. In a Japanese study, 11 women were measured wearing a standardised fitted bra for three months. They found that breasts became larger and lower, with the underbust measurement decreasing and the overbust increasing, while the lowest point of the breast moved downwards and outwards. The effect was more pronounced in larger-breasted women. This may be related to the particular bra chosen for the experiment. There was some improvement after changing to a different model. These findings were confirmed in a much larger French study of 250 women who exercised regularly and were followed by questionnaires and biometric measurements for a year after agreeing not to wear a bra. While there was some initial discomfort at the first evaluation, this gradually disappeared and by the end of the year nearly all the women had improved comfort compared to before the study. The measurements showed firmer, and more elevated and youthful breasts. One example is given of a woman who had breasts that were uncomfortably large, and who had improvement after two years of being without a bra.
While some may dispute the reasons why breasts change in shape with age and argue over whether or not the process can be delayed or reversed by wearing a bra, it is a natural process of bodily change. Health ethicists are concerned that plastic surgery and implants have altered our concept of what is "normal" and medicalised women's bodies by making a normal process a "disease."
"There is no medical reason to wear a bra. ... The decision is yours, based on your own personal comfort and aesthetics. And even though, as little girls, we were told that bras save us from hanging breasts, ... whether you have always worn a bra or always gone bra-less, age and breastfeeding will naturally cause your breasts to sag." Dr. Niels Lauersen
"Breasts were fine before the invention of the brassiere. ... This is similar to the myth that women supposedly need corsets to support their stomach muscles...wearing a bra...has no medical necessity whatsoever. ... Except for the women who find bras especially comfortable or uncomfortable, the decision to wear or not wear one is purely aesthetic — or emotional ... If you don't enjoy it, and job or social pressures don't force you into it, don't bother. ... A mistaken popular belief maintains that wearing a bra strengthens your breasts and prevents their eventual sagging. But you sag because of the proportion of fat and tissue in your breasts, and no bra changes that. ... If you don't like wearing a bra, don't wear one." Dr Susan Love
Some women experience breast pain (mastodynia, mastalgia), particularly when performing strenuous physical activity or exercise. A properly fitted bra reduces such pain and the sports bra has been specifically designed for this purpose. Sports bras were found to be more effective than ordinary bras for reducing breast pain caused by exercise. However, the need for wearing a bra at all during exercise has been questioned following extensive studies on athletes and sportswomen.
Numerous websites and publications dealing with fibrocystic disease and breast pain state that a well-fitting bra is recommended for treatment of these conditions. For fibrocystic disease there are no studies to support these statements. For breast pain a 2006 clinical practice guideline, makes this statement as level II-3 evidence and a grade B recommendation. However, this rests solely on two short communications of uncontrolled studies. In the 1976 UK study, 114 women complaining of pain were professionally fitted with a special bra. 26% of women who completed the study and wore the bra properly had relief of pain, 49% improved, 21% did not, and 4% were worse. There were a lot of dropouts from the study. In the 2000 Saudi Arabia study, 200 women were randomly allocated to either a drug (danazole) or a Sports bra. 58% of the danazole group improved compared to 85% in the sports bra group. No details of what the women wore prior to the study was given. Neither study had an untreated control, and there was no blinding. Breast pain has a very high placebo response (85%) so that a response to any intervention might be expected. It is not clear whether the interventions described are generalisable. A similar number of websites claim improvement after stopping wearing bras. These are based on anecdotes, since there are no formal studies.
In the specific case of larger breasts, the bra lifts the breasts away from the chest and can prevent two skin surfaces from rubbing together. Without the bra, maceration (loss of skin), intertrigo (rash) and fungal infections are possible.
Standard, well-fitting bras are constructed in the form of a "square frame", anchored by a chest band, with all dimensions fitted (i.e., adjusted) for each woman in a normal standing position with arms at their sides. When a woman performs an activity which requires her to lift her arms above the shoulders, the bra's frame is strained and weight is transferred from the chest band to the shoulder straps, putting direct pressure on the trapezius muscles. Even a well-designed bra can thus cause or aggravate shoulder pain. This problem can affect female participants of sports such as volleyball, high jump, or long jump who must continually raise their arms during competition. Some occupations also require repeatedly raising the arms above the shoulders. Women may also experience shoulder pain when elevating their arms if they wear narrow ("spaghetti") strap, poorly designed, or badly fitted bras. Each of these concentrates pressure on the trapezius muscle, which may result in neck and shoulder pain, numbness and tingling in the arm, and headaches. Strapless bras put all the weight of the breasts onto the chest band, and extra strain onto the rib cage and back.
To compensate, female athletes can wear athletic or sports bras that offer improved support. Sports bras do not meet some larger busted women's needs, however. "Larger-breasted women, and women who are breast-feeding, often have trouble finding a sports bra that fits, feels comfortable and provides sufficient motion control."
In a five-year study, 100 women who developed pain in their shoulders were given the option to remove the breast weight from their shoulders by not wearing a bra for two weeks. In that two-week period, many experienced relief from pain. Relief was complete among 84% of women who did not elevate their arms. However, their pain symptoms returned within an hour of resuming bra use. Three years later, 79% of the patients had stopped wearing a bra "to remove breast weight from the shoulder permanently because it rendered them symptom free." Sixteen percent worked in occupations requiring them to elevate their arms daily, and this group only achieved partial improvement. Of these, 13 of the 16 ceased to wear a bra, and by six months all were without pain.
Back pain is particularly common among large-breasted women who wear bras which offer insufficient breast support. Bra fitting experts from Bravissimo, who specialize in large cup size bras, say that wearing the wrong size bra can lead to back pain:
Upper back, shoulder, and neck pain can also be experienced by unusually large-breasted women no matter what size or style bra they wear, leading some women to seek breast reduction surgery.
While bras prevent the breasts from sagging against the chest wall they may cause negative health consequences. Bras that are too tight can actually compress the breasts against the chest, possibly constricting the lymphatic system and inhibiting its beneficial effect upon breast tissue. Too tight bras also pull the upper thoracic and cervical vertebrae (spine) forward and down, interfering with back, shoulder and chest movement. Others believe that wearing a bra can actually increase the downward movement of the breasts with age, because the chest (pectoralis) muscles that support breasts are used less and atrophy from lack of use.
Like corsets, health professionals have also had concerns about the constricting effects of brassieres, although this varies considerably with design and the relative size of the bra and the breast. While at least sports bras do not usually cause any significant impairment in respiration, some bras may put pressure on nerves.
From the French word brassière.
brassiere (plural brassieres)
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