Women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, or modify the display and shape of their breasts. Brassiere-like or bikini-like garments are depicted on some women athletes in the seventh century BCE in the Minoan era. Similar functionality could be 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, various alternatives were experimented with, splitting the corset into a girdle-like restraining device for the lower torso, and transferring the upper part to devices suspended from the shoulder.
By the early 20th century, garments more closely resembling contemporary bras had emerged, although large-scale commercial production did not occur till the 1930s. Since then bras have replaced corsets, although some women prefer camisoles) and a minority go without. Brassieres are a multi-billion-dollar industry dominated by large multinational corporations. During the 20th century, the emphasis on brassiere usage has shifted from functionality to fashion.
In ancient Egypt, women were generally bare breasted. The most common items of female attire were the skirt and the sheath dress, also described as a tunic or kalasiris, a rectangular piece of cloth that was folded once and sewn down the edge to make a tube. The kalasiris might cover one or both shoulders or be worn with shoulder straps. While the top could reach anywhere from below the breast to the neck, the bottom hem generally touched the ankles. A variant was a single cross strap, partially over the left breast.The shorter kalasiris was mostly worn by common women or slaves, to be more comfortable when working.
Although majority of female figures in ancient Indian sculptures are devoid of a blouse, there are several instances of ancient Indian women wearing brassieres. The first historical reference to brassieres in India is found during the rule of king Harshavardhana (1st century CE). Sewn brassieres and blouses were very much in vogue during the Vijayanagara empire and the cities brimmed with tailors who specialized in tight fitting of these garments. The half-sleeved tight bodice or kanchuka figures prominently in the literature of the period, especially Basavapurana (1237 CE), which says kanchukas were worn by young girls as well.
Covering or restraining the breasts may date back to ancient Greece. This belief is based on wall paintings in Crete, the centre of the Minoan civilisation, which show what has been described as a 'bikini'. These appear to be women performing in athletics. Similar depictions are seen in Sicily (Villa Romana del Casale, 4th Century). However, Minoan women on the island of Crete 3,000 years ago wore garments that partially supported yet revealed their bare breasts; the best known example of this style is the Snake Goddess. They used corsets that were fitted and laced, or a smaller corselette that left the breasts exposed or even forced them upwards to make them more visible. However, this 'corset' was outerwear, not underwear. Covering the breasts, or even wearing a bra-like garment, was not a usual part of Minoan life. The succeeding Mycenaean civilisation also emphasised the breast, which had a special cultural and religious significance.
Women in Classical Greece are often depicted loosely draped in diaphanous garments, or with one breast exposed. A band of cloth known as an apodesmos (later stethodesmos) or mastodeton was worn by Greek women to bind down the breasts for exercise in those city-states that supported women's sports, such as Sparta.
A belt could also be fastened over a simple tunic-like garment or undergarment, just below the breasts or over the breasts. When the apodesmos was worn under the breasts, it accentuated them. Another word for a breast-band or belt was strophion. However, the most famous depiction of women exercising in Sparta, by Degas shows the women wearing only loincloths. The basic item of classical Greek costume was the peplos, later the chiton (two rectangular pieces of cloth partially sewn together on both sides, with a 12" to 15" overfold or apotygma), which evolved into the chemise, the commonest item of under clothing worn by men and women for hundreds of years, also variously known as a smock or shift. In Sparta, women usually wore the chiton completely open on the left side.
Roman culture emphasised breasts less than the Greeks. Roman men and women wore a loose flowing tunica, sometimes with a girdle, and an outer cloak (palla). Women also adopted a form of the Greek apodesme, known as the strophium or mamillare. Younger women wore a fascia, a band of cloth, over the breast to restrict their growth, or a mamillare to conceal larger breasts. Roman dress was one step closer to the later Empire Gown, being gathered slightly under the bust, with no waist.
In China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), a form of foundation cloth complete with cups and straps drawn over the shoulders and tied to the girth seam at the lower back called a dudou was in vogue among rich women. While they first arose in the Ming Dynasty, they were also common in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). In English they are known as 'stomach protectors' or 'tummy covers'.
In the Middle Ages it was exceptional for women to restrict or support their breasts, and if they did, they probably used something like a cloth binder, as evidence suggests in descriptions of the time. A widely quoted statement is that an edict of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire, dated 1370 states, "No woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or by tightened dress." However, an exact source has not been located. By the time of Charles VII of France (1403–1461), a gauze drape was used over the bust.
Generally, in the Middle Ages the breasts were minimized in dresses with straight bodices, full skirts and high collars, designed primarily for function rather than emphasis on form. The 15th century ideal form was large breasted and full figured. By the time of the Renaissance, décolletage became fashionable. There was some status to firm breasts in the upper classes, the women of which did not breast feed. Infants were given to wet nurses to breast feed, since nursing was bad if a woman wanted to maintain an ideal form. Among the wealthier classes, the corset was beginning to appear by the mid 1400's. Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589, wife of King Henry II of France) is widely, and wrongly, blamed for the corset. She was reported to have prohibited wide waists at court in the 1550s, legend suggesting she made them wear steel framework corsets 
Elaborate constraints placed on women's figures over the years were not universal. Corsetry made it virtually impossible to work, so simpler functional garments were worn by women who worked inside or outside the home. Support for the breasts was often provided by a simple tie under the breast line, in the bodice.
Early corsets of the 16th century consisted of paste-stiffened linen and a primitive busk at the front, but later included iron supports at the side and back. The emphasis now was on form, with compression of the breasts forcing them upwards to the point of almost spilling out, so a considerable part of the breast was exposed. The ideal form was narrow-waisted (hourglass), but voluptuous. The labouring class by contrast wore a simple front-lacing cotte.
The only period in which women were 'liberated' was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, during which any garment associated with the aristocracy was frowned upon, including those with visible décolletage. The breasts were often supported by a tie below the bust. In 1814 the court and the corset returned. The history of the bra overlaps considerably that of the corset, from which it was derived. Some degree of emphasis of form can also be traced back to Greece, where a leather band style 'corset' could be worn to give definition to the hips and bust under the chiton. Early 'stays', as used in the 17th century, did not involve the bodice directly, but concentrated on constricting the waist, indirectly thrusting up the upper body parts. With time the stay came to involve support in the upper front part of the body as well. These supported and raised the breasts. The term 'corset' gradually replaced the stay. The décolletage was always visible, but until the 1920s breasts were always treated en masse (monobosom). While the breasts were pushed out, they still essentially remained loose, or were flattened by overlying garments, unlike the modern encompassing constraints.
The Empire fashion originated in the pregnancy of the Empress Josephine. She found it convenient to wear dresses with a high waistline, just below the breasts. This design made her pregnancy less obvious. This homage to classical styles soon became popular, making the breasts more visible than the waist, and the "Empire" fashion was established. In Britain this period was known as the Regency. Regency fashions often copied French Empire fashions.
In the Victorian era, despite contemporary ideas about morality, women's clothing was paradoxically designed to emphasize both the breasts and hips by tightlacing the waist. Victorian women were encumbered with many layers of clothing, including a chemise with a drawstring neckline, usually drawers, then the corset and corset cover, the under petticoat, the hoop skirt, the over petticoat, and finally the dress. According to the social expectations of the times, even the lowest-cut evening gown should dip no lower than three finger breadths below the clavicles.
By the Edwardian era, with some increase in women's physical activities, the corset started to retreat southward again, becoming more like a girdle, accompanied by the appearance of a separate upper garment, the Bust Bodice, or BB. For those who instead wore a one piece undershift (unionsuit), this separated into the camisole and drawers. These were not designed for 'support' but merely coverage.
Women's dress emphasized an 'S' shape, with an indrawn stomach giving prominence to the posterior and bust. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the bosom could still be displayed. 'The high-water mark of modesty would ebb after sunset some six inches!' Corsets remained the main form of 'support', but war and its impact on lifestyle and materials meant that its future was uncertain.
The evolution of the bra from the corset was driven by two parallel movements: health professionals' concerns about the cruelly constraining effects of the corset, and the clothing-reform movement of feminists, who saw that greater participation of women in society would require emancipation from corsetry. Prominent amongst these were the Rational Dress Society, the National Dress Reform Association, and the Reform Dress Association.
Although there were a number of voices warning about the considerable health risks of corsets, the health professions were generally muted, and in any case women ignored 'unfashionable' advice. The health professions concentrated more on psychosomatic complaints, which were in fact probably related to corsetry. Ill health was considered synonymous with femininity, and a pale and sickly demeanour, normative. (Fictional heroines often died from tuberculosis, or "consumption." This made them pale and kept them immobile.) Corsets were supposed to provide both physical and moral support.
Some physicians ignored colleagues who felt corsets were a medical necessity because of women's biology and the needs of civilized order. The physicians who raised the alarm pointed to nausea, bowel disturbances, eating disorders, breathlessness, flushing, fainting, and gynecological problems. Bed rest was a common prescription for the 'weaker sex', which of course implied relief from corsetry. (This prescription was only practical for upper-class women, whose function was largely decorative: working-class women actually needed to work.)
Women's interest in sport, particularly bicycling, forced a rethinking, and women's groups called for 'emancipation garments'. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps urged women to 'burn the corsets!' in 1874, a foreshadowing of 1960s 'bra burning' (see below). Indirectly and directly, sports empowered women in other social climates.
Not surprisingly, corsetieres fought back, embellishing their products to be frilly and feminine in the 1870s. Advertising took on overtones of erotic imagery, even if in practice they acted as a deterrent to sexuality, especially when they started appearing in men's magazines, stressing cleavage and bare arms (then taboo). It is not clear whether parents actively corseted their children to prevent them exploring their own sexuality. Dolls assumed the corseted image, implanting an image of the 'ideal' female form. Corsets certainly reinforced the image of a weaker sex, unable to defend themselves, and a challenge to disrobe.
In practice, early brassieres made little market penetration. They were expensive, and only educated wealthy reformers wore them to any extent.
The history of the bra is obscured by many urban myths, which though humorous, add little to our understanding of the topic. Even the terminology is confusing. (see Etymology).
There are considerable differences of opinion as to who 'invented' the brassière or bra. Patents only illustrate some of the landmark developments of the period, while the bra gradually evolved. A number of patents for bra-like devices were granted in the nineteenth century but were not necessarily marketed.
A bra-like device to give a symmetrical rotundity to the breasts was  in 1859 by Henry S. Lesher of Brooklyn, New York; although it is recognisably a bra, the design looks uncomfortable by current standards. In 1863, a breast supporter "corset substitute" was patented by Luman L. Chapman of Camden, NJ, although it is unclear as to whether he actually manufactured it. Historians have referred to it as a "proto-brassiere". This supports the thesis that escape from the tortures of corsetry fueled the search for alternative undergarments and breast "supporters".
In the 1870s, dressmaker Olyvia Flynt patented and produced the first 'bust supporter' to actually be sold in America. It was aimed at the larger-breasted woman. Reformers stimulated demand for and probably purchased these early garments on 'hygienic' grounds because of their concerns about the corset. Initially Flynt's garments were only available by mail order, but they eventually appeared in department and clothing stores and catalogues.
According to Life magazine, in 1889 Herminie Cadolle of France invented the first modern bra. It appeared in a corset catalogue as a two-piece undergarment, which she originally called the corselet gorge, and later le bien-être (or 'the well-being'). Her garment effectively cut the traditional corset in two. The lower part was a corset for the waist, the upper supporting the breasts by means of shoulder straps. Her description reads "designed to sustain the bosom and supported by the shoulders". She patented her invention and showed it at the Great Exhibition of 1889. The company, still family-owned, claims today that Herminie 'freed women by inventing the first Bra.' Her garment was probably more comfortable than the original corsets. By 1905 the upper half was being sold separately as a soutien-gorge, the name by which bras are still known in France. She also introduced the use of "rubberthread."
In 1893, Marie Tucek received US patent 494397 for a device that consisted of separate pockets for each breast above a metal supporting plate and shoulder straps fastened by hook-and-eye. This invention more closely resembled the modern bra known today, and was a precursor to the underwire bra. Apparently she failed to successfully market it.
Since women's magazines printed patterns, home-sewn garments competed with factory-made ready-to-wear garments. The brassiere was at first an alternative to the corset, for negligée or at-home wear, or was worn by those women who had medical issues with corsets. After the straight-fronted corset became fashionable in the early 1900s, a brassiere or "bust supporter" became a necessity for full-busted women, as the straight-fronted corset did not offer as much support and containment as the Victorian styles. Early brassieres were either wrap-around bodices or boned, close-fitting camisoles (both worn over the corset).They were designed to hold the bust in and down against the corset, which provided upward support.
Advertising of the times, typically in periodicals, stressed the advantages of bras in health and comfort over corsets, and portrayed garments with shoulder supports, in a mono-bosom style and with limited adaptability. Their major appeal was to those for whom lung function and mobility were priorities, rather than outer appearance.
In 1910, Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Polly Jacobs and Caresse Crosby), a 19-year-old New York socialite, purchased a sheer evening gown for a social event. At that time, the only acceptable undergarment was a corset stiffened with whalebone. Polly found that the whalebone visibly poked out around her plunging neckline and from under the sheer fabric. Dissatisfied with this arrangement, she worked with her maid to fashion two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord.
At the request of family and friends, she made more of her new device. When she received a request for one from a stranger, who offered a dollar for her efforts, she realized that her device could turn into a viable business.
On November 3, 1914, the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for the 'Backless Brassiere'. Her patent was for a device that was lightweight, soft and separated the breasts naturally. Jacobs' brassiere was an improvement, but did not supply much support. Today it is recognized as a breast flattener, a style that later became extremely popular during the Flapper era of the 1920s.
Although it was not the first bra to be commercially produced in the U.S., Jacob's patent was the first to be registered in the newly created patent category for "brassieres", which has led Jacob's invention generally to receive credit as the first U.S. bra patent. (U.S. bra patents appear as far back as the 1860s, but were generally filed in the "corsets" category.).
Jacob's business did not prosper, and she sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500. Warner manufactured the "Crosby" bra for a while, but it does not seem to have been a popular style and eventually was discontinued. It was later claimed that the patent earned millions for Warner, but this appears to be untrue.
Bras became more common and more widely promoted over the course of the 1910s, aided by the continuing trend towards lighter, shorter corsets that offered increasingly less bust support and containment. In 1917 the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This was said to have saved some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships. 
It has been said that the bra took off the way it did in large part because of the first World War, which shook up gender roles, putting many women to work in factories and uniforms for the first time. The war also influenced social attitudes towards women and helped to liberate them from corsets. But women were already moving into the retail and clerical sectors. Thus the bra 'came out', from something ('bust girdle') discreetly tucked into the back pages of women's magazines in the 1890s, to prominent display in department stores such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward by 1918. Advertising was now promoting the shaping of the bust to contemporary fashion demands, and sales reflected this.
As the corset became shorter during the later 1910s, it provided less support to the bust. By 1920 the corset started at the waist, and bust containment yielded entirely to the bra. A low, sloping bustline became more fashionable. Brassieres from the late 1910s and early 1920s were merely slightly shaped bandeaus (bandeaux), holding the bust in and down by means of a clip attached to the corset.
This culminated in the "boyish" silhouette of the Flapper era of the 1920s, with little bust definition. The term (which in the mid-1910s referred to preteen and early-teenage girls) was adopted by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the 1920s for their younger adult customers. The androgynous ("boyish") or prepubescent figure then in style downplayed women's natural curves through the use of a bandeau brassiere. It was relatively easy for small-busted women to conform to the flat-chested look of the Flapper era. Women with larger breasts tried products like the popular Symington Side Lacer, which when laced at both sides pulled and helped to flatten women's chests. Yet some 'bras' of the early 1920s were little more than camisoles.
In 1922, Russian immigrant Ida Rosenthal was a seamstress at the small New York City dress shop Enid Frocks. She and her husband William Rosenthal, along with shop owner Enid Bissett, changed the look of women's fashion. They noticed that a bra that fit one woman did not fit another woman with the same bra size, and they thus developed the concept of cup size. With $4500 invested in their new business, they also developed bras for all ages. Their innovation was designed to make their dresses look better on the wearer. It increased the shaping of the bandeau bra to enhance and support women's breasts: hence the name "Maidenform", a play on the name of an earlier company, "Boyishform". The company they founded became the Maidenform manufacturing company. Maidenform routed Boyishform by 1924, accenting and uplifting rather than flattening the bust. Thus the modern 'supportive' uplifting bra was born. The major changes in design were the appearance of distinct cups, backless bras, and underwiring, and newer fabrics such as rayon, tricot, or milanese.
These fashion changes coincided with health professionals beginning to link breast care and comfort to motherhood and lactation, and campaigned against breast flattening ("race-suicide"), and the emphasis shifted from minimizing the breasts to uplifting and accenting them. Women, especially the younger set, welcomed the bra as a modern garment.
While manufacturing was beginning to become more organised, homemade bras and bandeaux were still quite popular, usually made of white cotton, but they were little more than bust bodices with some separation.
The word 'brassiere' became shortened to 'bra' in the 1930s, initially by young college women.
 The bra was becoming more sophisticated, and home-sewn versions vanished in the 30s. In 1935, Warners developed what they called the 'Alphabet Bra', a bra made in a series of sizes corresponding to the letters of the alphabet (A, B,C, D...) and so women started taking an interest in the size of their and other women's breasts. In the UK, this standard was not adopted until the 1950s.
As with other women's products, market uptake was largely the result of successful advertising and marketing. Saleswomen who assisted clients in finding the right garment played an important part in this, as did the changing role of women in society. Much of this marketing was aimed at the young.
Bras rapidly became a major industry over the 1930s, with improvements in fiber technology, fabrics, colours, patterns, and options, and did much better than the retail industry in general. Innovations included Warners' use of elastic, the adjustable strap, the sized cup, and padded bras for smaller-breasted women. In the US production moved outside of New York and Chicago, and advertising started to exploit Hollywood glamour and become more specialised. Department stores developed fitting areas, and customers, stores and manufacturers all benefited. Manufacturers even arranged fitting training courses for saleswomen. International sales started to form an increasing part of the U.S. bra manufacturer's market. Prices started to make bras available to a wider market, and home-made competition dwindled. Other major manufacturers of the 30s included Triumph, Maidenform, Gossard, (Courtaulds), Spirella, (Spencer), Twilfit, and Symington.
The desired silhouette of the 1930s was a pointy bust, which further increased demand for a forming garment.
The Second World War had a major impact on clothing. Military women of lower rank were fitted with uniform underwear. Advertising appealed to both patriotism and the concept that bras and girdles were somehow 'protection'. Dress codes appeared - for example, Lockheed informed their workers that bras must be worn because of 'good taste, anatomical support, and morale'. Military terminology, such as the highly structured conically pointed Torpedo or Bullet (or even Cone) bra started to appear in the 1940-50s, designed for 'maximum projection'. A new image was the Sweater Girl, a busty and wholesome 'girl next door' whose tight fitting outergarments accentuated her artificially enhanced curves, while under and outer wires appeared. Sweater Girls often wore bullet bras. The image portrayed by actresses like Jane Russell of the "lift and separate" design went on to influence the development of later brassieres.
The war presented unique challenges for the industry, women's occupations shifted dramatically, with far more employed outside the home and in industry, while limitations on material availability had a large impact on design. Advertising, promotion, and consumerism were limited but started to appear directed at minorities (e.g., Ebony in 1945) and teens. Many manufacturers only survived by making tents and parachutes in addition to bras. American industry was now freed from European influences, particularly French, and it became more distinctive.
Following the Second World War, material availability, production and marketing, and demand slowly recovered. A postwar baby boom created a demand for maternity and nursing bras, and television provided new promotional opportunities.
A reviving postwar economy fueled demands for consumer goods with greater variety. Manufacturers met this with new fabrics, colours, patterns, and styles. Padding and stretchability were among other innovations. Hollywood glamour became an increasingly powerful influence in fashion. Changes in retailing also saw a reduction in custom fitting by professionals.
The 60s and 70s reflected increasing interest in quality and fashion. Maternity and mastectomy bras began to find a new respectability, and the increasing use of washing machines created a need for products that were more durable. While girdles gave way to panty-hose, the bra continued to evolve. Marketing campaigns like those for the "Snoozable" and "Sweet dreams" (Maidenform, 1962) promoted wearing a bra 24 hours a day.
Cultural changes in the 1960s represented potential threats to the market. These included the emergence of counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement and a resurgence of feminism with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Also the "monokini" appeared in Europe and free love in the United States. In Canada, Canadian Lady adapted by focusing their advertising exclusively on brassieres and repositioned Wonderbra as a romantic, fashionable and sexy brand.
In the late 1960s, some of the emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism. Feminists charged that these objects, typified as patriarchal, reduced women to the status of sex objects. Some women publicly disavowed bras in an anti-sexist act of female liberation.
When Germaine Greer stated that "Bras are a ludicrous invention," her statement resonated with many women who had been questioning the role of the bra. Pivotal in popular bra culture is a now-notorious protest against the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, seen as an oppression of women. About 400 women from the New York Radical Women were involved in a demonstration at the Atlantic City Convention Hall shortly after the Democratic National Convention.   Protesters saw the pageant and its symbols as an oppression of women (because of its emphasis on an arbitrary standard of beauty, and its elevation of its choice of the "most beautiful girl in America" to a pedestal for public worship and commercial exploitation). On September 7, 1968, a "Freedom Trash Can" was placed on the ground, and filled with bras, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, girdles, curlers, hairspray, makeup, corsets, magazines (such as Playboy), and other items thought to be "instruments of torture," accouterments of enforced femininity. Someone suggested lighting a fire, but a permit could not be obtained, and so (contrary to the subsequent urban legend) there was no burning, nor did anyone take off her bra. Another similar protest was held in 1970.
The event received quite a bit of media coverage at the time but the notion of women burning their bras was merely a concatenation of several movements, including sexual liberation, in the media imagery. A number of journalists  who wrote descriptions of the incident drew parallels with the young men who had burned their draft cards in opposition to the Vietnam War with the women's action and used the term "bra-burning." These parallels were encouraged by organisers such as Robin Morgan. Lindsay van Gelder's account in the New York Post carried a headline "Bra Burners and Miss America". The phrase became headline material and was quickly associated with women who chose to go braless, following Germaine Greer's comments. Feminism and "bra-burning" then became linked in popular culture and Greer became a metaphor for bra burning. It has been suggested that the association between feminism and bra-burning was encouraged by those in opposition to the feminist movement, as it created an image less of women seeking freedom from sexism, appearing more as though they were attempting to assert themselves as sexual beings. This might lead to the assumption that, as Bonnie J. Dow wrote in her article "Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology," they were merely trying to be "trendy, and to attract men." 
The association between "bra-burning" and the feminist movement has led to somewhat of a misrepresentation of the movement and the actual purpose of the "freedom trash can." By being associated with an act like bra-burning, feminists may be seen, by those less knowledgeable of the movement, as law-breaking radicals, eager to shock the public. For obvious reasons, this is not good for the movement, and promotes the efforts of those against feminism to invalidate the movement. Since then anti-feminists have used "bra burning" and "braless"  as derogatory and trivializing terms for the feminist movement. What got lost in the rhetoric, and is probably more important, is that it became quite acceptable in the 1960s and 1970s to not wear a bra. Thus echoes of the 'liberated 60s' or 'bra-burning 60s' have continued to reverberate in women's fashion history.
Many women stopped wearing bras, but few did so with a public ceremony: they simply left their existing bras in a dresser drawer and stopped buying more. In 1971, Herb Caen, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, reported that the Berkeley Roos/Atkins store had closed its bra department because of poor sales.
Bra sales were not noticeably affected by the protest, and manufacturers capitalised on the attitudes of sexual liberation by emphasising allure. They also promoted "no-bra" alternatives like the "no-bra bra" and adhesive pads that supported the breasts and covered the nipples. These stratagems were clearly attempts to recover braless women as customers, by offering them something that they could spend money on. Nevertheless this era was perceived by the industry as a crisis, and a preoccupation, which led indirectly to multiple mergers and acquisitions and the development of large corporations.
In the 70s, like other garment makers, bra manufacturers moved production offshore. The evolution of the bra reflects the constantly changing idea of what an 'ideal' woman should look like—flat, round, pointy, conical, or even 'natural'. The contemporary bra also reflects advances in manufacturing and availability of fabric types and colours, enabling it to be transformed from a utilitarian item to a fashion statement, countering the negative attitudes some women had about bras. Designers have also incorporated numerous devices to produce varying shapes, cleavage, and to give women bras they could wear with open-back dresses, off-the-shoulder dresses, plunging necklines, and the like.
Two design challenges that bra manufacturers face at present seem paradoxical. On the one hand, there is a demand for minimal bras that allow plunging necklines and reduce interference with the lines of outer garments, such as the shelf bra. On the other hand, body mass and bust size is increasing, leading to a higher demand for larger sizes. Over a 10 year period, the most common size purchased in the UK went from 34B to 36C. In 2001, 27% of UK sales were D or larger.
Bras are a billion-dollar industry that continues to grow ($15 billion in the US in 2001, £1 billion in UK.) Large corporations such as HanesBrands Inc. control most bra manufacturing, Gossard, Berlei and Courtaulds with 34% of the UK market. Victoria's Secret is an exception.
Brassiere are worn by the great majority of women in in Western society. There are now an unprecedented array of styles and models, including those that barely cover the breasts, barely provide support, and the various sports bras which often function as outerwear. The bra was 100 years old in 2007.
Women, health professionals, feminists and fashion writers appear to be increasingly questioning its place and function, and asking whether it will go the way of pantyhose, garter belts and stockings.
It is now commonplace to see models and other celebrities who do not wear bras in public, while many outergarments like sundresses and formal evening wear are designed to be worn without bras. Nevertheless it remains a popular item at least amongst Western women. Estimates of what proportion of women wear bras varies, but it is certainly the majority (The Daily Mirror estimate in 1997 was 75%). Danish Fashion historian Rudolf Kristian Albert Broby-Johansen predicted in an article in May 1969 titled "Obituary for the Bra" that bras would soon go out of fashion. Approximately 90% of women in North American wear a bra as of 2006.