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A brassiere (pronounced , ; commonly referred to as a bra ) 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.

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, or to restrain breast movement during an activity such as during exercise, to enhance their cleavage, 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.

Some women and members of the medical community question the common assumption in Western society that all women should wear a bra, and a slowly increasing percentage of women prefer to not wear a bra on a regular basis. 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 . A similar coming of age extends to boys at the moment when they first remove a bra, and then again when they achieve this single-handed .


Support of the bosom by a bodice (French: brassière 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 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 Quebecmarker, both soutien-gorge and brassière are used interchangeably.

The claim that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling (phonetically a two-tit sling) who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere (fill up the brassiere) is an urban legend that 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.


Elastic brassiere from 1907

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 Dynastymarker 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 Dynastymarker (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 (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.

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 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, commonly known as "falsies," "cookies" or "chicken fillets," 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.


A correctly fitting bra should have the following features:

  • When viewed from the side, the chest band should be horizontal, should not ride up the back, and should be firm but comfortable.
  • Each cup's underwire at the front should lie flat against the sternum (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.
  • The apex of the breast, the nipple, must be in the center of the cup.
  • The breast should not bulge over the top or out the sides of the cups, even with a low-cut style such as the balconette bra.
  • The straps of a correctly fitted bra should not slip off the shoulder and the back of the bra should not ride up.
  • The breasts should be supported primarily by the band around the rib cage, rather than by the shoulder straps.
  • The wearer should be able to breathe and move easily without the bra slipping around.

Mechanical principles

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 . 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.

Bra sizes

Adjustable hooks permit adjustment for in between sizes and for the vertical position of the 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 three or four alternative sets of fastening hooks that are usually provided. Most bra straps can also be adjusted.

Bra sizes can vary widely, depending on the manufacturer, material used, and other considerations, and women can have difficulty finding a correctly-sized bra.
This can be a challenge for both smaller- and larger-busted women
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. Manufacturers marketing and advertising often appeal 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.

Women often have a difficult time finding the correct bra size in standard sized bras. Some critics observe that measuring systems often lead to 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). The researchers concluded that among 103 women in the study seeking mammoplasty, 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."

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 proper fit 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 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 breasted women. 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'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.

Types of bra

A plunge push-up bra

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
  • invisible

Cultural significance

The bra as a fashion item

Woman in designer bra

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.

Social pressures and trends

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, Balimarker, Warner's, Playtex, Vanity Fair and other bra labels, about 70 percent of women wear steel underwire bras.

In response, Triumph International, a Japanese 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.

Opposition to bras

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. Germaine Greer, for example, has portrayed bras as symbols of oppression. Another movement, sometimes called topfreedom, questions the medical or social necessity of bras.

Health issues

Ptosis (sagging)

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."

Fibrocystic disease and breast pain

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.

Cause and impact on shoulder pain

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." Some women decide to play such sports without a bra altogether.

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

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:

Overestimating the width of their back and underestimating cup size... results in the weight of the breasts being carried by the shoulders rather than supported around the chest, and contributes 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.

Other health problems

Many of the statements about the benefits of bras are actually situations where they can make things worse, because the vast majority of women wear bras that are ill-fitting. For instance, rather than keeping the breasts away from the chest wall, bras that are too tight can actually compress them against the chest even further. This also pulls 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.

As they did with 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.

See also


  1. Uplift: The Bra in America. Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002 xvi, 243 pp. ISBN 0-8122-3643-2.
  2. Evening Herald (Syracuse) March 1893. “Still of course the short-waisted gowns mean short-waisted corsets and those ladies who wish to be in the real absolute fashion are adopting for evening wear the six-inch straight boned band or brassiere which Sarah Bernhardt made a necessity with her directoire gowns.”
  3. Michael Quinion: World Wide Words
  4. Tyrer, John. cited in Seigel 2003 q.v.
  5. BBC News 19 June, 2005: Bra walkers tackle night marathon.
  6. Female Intelligence Agency: Basic breast anatomy
  7. Dr. R. Scott Smith. Fuller Breasts: A Woman's Guide to Breast Augmentation
  8. Page K.A., Steele J.R. Breast motion and sports brassiere design. Implications for future research. Sports Med. 1999 Apr;27(4):205-11.
  9. Female Intelligence Agency: Why do women wear bras?
  10. Female Intelligence Agency: What causes sagging of breasts?
  11. Bras, the bare facts 2000 vid. inf.
  12. Le soutien-gorge en question
  13. Le port du soutien-gorge déconseillé par un médecin bisontin
  14. Meredith Schwartz: Choice and Autonomy - Ethical issues in women's health. Case study: breast implants


  • — 1859 Combined breast pads and arm-pit shield
  • — 1907 Bust supporter
  • — 1914 Jacob's Brassiere

Other sources


  • Yu W., Fan J T., Ng S P and Harlock S C, Innovation and Technology of Women’s Intimate Apparel, Woodhead Publishing Limited, August 2006, ISBN 978 1 85573 745 7.
  • (for reviews, see next section)

Book reviews

Journal articles

Research papers


  • Bras, the Bare Facts. Channel 4 (UK), November 2000

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