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Giving fashion a boost

Shippensburg collection chronicles evolution of the bra

Shippensburg collection chronicles evolution of the bra

February 14, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

It's hard to say which was more comfortable, the bust-flattening bra of the 1920s or the waist-pinching corset of the 19th century.

Mash the breasts down to the chest, or prop them up and smash them together to form a ubiquitous mono-bust?

Just be glad we live in the 21st century, where the credo is "lift and separate," and that the steel frame of a corset isn't doing the lifting and the too-tight fabric of a bust-flattener isn't doing the shaping.

Today, Valentine's Day, gift-wrapped boxes of lingerie abound. But modern-day women would balk at the kinds of bras women reveled in decades ago. Bras smashed down breasts to non-entitites in the 1920s - progressive fashion when compared to earlier corsests. Then, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, bras formed breasts into cone shapes, albeit voluptous cone shapes. Comfort didn't play a major role in bra design until the '70s.

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"Breasts are fashionable and unfashionable in fits and starts," said Karin Bohleke, director of the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum. The Herald-Mail recently visited the Fashion Archives Museum to chat with Bohleke about bras and how they've changed over the years. The museum has several bras in its collection of more than 1,400 items.

19th century and earlier: Support from below

In the early 1800s, women got support from corsets. Corsets were made of durable, easily washable material and were usually white. Colors and fabrics such as silk came into use in the 20th century.

"You needed to be able to bleach those suckers clean," Bohleke said. "You wore underwear so that you didn't have to clean your clothes every day."

Bohleke said over time, corsets weakened the back, ab and arm muscles, and reduced oxygen intake by 20 percent.

The arrival of World War I aided the shift from corsets to bras. The steel in the corsets was needed for the war effort.

"Once (women) were out of those, there was no turning back," Bohleke said.

Before bras were mass-produced in the early 1900s, they were made by dressmakers. Some women sewed their own bras.

20th century and beyond: comfort, style take precedence

Though they were free of corsets, women in the 1920s desired boyish figures, Bohleke said. So they wore bras that flattened thier chests.

The tomboy aesthetic faded in the '30s. By the 1940s, flat was out and curvaceous figures were in. Think Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. But bras of the time shaped breasts into pointy cones. Contemporary fashion writers referred to as them "torpedo bras."

There were also more varieties. Actress Janet Leigh popularized black bras when she donned one in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," Bohleke said.

By the 1970s, bras better reflected women's figures. Born in this era was the 18-hour bra, a bra that would remain comfortable for 18 hours. But, much like the clothing of the time, bras of the '70s were made of synthetic materials that didn't allow the skin to breathe.

Bras that are both comfortable and flashy are a recent convention. The bustier pictured with this story is made of synthetic materials, but the mesh along the sides allows the skin to breathe. The wearer can insert padding into flaps in this bustier's cups.

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