Tag Archives: bust binder bandeau 1920s

“Uplift” Changes Brassieres: 1917 to 1929 (Part 1)

Ad for Maidenform's "Over-ture" brassiere "for firmer uplift." Womans' Home Companion, Feb. 1936.

Ad for Maidenform’s “Over-ture” brassiere “for firmer uplift.” Woman’s Home Companion, Feb. 1936.

I’ve often mentioned the book Uplift: The Bra in America, by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau. It’s scholarly but also very readable, and packed with related information on women’s lives. It feeds my interest in old advertisements, too — I’ll be sharing a small selection of underwear ads and patterns from the 1920’s and 1930’s in several posts.

Note: This post is not an authoritative history of the brassiere; for that, please consult both Uplift and Fashion in Underwear by Elizabeth Ewing. The topic is so complicated that the Wikipedia entry warns of contradictions.

I’m indebted to the authors of Uplift for this concept:

For hundreds of years, women’s breasts were supported by corsets, which pushed them up from below. The innovation of the twentieth century was “uplift” — shoulder straps which supported the weight of the breasts from the shoulder instead of pushing them up from beneath.

First, a brief visual tour of early 20th century brassieres:

Two ads for "model" brassieres, Woman's Home Companion, 1917.

Two ads for “Model” brassieres, Woman’s Home Companion, 1917.

At the beginning of the 20th century, fashion was still in the “monobosom” or “unibosom” era.

Brassieres with rust-proof boning from the Sears Spring catalog, 1917.

Brassieres with rust-proof boning from the Sears Spring catalog, 1917.

Corset boning probably ran up the center of these brassieres and also over the breasts to create a smooth bulge without any breast separation. “By 1917 brassieres [like those above] had moved from a minority fashion to the mainstream of womenswear.” Uplift, p. 33.

The tubular, boyish ideal of the early 1920’s led to a brief fashion for flattening the breasts. See Underpinning the 1920s: Brassieres, Bandeaux, and Bust Flatteners. There was even a brassiere company called “Boyshform,” (boyish form) and another called “Flatter-U.”

New corsets and brassieres, Delineator, February 1924, p. 23.

New corsets and brassieres, Delineator, February 1924, p. 23. On the right, a very long flattening brassiere.

When young women stopped wearing restrictive underwear in the 1920’s and allowed two separate breasts to be discerned, those with youthful figures might wear an unstructured brassiere primarily to prevent their nipples from showing through the lightweight dress fabrics that were popular.

September, 1924: a brassiere and step-in pattern, Butterick No. 7080.

1924: a brassiere and step-in pattern, Butterick No. 7080. Delineator, September issue.

Butterick pattern 6472 for a bandeau bra and step-in panties. Delineator, Dec 1925, p. 37.

1925:  Butterick pattern 6472 for a bandeau bra and step-in panties. Delineator, Dec 1925, p. 37.

Butterick pattern 1534 for a bra and matching step-in panties. July 1927, Delineator, 1927.

1927: (right) Butterick pattern 1534 for a bra and matching step-in panties. July 1927, Delineator, 1927.

Butterick pattern 6961 for a bandeau brassiere and frilled bloomers; Delineator, 1926

1926: Butterick pattern 6961 for a bandeau brassiere and frilled bloomers; Delineator, July 1926, p. 38.

For me, there are two interesting things about this pattern. 1) This 1926 brassiere is definitely divided into two separate pockets (The phrase “bra cup” had not yet been invented.) It is not meant to flatten the bust. 2) It appeared on the same page as this pattern — No. 6964 — for two bust-flattening brassieres:

July 1926 brassiere patterns from Butterick. At top, two bust flatteners, pattern . At bottom right a pattern for a brassiere that divides the breasts. Delineator, July 1926, p. 38.

1926 brassiere patterns from Butterick. At top, two bust flatteners, pattern 6964. At bottom right, pattern 6961 for a brassiere that separates and does not flatten the breasts. Delineator, July 1926, p. 38.

Obviously, 1926 was a year of transition. Next, Part 2: The Uplift Idea in 1920’s Brassieres.



Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Foundation Garments, Girdles, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage patterns

Some Ways That Costumers Transform Actors’ Bodies

Delineator magazine, July 1926.

Hand sewing. Delineator magazine, July 1926.

The many comments I read from theatrical costumers pointing out that our skills overlap —  but also differ from — couture, tailoring, retail fashion and dressmaking got me thinking about one costumers’ specialty that won’t show up in ready-to-wear:  transforming the actor’s body. [That is, transforming it to make it less attractive rather than more.]

Sometimes it is the costumer’s job to make a normally proportioned actress look like this . . .

Illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

Story illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

. . . At other times we may have to eliminate all her curves so that she can play a male role.

Some while ago, I watched a TV show about people participating in a “CostumeCon.” One of the contestants was female, playing a male character, and she tried to suppress her breasts with adhesive tape. (Was it really duct tape?) It was so tight that she had to be extracted from it with scissors in order to breathe. Yipes! Theatrical costumers know there are better ways to do it. (Even researching bust binders from the 1920’s would have been a start!)

“It Ain’t Pretty” — Sometimes

Unlike retail fashion and couture, it’s not always the costumers’ job to make people look more attractive. Over the years, as a designer and a costume technician, I have built costumes (these are just random highlights) to transform

  • a pretty, twenty-ish actress, only 4’10” tall, into a male, forty-ish, hunchbacked dwarf, for Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
  • a curvaceous opera singer into a teenaged boy, for Marriage of Figaro.
  • a trim, healthy actor into a pot-bellied old man in Galileo.
  • a male actor into a female character and back to male again. (A musical version of The Duenna.)

I’ve never worked on Greater Tuna, but that show has two male actors playing all the characters in a small town, including ladies of a certain age and stoutness.

Sometimes a female character goes through several stages of pregnancy in less than two hours. (e.g.,  Stella in  A Streetcar Named Desire.)

Sometimes you have to turn a healthy actor into a seriously obese character, like Falstaff.

Operas often use mezzo-sopranos  or contraltos to play young men.  (These are called “breeches” or “trouser” roles:  Cherubino, Octavian [the Rosencavalier,] Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, among others.)

Sometimes you have to transform a matinee idol actor (e.g., John Barrymore, Lawrence Olivier) into Richard  III (called “Crookback,”  so “deformed, unfinished . . . that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”)   In grand opera, Rigoletto, the court jester,  is also a man with a “hunch.”

Sometimes a trim young character ages into a plump, sagging, old one — as Queen Victoria does in biographical plays and movies. (And as Henry VIII did, except in a certain recent TV series ….)

There is a trend for male actors to play female roles (e.g. David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest) and for female actors to play male characters. (There are far more male roles in Shakespeare than female roles — some modern theatre companies like to equalize them a bit.)

And I mustn’t forget Charlie’s Aunt  (first performed in 1892) — in which a young man is persuaded to pose as a friend’s elderly aunt from Brazil in order to chaperone a meeting of proper young ladies and university undergraduates.

So, part of the costumer’s job is to figure out ways to accomplish these transformations, while giving the actor or singer complete mobility and as much comfort as possible.

Welcome to the wonderful world of “fat suits,” “birdseed boobs,” bust flatteners, “pregnancy pads,” and “body suits” — but not the kind popularized by Donna Karan!

Costumers call all padded suits “body suits” now — the old term “fat suit” is frowned upon. And, like custom tailored suits, cartwheel tutus, and couture garments, making padded body suits requires special skills and a lot of hand stitching.

If the transformation is to be believable — not a joke — you start with plenty of research. Life drawing classes frequently use models who would never appear on a fashion runway.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm. These folds of flesh can be duplicated in a body suit.

Observation of people on the street is also useful. In many cases, you need to consult a medical library to understand curvature of the spine, stages of pregnancy, or other medical conditions.

It’s almost impossible to build a good padded bodysuit without a dressmaker’s mannequin which has the same measurements as the actor. (We sometimes pad the mannequin itself, first, to be sure we are starting as “close” to the actor’s body shape as possible.)

The base of the suit is usually a stretchable leotard — with or without sleeves and legs, as needed. A “pregnancy pad” can be built on a scoop-necked, sleeveless leo, or even a camisole/tank top, but it needs a snap-closed crotch strap to keep it in place when the actor sits.

Traditionally “built” padded bodysuits use layers and layers of polyester fiberfill (the kind used for quilt-making), each layer cut and shaped to simulate belly fat, “love handles,” sagging pectoral muscles and fat, and even the fat accumulating on the back and shoulders. (Fat does not accumulate on the front of the body only.) Notice the back-of-neck and shoulder padding on this body suit, which changes a young, erect posture (the mannequin) into a flabby old man’s slouch.

A padded body suit fromThe Costume Technician's Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

A padded body suit from The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

To build up the “fat,” costumers begin with the widest part of the bulge, cut a large oval of fiberfill, and hand stitch it securely to the bodysuit with stretch stitching (called cross stitch, herringbone stitch or catch stitch.) The first layer must be well secured, because subsequent layers, each smaller than the last, will be attached to the previous ones. The shape is built slowly, 1/4 or 1/2 inch of thickness at a time.

Not surprisingly, an actor wearing all this padding will sweat. Acting, especially on stage, can be very hard work. The suit will need to be completely washable — repeatedly washable, over weeks or months of use. That’s why it can take 40 hours of work to make an elaborately padded suit:  painstaking hand construction. The final shape is sealed in with another layer of smooth stretch fabric, hand stitched for definition. Sometimes it needs nipples and a belly button. And the final layer may be dyed to match the actor’s skin tone.  A zipper will need to be added, and a snap crotch. (Actors need to visit the restroom, just like everybody else.)

Really huge suits — for Falstaff, for example — can be built on a semi-spherical “cage” of boning and fabric, which stands away from the actor’s body and provides some air circulation. The realistic padded structure — belly, “man breasts”, etc. — is built up on top of the cage. Outdoor productions, which rehearse or perform in daytime, can put the actor wearing a padded body suit at risk of heatstroke, so every precaution and opportunity for cooling and hydration must be planned. (Sometimes this includes putting pockets inside the costume to hold ice packs.)

Birdseed Boobs

When we wanted to give a female character large and/or sagging breasts, without a complete bodysuit, we used to make a pocket in each large bra cup and fill them — but not tightly — with flaxseed, which simulates the weight and movement of breasts. Hence the term “birdseed boobs.” Modern silicone has been a big improvement — at least for filling part of the cups. One thing I learned from a friend: never, never put birdseed boobs into storage without removing all the birdseed . . . . Unless you want mice nesting in your costume storage area.

When You Need to Flatten Instead of Flatter. . . .

Many people have a mistaken idea that all opera singers are very large, like this Wagnerian singer of the past.

Not true. I worked with a lovely (in personality as well as looks) mezzo soprano who could have posed for a Petty Girl calendar. She sang the title role in La Cenerentola (Cinderella), but she also sang Hansel in Hansel and Gretel and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro — male roles. When you wear a C cup bra — or larger — just wrapping a band of “athletic support” elastic bandage around your chest, even if you put shoulder straps on the bandage, does not provide comfort and support. You need something that flattens the breasts without pushing them down or making a crease under them — something that supports and distributes the flesh to the sides, as “minimizer” bras do.

Lovely ‘Rochelle’ suggested a method she’d encountered at another opera company — a close fitting, V-necked, sleeveless shell — dyed to her skin tone — with boning on each side running up from just below the waist and over her bust points. (I made several boning channels.)  The boning pushed her breasts up and flattened them, so they looked like a man’s pectoral muscles.  After fitting the coutil shell (which zipped up the back) as tightly as we wanted, I opened the side seams, folded out a long wedge from just below her bust to the waist, and inserted a godet of elastic in each side seam to give her plenty of breathing room. (Some singers and Shakespearean actors learn to expand the ribcage at will, by several inches, creating a vacuum to suck in huge gulps of air.)

Recently, I was amazed to discover that the “Breeches role / opera flattener” we made decades ago had the same fan-shaped boning as this 1920’s bust flattener for older women (the one on the right:)

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Even if I did “re-invent the wheel,” my flattener was much more comfortable than Duct Tape!

Book Recommendation:  The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey, will tell you how to do many useful things, from corset construction to cartridge pleating and pattern drafting. Click here for more about this very practical book. There’s a whole paragraph about it at the bottom of the post.









Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Women in Trousers