As discussed in the wonderful book Uplift, for centuries the breasts were supported from below, by a corset which pushed them up.
In the mid-twenties the uplift brassiere was invented, which supported the breasts from the shoulder (with the combination of bra straps and an elastic band below the breasts.)
But until the modern brassiere was invented,** women’s breasts were often subject to exaggeration (pushed up and padded in the early 1900s) or suppression — “confined” and flattened. All aboard for the
history herstory tour…. *****
In 1907, the “big bust, big hips” S-curve figure was supported by a corset which covered only the bottom of the breasts.
This was a problem for large- (even slightly large-) busted women. If the corset hits just a little too low, your breasts droop over the top, or slip out of the corset when you raise your arms. So, like wild beasts or prisoners, breasts needed to be “confined.” Something stronger than the chemise or camisole (worn under the corset) was needed“It holds the bust high or low ….”
“A boon for the stout. Reduces Bust Measure 3 to 4 inches [OMG– Is this the first Minimizer bra ad?] ….Holds the bust high or low and prevents the flesh overriding the corset…. Double Boned Special deep back for Stout and Long Waisted.”
By 1910, a straight, slim silhouette was coming into fashion, and the top of the corset was getting too low to support the breasts.
Bust confiners to the rescue!
“The most striking change in the new corsets this season is the lower bust, which to many women will be a grateful improvement. With the low corset, a bust confiner is indispensable to give graceful contour and the desired straight, slender figure….”
Unlike a corset cover,*** it was heavily boned.
“Brassiere” is not what a bust-supporting garment was called in France, but American advertisers chose that word to describe this new garment.
The hook at the center front waist of the brassiere attached it to the corset.
In 1912, Paul Poiret was very influential, introducing a long, straight silhouette with a very high waistline and a raised bust. In 1815, women wore a bust-supporting corset under Empire fashions. This photo of a model wearing a high-waisted fashion by Paul Poiret gives an idea of the problem of a corset without bust support. (Her dress and chemise are doing whatever supporting there is.)
In his book, En Habillant l’Epoque, Poiret told a story about one of his models (not necessarily this one) that has stuck with me for years:
“Am I the only one to know that this bird of paradise concealed the vilest of bodies, … that her breasts, empty and unspeakably awful, had to be rolled up like pancakes in order that they might be packed into her majestic bodice?” — Quoted and translated by Quentin Bell in his book, On Human Finery. [I imagine that Poiret originally said they were rolled like “crepes.”]
OK, the brassiere needed to be invented! But…. The brassieres of 1914 through the early 1920s treated breasts as something which needed to be confined, suppressed, and compressed…. (I wish I could come up with a joke about the monobosom and “solitary confinement.”)
“The silhouette … for 1914 … is the straight figure, with small hips, large waist, and no bust,” wrote Eleanor Chalmers. Delineator, April 1914, p. 38. (Surprise: this fashion didn’t start in the 1920s.)
1917 fashion illustrations often show a very low bust (a fashion which would be appreciated by some women.)
The natural, uncorseted look meant that breasts could be worn low, although “stout” women were always advised to wear a brassiere.
Famous dancer and fashion icon Irene Castle, an early adopter of bobbed hair, is obviously choosing to go without a brassiere.
Nevertheless, some young women with naturally high busts would choose to wear a breast-flattening brassiere.
It’s hard to believe that young models could achieve a bust this low and flat without a flattening brassiere.
By 1917, advice was that “With a low corset even a slender woman requires a brassiere or bust confiner.”
This “Model” brassiere gives a more natural silhouette (although it implies one wide, single breast rather than a pair.) It has seams over the bust points, so it would flatten the bust somewhat.
As early as 1920, bust-flattening brassieres and bandeaux, designed for that purpose, were being sold. I was excited to find an ad for the “Flatter-U” brassiere, which I had read about but never seen:
“Especially designed to flatten any unlovely bulge at the diaphragm, bust or shoulders. It really does flatter you, and it makes a flatter you.”
In the same ad:
“…From the slim girlish thirty-two to the full figure of mature lines. It retains the flesh in trim, youthful smoothness….”
[“Youthful smoothness?” How “youthful,” exactly? Age ten?] It’s 1920 — not yet what we think of as “the Twenties,” but the “boyish” figure is already starting. (“Boyshform” was another punning brand name like “Flatter-U.”)
The change didn’t happen overnight. These ads are also from 1920:
** Not long after the uplift brassiere became popular in the 1930s, bust padding was reintroduced. (Corset, 1932.) You could buy “Indestructible Breast Forms” in 1939. In 1947, the “push-up” bra was invented by Frederick Mellinger, who started Frederick’s of Hollywood — which is still selling padding to those who think they need it.
*** A corset cover, 1914:
**** By 1926, patents were applied for by at least three “uplift” companies: Model, A.P. (G.M. Poix & Co.) and Maiden Form. (source, Uplift: The Bra in America, by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau.}
***** This post generalizes based on images from Delineator and Ladies’ Home Journal — just two sources. [Not good scholarship!] For a scholarly history of brassieres in this period (including patented devices) I recommend the well-researched book Uplift: The Bra in America, by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau.
NOTE: Most of these images are ones I discovered recently, but some appeared in previous posts. I shared many 1920s’ undergarments in “Brassieres, Bandeaux and Bust Flatteners” (click here), “Underpinning Twenties Fashion: Girdles and Corsets” (click here), “Garters, Flappers & Rolled Stockings” (click here.) And “Corsets and Corselets.” For what happened after the Twenties, see “Changing the Foundations of Fashion, 1929 to 1934.”