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"Space Age" Brassiere

Strapless bra worn by Clara Kuester of Clintonville, Wisconsin and made by
Jantzen, Inc. in the early 1950s.

(Museum object #2000.74.28)

Whether focusing on style or focusing on support, the brassiere has undergone many dramatic transformations since its first use in the United States in the early 20th century. The bra may have once seemed miraculously liberating compared to its more oppressive predecessor, the corset. Yet, as this early 1950s bra demonstrates, style in the name of beauty has not always gone hand in hand with comfort. This gravity-defying example made by swimwear company Jantzen, Inc. of Portland, Oregon and worn by Clara Kuester of Clintonville, Wisconsin shows just some of the dramatic "Space Age" engineering used by undergarment manufacturers in the name of fashion.

Just as the outfits women wore on the outside changed rapidly during the early 20th century, foundation garments followed suit. For example, most liberated women of the 1920s preferred a youthful and boyish figure, making a flat, bound chest all the rage. But by the late 1930s, femininity again reigned, and fashionable women embraced new "lift and separate" bras that emphasized a high and pert bust.

The 1940s saw all sorts of novel innovations to the once-humble undergarment, all of which continued to push a molded look. New synthetic fabrics like nylon coupled with cone-shaped cups with spiral stitching lines like those seen here helped every woman become her own personal perky "Sweater Girl" in the style popularized by World War II American GI pin-up girls. Underwires and padding further helped smaller-chested women "cheat" to achieve the look of the glamorous—and often busty—screen starlets of the era.

Credit for the most famous bra designed during this era probably belongs to billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes. The eccentric aviator, engineer, and film producer demanded that a special bra be produced for the star of his 1943 movie The Outlaw. Jane Russell—a 38DD—normally required a bra with a substantial amount of coverage that completely obscured her cleavage. Wanting to bank on Russell's sex appeal, Hughes asked his fellow engineers to design a seamless bra that provided the necessary support yet gave the appearance that Russell was braless and spilling out from her tight top.

While Russell never actually wound up wearing it, the provocative "cantilever bra" proved ahead of its time, paving the way for styles to come. Incidentally, the amount of cleavage Russell showed in the resulting film was still considered too lewd, and censors banned the film. When finally widely released several years later, the notoriety of the picture made ticket sales boom and consequently made Russell's chest Hollywood's most famous.

A defined yet unnaturally structured bustline remained the rage in the 1950s. While in the early part of the decade manufacturers continued to rely on stitching lines to provide shape, they developed even more unnatural bullet-shaped bras with stiff pre-formed points later in the decade. The fad for strapless formal fashions during this decade required still further manipulation of materials to attain the proper anti-gravity shape without shoulder support. Mass production of a wide array of brassiere forms helped assure every woman could replicate the popular shapes of the day no matter her exterior garment choices.

It was little wonder then that women of the 1960s would finally revolt against these forced forms. The fame of rail thin models like Twiggy helped bring back a more boyish and natural look for women. And while radicals in the hippie movement went so far as to burn their bras, the average woman found solace by simply retreating to more naturally appearing, less restrictive undergarments.

Although trendsetters like Madonna resurrected old fads during the 1980s with such garments as her conical bra—this time as her primary exterior garment—highly structured bras did not again garner widespread appeal. Women of today can at least be guaranteed a wide variety of options along the sliding scale between style versus support no matter the current fashion.

[Sources: Pederson, Stephanie. Bra: A Thousand Years of Style, Support and Seduction (Devon, UK: David and Charles, 2004); Farrell-Beck, Jane and Colleen Gau. Uplift: The Bra in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).]


Posted on March 06, 2008

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  • Clothing & Personal Items
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