AskDefine | Define brassiere

Dictionary Definition

brassiere n : an undergarment worn by women to support their breasts [syn: bra, bandeau]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • a UK: /ˈbræzɪɛə/, /"br

Extensive Definition

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 13 November 1914, the newly formed US 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 Quebec, both soutien-gorge and brassière are used interchangeably.
The claim that the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling (phonetically tit-sling) who lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere (fill up de' 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.


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 1400's BC during the Minoan civilization era. Similar functionality was achieved by both outerwear and underwear.
From the 1500's (AD) onwards, the undergarments of wealthier women were dominated by the corset, which pushed the breasts upwards. In the latter part of the 1800's, 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 1900's, garments more closely resembling contemporary bras had emerged, although large-scale commercial production did not occur until the 1930's. 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.. 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 from below (as corsets do).
The major engineering weakness of the bra 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.

Size and measurement

The comfort and function of any given bra is highly dependent on the correct size and fit. A large range of sizes are available to cater to the wide variety in the size of women's breasts and bodies. Bra sizes typically vary in two ways: the volume of the cups that fit over the breast, and the length of the back strap that goes around the body. It is essential that the bra fit correctly in both of these dimensions. There is typically some ability to adjust the band size, since bras usually have three or four alternative sets of fastening hooks. The shoulder straps of a bra are also almost always adjustable. The size of women's breasts is often expressed in terms of her usual bra size. Note on cup size vs. volume, in US fluid ounces and cubic centimeters - A = 8 fl. oz. = 236 cm³, B = 13 fl. oz. = 384 cm³, C = 21 fl. oz. = 621 cm³, D = 27 fl. oz. = 798 cm³, reference from History of Bras show on Discovery Health.

Measurement systems

Although all bras are labeled by size, many women find that the only way to obtain a bra that fits properly and achieves the effect they want is by trying a bra on with each bra type, model and brand.
Though many countries use the metric system, the majority of nations still use imperial units to determine the underband size of the bra itself.
There are several methods which may be used to provide an approximate size by taking measurements. However, bra sizing systems differ widely between countries, between manufacturers, and between brands and designs, which can create many problems. Many researchers have demonstrated that these problems arise because fit requires knowing the breast volume, not the body circumference (the distance around the body), which is what is actually measured. Although bra sizing uses the circumference to estimate the volume, this has been shown to be highly unreliable.

Fitting difficulties

Women often find it difficult to find the correct bra size. To achieve perfect sizing consistently, a bra would have to be custom made, because a "one-size-fits-all" manufacturing process is fraught with difficulties. Breasts vary in the position on the chest, and in their diameters.
A number of stores have certified professional bra-fitters specialists. However, even bra fitters have been shown to be quite variable in their recommendations. Buying "off-the-shelf" or "online" bras is unwise if the buyer has never tried on the brand and type of bra that they are interested in buying.
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 the same as with shoes. Some critics observe that measuring systems such as the one described above often lead to an incorrect size, most commonly too small in the cup, and too large in the band. For anyone, especially cup sizes larger than a D, one should get a professional bra fitting from the lingerie department of a clothing store or a specialty lingerie store.
Some women intentionally buy larger cups and pad them, while yet others buy smaller cups to give the appearance of being "full". Finally, the elastic properties of the band make band size highly unreliable, and in one study the label size was consistently different from the measured size.
Fashion and image drive the bra market, and these factors often take precedence over comfort and function.
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.
Many of the health problems associated with bras are due to fitting problems and are discussed further below, under health problems. However, finding a comfortable fit is described as very difficult by 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

Women may now choose from wide range of brassiere styles 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 colour. For more, see brassiere designs.

Therapeutic role of the bra

Countering the aging process

seealso Breast
Anatomically, the breasts are non-rigid 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, and recommend mastopexy (breast lift) for correction.
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 changes the natural process of aging of the 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 of a woman who had breasts that were uncomfortably large, and who had improvement after two years of being without a bra is given.
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."

Pain relief and comfort

Wearing a bra can offer relief of breast pain (mastodynia, mastalgia), particularly when women are performing strenuous physical activity or exercise. Indeed, the sports bra is an example of a bra which has been specifically designed for this purpose. An underwire bra can also help support breasts and keep them from bouncing (for example, during running), which is painful whether the breasts are large or small. Recently the requirement for a bra during exercise at all has been questioned following extensive studies on athletes and sportswomen.

Cultural significance

Feminist comment

Many feminist writers have interpreted 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 often depicted bras as symbols of oppression, and it was views like these, considered radical by some, which perhaps gave rise to the urban legend of bra-burning ceremonies.

The bra as a fashion item

Breasts which have not undergone sagging, and which present a "pert" or "perky" appearance, are widely considered to be a marker of youth. Bras are therefore used, particularly within Western cultures which place great value upon youth, to promote what is considered a more desirable youthful appearance by lifting the breasts from their natural position. Furthermore, the modern bra is often more decorative than its predecessors, and therefore has become both a fashion statement and an adornment, and even an icon of sensuality.
The design of bras which aim to be fashionable, rather than functional, has been driven by changing fashions in outerwear, which has often dictated what could be worn underneath. Hence its shape has evolved through flat, round, pointed, conical, to "natural". 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. In a number of cultures, women are quite comfortable to sunbathe or swim without any external support.
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. However more young people are doing so, and bra straps are a common sight. Occasionally they may wear a bra as outerwear. An attractive bra can be considered partly as an accessory, just as a camisole might; more women, particularly in Eastern Europe, are now wearing translucent tops which reveal the underlying bra.
Even considering this relative cultural taboo, being seen in one's bra is still more socially acceptable than exposing the bare breasts, except at the beach. 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.
An increasing number of women and health professionals are challenging the traditional values that suggest that that bras are either medically necessary or required socially and are adopting bralessness (also known as topfreedom, or breast freedom). One survey found that 20% of women over 50 were not wearing bras (Farell-Beck and Gau p.171).

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. some bras may put pressure on nerves.


Use of a properly fitting bra is regularly recommended for reduction of mastalgia (breast pain) from exercise or other activities which cause the breasts to bounce, or for pain related to fibrocystic breast disease. A trial comparing the effectiveness of danazole versus use of a sports bra for treatment of mastalgia found the sports bra to be much more effective, and avoided the side effects experienced by 42% of those taking danazole. Sports bras were also found most effective at reducing mastalgia caused by exercise.

Shoulder pain

When the shoulder straps transfer most of the weight of the breast, a deep groove can be seen over the shoulder.
This seems more common in women whose activities require them to lift their arms above the shoulders. In a study of 100 women with painful shoulders, they were asked to not wear their bras for two weeks, by which time their symptoms had improved but returned within an hour of replacing the bra. 84% did not elevate their arms, and in these symptom relief was complete. Three years later, 79% of the women were still bra free; the remainder preferred pain to not wearing a bra. 16% worked in occupations requiring elevating their arms, and only achieved partial improvement. 13 of the 16 decided to become bra-free, and by six months all were cured.

Back pain

Back pain is particularly common among large-breasted women who wear bras offering insufficient support. In extreme cases, such discomfort can lead to a woman seeking breast reduction surgery. In a study of 103 women seeking breast-reduction surgery (reduction mammaplasty) for pain, one woman never wore a bra, but of the remaining 102 all were wearing an incorrect bra size. The underband was too tight and the cup size too large. The larger the woman, the worse the fit. The result was a bra that compresses the breast and distorts it by compressing the breast against the skin of the chest wall.


In 2007, a morbidly obese adolescent developed a pressure ulcer from her bra band.

Bra size

Based on their research, many physicians believe that bra size is meaningless, when breast volumes are calculated accurately. "''The current popular system of determining bra size is inaccurate so often as to be useless. Add to this the many different styles of bras and the lack of standardization between brands, and one can see why finding a comfortable, well-fitting bra is more a matter of educated guesswork, trial, and error than of precise measurements.''"



  • — 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-13: 978 1 85573 745 7.
  • Ewing, Elizabeth and Webber, Jean. Fashion in Underwear (Paperback) Batsford 1971 ISBN 0-7134-0857-X
  • Farrell-Beck, Jane and Gau, Colleen. Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002 xvi, 243 pp. $35.00, ISBN 0-8122-3643-2. (for reviews, see next section)
  • Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch (1970). 2002 edition Farrar Straus Giroux ISBN 0-374-52762-8
  • Love, Susan; Lindsey, Karen; Williams, Marcia. Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. Paperback: 632 pages. HarperCollins 3rd Rev edition (September 20, 2000) ISBN 0-7382-0235-5
  • Pedersen, Stephanie. Bra: A Thousand Years Of Style, Support & Seduction. Hardcover: 127 pages. David & Charles Publishers (November 30, 2004). ISBN 0-7153-2067-X
  • Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History Paperback: 208 pages Yale University Press (February 8, 2003) ISBN 0-300-09953-3
  • Stoppard, Miriam. The Breast Book. 224 pages DK ADULT 1st American edition April 4, 1996 ISBN 0-7894-0420-6
  • Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A history of the Victorian corset. Berg Publishers (October 1, 2003) ISBN 1-85973-510-X
  • Warner LC. Always starting things. Warner Brothers, Bridgeport, Connecticut 1948

Book reviews

Farrell-Beck and Gau. Uplift
  • Fischer, Gayle V. Journal of American History; 2003; Mar 89(4): 1539-40
  • Murphy, Michael. Winterthur Portfolio; 2003 38(2/3): 151-9

Journal articles

  • Steele, Valerie. Le Corset: A Material Culture Analysis of a Deluxe French Book. The Yale Journal of Criticism - Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 1998, pp. 29-3
  • Freeman S.K. In Style: Femininity and Fashion since the Victorian Era. Journal of Women's History; 2004; 16(4): 191-206
  • Casselman A. The physics of bras. Discover November 22 2005

Research papers


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

Relevant articles

brassiere in Tosk Albanian: BH
brassiere in Arabic: مشد الصدر
brassiere in Breton: Brennidenn
brassiere in Bulgarian: Сутиен
brassiere in Czech: Podprsenka
brassiere in Danish: Brystholder
brassiere in Pennsylvania German: Bruschtkisse
brassiere in German: Büstenhalter
brassiere in Spanish: Sujetador
brassiere in Esperanto: Mamzono
brassiere in Basque: Bularretako
brassiere in Persian: سینه‌بند
brassiere in French: Soutien-gorge
brassiere in Korean: 브래지어
brassiere in Italian: Reggiseno
brassiere in Hebrew: חזייה
brassiere in Lithuanian: Liemenėlė
brassiere in Dutch: Beha
brassiere in Japanese: ブラジャー
brassiere in Norwegian: Brystholder
brassiere in Polish: Biustonosz
brassiere in Portuguese: Sutiã
brassiere in Russian: Бюстгальтер
brassiere in Sicilian: Stringipettu
brassiere in Simple English: Brassière
brassiere in Slovak: Podprsenka
brassiere in Slovenian: Nedrček
brassiere in Finnish: Rintaliivit
brassiere in Swedish: Behå
brassiere in Thai: ยกทรง
brassiere in Vietnamese: Nịt ngực
brassiere in Turkish: Sutyen
brassiere in Ukrainian: Бюстгальтер
brassiere in Chinese: 胸罩

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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