Updated: Jun 25, 2022
I never thought I would see the day, but . . . I made a 1950’s longline bullet bra. Why did I do this, and what have I learned about vintage bras?
I have been feeling the draw towards creating a more cohesive everyday wardrobe - but still one with a vintage flare. I'm feeling interested in a 1940's-50's wardrobe.
If you’ve been around on this channel for any amount of time, you will know that I love creating historical foundation garments (ie. undergarments!) Usually, this has been corsets and stays, but in the case of the 1940’s-50's, bras, girdles, and garter belts were more typically worn. I decided to dive in and make a long-line bra, with that iconic 50’s bullet bra shape, and a centre-front closure.
I will be sharing all about what I have learned about vintage bras, both from extensive research as well as from drafting a 1950’s bra pattern, creating a mock-up, and sewing and wearing the bra. Stay tuned for my next blog post and video, which will be all about the making of this particular vintage bra!
I will dive into why my historical bra is ridiculously supportive, even though it does not contain underwire, and what makes vintage bras so very different than modern bras.
My "Bra Story"
First of all, what makes me “qualified” to share my rather extensive opinions on bras, the different styles of bras, and their supportiveness?
I have struggled my whole life with bras and finding a well fitting bra. I have a rather unusual bra size, in that I have a smaller than average back or band size, while having a larger than average cup size. Given the modern way of grading bra cup sizes so that they become sequentially smaller for a smaller band size, this has currently led to me, at the height of breastfeeding body changes, having to buy modern bras in the size 32 G. Yep, a pretty unusual size - and very hard to find from any mainstream lingerie stores.
Not to mention that when I do find a supposedly well-fitting bra by modern standards, I strongly dislike the way it makes me look. I look at least 15 pounds heavier wearing a modern bra compared to one of my well-fitting corsets or my latest vintage bra - and no, it’s not because the corset makes my tummy look significantly smaller. It’s because the corset does a much better job than the bra at supporting and slimming my upper body - ie. the bust.
All that being said, I have been making and wearing my own corsets for several years, and have gotten a fairly good grasp of the pattern design principles that goes into bust support garments (like bras and corsets). This has helped me quickly get a grip on the differences between vintage and modern bras, especially when it comes to their shape, construction, and pattern design. Now let’s talk about what makes vintage bras so very different than modern bras!
Pattern Design and Shape
Most historical bras had more of a pointed cup shape than modern bras. This may have meant being purposely quite pointy, as in the case of a bullet bra, or merely being semi-pointed, as in the case of most 1940’s bras with their horizontal cup seam. (see above image)
This makes sense, as at these times women were just transitioning out of wearing corsets, which also give more of an angular or pointed bust shape, at least in the case of mid-bust corsets like the ones I have made and worn.
In the modern day, a more rounded bra cup shape is in vogue, in large part due to the prevalence of the form-fitting stretch clothing that many women today wear - which would show any lumps and bumps from a seamed bra cup, and certainly from a pointed bra shape. This is why the "t-shirt bra" was invented!
The historical bra shapes did however work very well with the corresponding clothing of those eras which were made from woven fabrics and had a fit and flare shape.
Something else I have discovered through my research and personal experimentation with vintage bra shapes, is that a more pointed bra cup shape is inherently more lifting and slimming than a round cup. These designs of bras are even more uplifting and slimming to women with a larger bra cup size - despite historical bras containing no underwire! Which leads me to my next point!
Underwire vs. No Underwire
As your typical modern person, I have had it drummed into my mind that no bra can be truly supportive to a woman of larger cup size without containing underwire. As such, I felt quite skeptical when upon researching vintage bras, I found that virtually none of them contained underwire! Now, this is not totally true, as in the 50’s, underwire was becoming more common. But I would still hazard a wager that it was not the norm.
Despite my skepticism , I decided to go ahead and pattern and mock-up a 50’s longline bullet bra with no underwire. Can you believe it? This bra was significantly more supportive than my modern underwire bras, and much more flattering as well. This bra ended up giving me a very similar bust shape to the corsets I love to wear, which is a major breakthrough for me! In the past, I have always preferred to wear corsets over bras - mainly due to the improved bust support and shaping that they give. So to find a bra that can achieve the same shape and support as a corset (while containing no underwire) blows my mind.
Historical or vintage bras would usually have the same curved seam, but it would usually just be bound with bias tape and left that way. No underwire involved.
Other times, as in the case of vintage bullet bras, there were stylistic open areas left in the front band area, and no visible curved seam.
Sometimes in 1950’s bustiers, they were shaped more like a corset and had interesting designs that did not involve any curved underbust seam.
In some cases, 50’s bras even contained overwires (see first image in this section)- this was mostly used in strapless plunge bras. Plunge - overwires are still used today, especially for fancy red carpet style dresses, figure skating dresses, and other garments in those sorts of categories.
How are Vintage Bras SO Supportive?
So, how on earth is this historical bra so supportive? It amounts to three factors. First, I will give a caveat that this is a longline bra, which is known to be more supportive than typical narrow band bras. However, I have heard from other vintage dressers that even with vintage narrow band bras, they are still more supportive and slimming than most modern bras.
Now, let's hear those three factors:
The pattern design and cup shape of these bras, as mentioned before, is inherently more lifting and slimming than modern round cup bras. This is simply due to the difference in how the bust is distributed across the body in these different shapes of cup.
Vintage bras were made almost exclusively with woven, non-stretch fabric, and had woven non-stretch straps. Modern bras are exclusively made with stretch fabric, even the cups, which are made of “low-stretch” (but still stretch) fabric. Even modern bra straps are made from a type of strong elastic! This is the reason that in a modern bra you will find that once it has been worn for a while, it becomes less and less supportive, as the elastic of the fabric becomes tired and has less recovery.
3. Vintage, non-underwire bras can be more supportive and slimming than modern bras, directly due to their lack of underwire, and the greater flexibility this gives to the bra design.
The purpose of an underwire is to sit directly around the lower perimeter of the breast, directly in the crease where the breast meets the body. In bra making terms this is dubbed the “breast root”. The larger a woman’s cup size, the larger this outer perimeter will be, and therefore the larger her underwire will need to be. The larger the underwire, the larger the cup as a whole will be. Of course, this is mostly common sense, BUT the wonderful thing about a non underwire vintage bra is that since there is no underwire to worry about cutting in to the body if it is too small, the outer cup perimeter can actually be a little smaller than the woman’s actual breast. In theory, this might seem a bit risky, but having personally experimented with this technique in my latest vintage bra, I can tell you that my bra turned out quite comfortable, ridiculously supportive, and much more slimming to my upper body than any of my modern under wired bras.
What Fabric Were Vintage Bras Made From?
Let’s dive more into the types of fabrics used with historical vs modern bras, and the pros and cons of each.
Modern bras, as mentioned before, are entirely made from stretch fabric. Usually, the fabric used for the band will be very stretchy, while the fabric used for the cups will be considered a “low-stretch” fabric.
Why is stretchy fabric used? If you look at all historical support garments like corsets, stays, and even very early bras from the Edwardian period, they all contained lacing at the back. This lacing enabled the garment to be very form fitting and supportive, while enabling the wearer to easily get the garment onto herself and then tighten it up once it was on.
Essentially, elastic and stretch fabric in modern bras are a substitute for lacing. They enable the wearer to stretch the garment in order to get it around her body and do up the hook and eyes at the back, but then the elastic recovers and fits the body tightly.
In the case of modern bra cups, “low-stretch” fabric is used because it is also easier to get onto the body and conform to the bust shape without the wearer having to do a lot of shifting and shimmying to get her breasts into the bra cups.
What are the cons of stretch fabric in a bra? Stretch fabric generally equals a less supportive bra, especially in the case of stretch fabric in the cups. It also in my opinion gives bras more of a shelf life - the more they are worn, the more the elastic will lose its recovery and the bra therefore lose its supportiveness.
Vintage bras often would exclusively use non stretch fabric, especially in the cups. However, they would sometimes use some stretch fabric or actual elastic in small areas of the band (see above image), which like I said before, gave the wearer greater ease in getting it on herself.
When I made my bra I chose to go with an entirely non-stretch option, as based on my research this was still commonly done in the fifties, and it made things simpler for me as a first time bra-maker to be able to use only one type of fabric. I used some white cotton batiste for this bra from my stash.
What are the pros of woven fabric used in vintage bras? Non stretch, woven fabric in a bra makes for a more supportive bra - and one that won't gradually sag with wear the way modern bras can.
What are the cons of woven bra fabric? As mentioned already, the lack of elastic in a bra band can make getting it on and off difficult. While I love the supportiveness of my vintage bra, it is more difficult to get on than a modern bra, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the top eye on the hook and eye tape eventually rips away, since it is the first one I do up and it gets a lot of tension.
If this is something you would be worried about in making a vintage bra, the solution is simple - simply add some panels at the back and sides of a modern bra band type of fabric (like duoplex), or use some actual elastic in the bra band.
The lack of stretch fabric in the cups, again helps this bra be more supportive, but it requires more manipulation on the wearer’s part to get everything situated in the cups properly.
I hope you learned something from this article, and stay tuned for the next video where I will be sharing the entire process of making my vintage longline bra! Have you ever worn a vintage bra? Would you like to try making one? Comment below!
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