I already reviewed Uplift in a previous post, but I’m not quite done talking about it. As I mentioned, the book is disjointed and hard to follow, but I was able to piece together the history of bra sizing and fitting. There’s just not a whole lot out there about bra fitting pre-internet, let alone before our mothers started wearing bras. So I’ve sifted through the book and put together a time-line of bra fitting for everyone. If I end up learning more in the future, I will update this post.
I found this information particularly valuable because to helps me answer a very common question: “Why does everyone use the wrong fitting method, then?” Like so many other things, knowing where we came from makes the present so much clearer.
What you see here is a mixture of information from various sources, though the majority is from Uplift. If you see something in there that doesn’t have a citation, it’s most likely just me trying to fill in the gaps. Citation sources are at the bottom of the page.
A patent is submitted that boasts a “corset substitute”, including “breast puffs” and “elastic shoulder-brace straps.” There’s no evidence that this was actually produced (Uplift, 1).
The first “bust-supporter” that was actually produced was patented in 1876 by Olivia Flynt. It was designed with larger-busted ladies in mind. Flynt made these bust supporters in her workshop in Boston, offering custom-fitted undergarments via mail order (Uplift, 4).
Though she calls them “pockets,” Marie Tucek is awarded a patent for the first bra with distinct cups (Uplift, 31).
Most manufacturers of “proto-brassieres” had gone out of business by 1908 and were replaced by newer companies that sold fixed-size garments (Uplift, 18).
Professional brassiere fitters start appearing in departments stores. Up until this point, the fitters had only helped with corset fitting. These fitters would pin and alter bras to fit the customer perfectly; either fitter or an assistant would sew them right then and there (Uplift, 64). Fitters were highly respected and were given extensive training; by the time a customer left the department store, they had a bra that was nearly custom-made.
Training bras for pre-teens start appearing (Uplift, 71).
Multi-sized bands (made possible by hook-and-eye closures) and adjustable straps start becoming common (Uplift, 73).
The first patent for a bra with underwires is awarded to Helene Pons. Note the distinctly separate cups (Uplift, 104).
The first patent for a brassiere attachment to enclose mastectomy pads is awarded to Gabrielle Poix-Yerkes (Uplift, 75). A quick history lesson here – the ability to diagnose breast cancer had greatly improved starting in the late 1800s. Until the 1970s (in the US, at least), the standard procedure was to perform a radical mastectomy of one or both breasts. Mastectomies were very common for a long time, much more so than today. It wasn’t until after the 1970s did physicians prefer to perform breast-sparing procedures when possible.
The first advertisement for bras using “standardized” A, B, C, D sizing. In this ad, A-D also refers to the woman’s age: A was a small teen, D was a pendulous matron (Uplift, 74). This ad was more for the clinical setting than for selling bras to consumers. Cup sizes A-D were not meant for women with large breasts (Wiki).
The term “bra” (as opposed to “brassiere”) is used for the first time in a trademarked item (Uplift, 73).
Warner is the first company to actually use A-D sizing in their bras. Up until this point, they had simply been using an expandable mesh to accommodate the different breast sizes (Uplift, 73).
Catalog companies have not yet caught on to A-D sizing, instead referring to the sizes as “Small, Medium, Large, and Stout” (Uplift, 73). Ouch. They use this phrasing through the 1940s and 50s. The sizing method the catalogs appear to use is 32-40, where those numbers correspond to the bust measurement (ABTF).
With the advent of “standardized” sizing came the end of home-sewing bras (Uplift, 81).
Though underwires had existed before this point, they only became common after WW2 due to the repeal of the restriction on chromium-plated wire for civilian use (Uplift, 103). The modern band measurement system is introduced just after WW2 as well (Wiki).
Catalogs finally begin to introduce cup sizes. They use the modern sizing system [number][letter], but it’s not in the same way we use it today. The number again refers to the bust measurement, and the letter is simply an easier way to say how big you thought your breasts were. For example, if you had a bust circumference of 32″ and you thought you had small breasts, you wore a 32A (ABTF).
Bess Oerke, a home economist, gives the ideal method for putting on a bra, which is what we still use today:
Slip both arms through the straps. Bend over from the hips so that the breasts fall forward and rest comfortably in the cups. While bending over, hook the garment behind your back as far down your back as you can reach. Stand erect again, place both fore-fingers inside the bottom of the brassiere, and run your fingers around the garment. As you do this, pull the garment down in the front and in the back (Uplift, 126).
Some bra companies begin to eschew trained fitters for over-the-counter bra sales due to the costs involved in training and employing professional fitters (Uplift, 132).
Bien Jolie, a bra manufacturer, articulates the problem that the manufacturers face in the wake of the bra-less 60s:
Many present day bras have an unnecessary abundance of coverage in fabric and elastic, in size and appearance of shoulder straps, and back elastics, in an over-degree of adjustability of buckles and hookings. Much of this can be, and is being, eliminated through ingenuity of design and fitting (Uplift, 147).
At this point, we can infer that comfort became a high priority for women in the 60s. They preferred no bra at all to a well-fitting (if restrictive) one. It seems like manufacturers over-estimated their ability to accommodate for this, as we see even today remnants of the 60s: tiny, thin straps, straps that are only partially adjustable, and tiny, thin bands that only have a few hooks.
The Sears catalog uses the underarm measurement for the first time. The measuring method they describe is the overbust (underarm) measurement minus the bust measurement to determine the cup letter (ABTF).
A health column in a newspaper solidified the bra measurement system we still use today. When asked how to measure for a bra, Dr. George Thosteson said the following:
Use a tape measure and measure the distance around your body with the tap snug under the bust. Add five inches to that measurement. That is your bra size. For the cup size measure around the bust at the nipples. If that measure is the same as the first total your cup size is A. If it is an inch more, than [sic] the cup size is B and so forth.
If the first measurement (under the bust) is 28, then the bra size is 33 (five inches more). If the measurement (at the nipple) is also 33, then the cup size is A, if an inch more, B, etc.
This can vary in some women, but it’s a pretty good general rule (Eugene).
As the doctor neglects to mention that band sizes didn’t come in odd sizes even then, it becomes pretty obvious that bra sizing and fitting has been highly misunderstood for decades now.
The patent for a bra size calculator is awarded to Lynn Sehres. The device encompassed a “circular slide-rule of imposed discs” that had various measurements on them. When calibrated correctly to the client, it could predict the band size and cup depth that would be best for the client. Fitters found it useful, but the general public didn’t care for it (Uplift, 164).
Some of the other attempts to explain the history of bra sizing in America focus on the goofy ways we currently measure people (+4/+5 or the underarm measurement), but I’m thinking that they’re failing to see the forest for trees. America’s still trying to recover from the abrupt transition from everything being made-to-order to everything being pre-made, and the varied measurement methods that exist today are just the current stepping stones on the path to bras that fit well.
One commenter on the ABTF page said the following:
It seems like the +4 method was probably spawned out of necessity to keep the same letters and numbers in bra sizing even though the actual bra itself has changed. Like instead of calling the sizes something different, they found a way to keep 32-38 the norm instead of shifting to 28-34 or so.
And I think that’s become my theory as well.
The Lingerie Addict recently wrote a post about how to shop for antique/vintage lingerie on eBay. One of the paragraphs in that post is a surprisingly good summary of how bra sizing has evolved over the decades:
Vintage and antique sizing is… a thing. Let’s just say that today’s “standardized sizes” (highly dubious quotation marks) are utterly precise compared with what lingerie fans were working with back in the day. Depending on how far back you go, there were basically no attempts to distinguish cup sizes (because cups weren’t quite a thing yet), and the measurements depended on the person the garment was being made for, or by.
Bras started out being completely custom. When they changed to “standardized” sizing in the 1930s, everything went to pot. Slowly the sizing system got better over the decades, but the improvement stagnated in the 60s and 70s. I’m fully confident in saying that bra sizing did not change one bit between the 1960s and the 20-aughts. The internet suddenly spurred bra sizing improvements in the late 20-aughts and early 2010s by connecting the US with Europe and other parts of the world who were using better sizing methods.
- (Uplift, page number): Uplift: the Bra in America
- (ABTF): “Some history behind +4/underarm measurements” by luftballoons on /r/abrathatfits
- (Wiki): the Measurement Method Origins section of the Brassiere Measurement article on Wikipedia
- (Eugene): “Here’s how to figure right size,” Eugene Register-Guard, 1976