It's nearly impossible to find a bra today that's both well-made and looks nice. But has this always been the case? Are your average bras better or worse than they used to be? We tried on some vintage bras – and some new ones too – to find out.
A bra advertisement from 1951.
The selection of bras is vast, but the quality isn’t. Rhinestones and leopard print? Sure. But an affordable bra made of nice materials that provides adequate support and doesn’t look like it belongs in a convent? Those are tough to come by.
I wondered: If bras are so unevolved in 2012, had they actually devolved since women began wearing them in the 1920s? Might they have been better back in the day?
There was only one, not terribly convenient way to find out: Try on old bras. And some new ones too, for the sake of comparison.
What I’m working with here — a relatively narrow back and ribcage but relatively large breasts — isn’t the worst card to have been dealt, but it makes finding (and, well, wearing) a good bra of the utmost importance. Should you require support of this type, you’re often left with beige, boring options, or something tacky and uncomfortable.
(That’s the great paradox of bras: the women who don’t need them are the ones who get to wear the best ones – the pretty, tastefully bejeweled options, should you so choose).
The Jean-Paul Gaultier for La Perla advertisement and inset, the bra I tried on.
The Old Bras
My experiment began at Ilissa’s Vintage Lingerie, a teensy shop in tucked in the back of a sprawling antiques bazaar in Manhattan. The shop, which specializes in lingerie from the 1920s to 1950s and is owned by Illisa Goldman, boasts an impressive collection of undies, nighties, corsets and yes, bras. Most of their business comes from renting out their merchandise to period piece films and shows (when Harvey Fierstein cross-dressed for his role in “Hairspray” on Broadway, Goldman supplied the bras).
When I arrived, Goldman was finishing selling many thousands of dollars worth of nighties to a vintage store owner in town from Paris; French designer Isabel Marant recently bought a whole crop of vintage leather jackets from her. And Marant isn't the only designer to take cues from Goldman's goods. Goldman told me that she had recently sold one of the bra styles I tried on, a pink silk number with a unique curve at the bottom, to a favorite customer: Jean-Paul Gaultier. She quickly pulled out a catalog and flipped to an advertisement for Gaultier’s line for luxury lingerie brand La Perla.
There it was: almost exactly the same bra design, with frilly lace on top, turned into a nightgown.
“Honey, nothing is original,” Goldman assured me.
Meanwhile, the bras, hundreds of them, all unworn, were packed in tightly along the back wall. Goldman began pulling them out by the dozen. She grabbed sizes like “34B” – laughable to me, considering the bras I own all bear multiple D’s on their labels. But sizes since the 40s and 50s had changed dramatically, she assured.
From the minute I unsnapped – or really, unbuttoned – the first silk bra, the difference in quality and workmanship was immediately noticeable. The closures weren’t pieces of metal that might snag. Instead, they were beautiful, smooth buttons. They felt graceful, almost. The other details followed suit: the quality sewing convinced you that the thing wouldn’t fall apart at the seams, and the smooth texture of the fabrics felt like high thread count linens, not like '80s workout gear. The high quality was so evident that I asked if the bra, from the 1950s, had been handmade. It had not.
In some cases, that delicate design meant an unsupportive, floppy fit. The bras were attractive, artful even, but among the many I tried, the pointy cups and silky fabrics did little to support. One looked like Lady Gaga's take on a tight black corset. Instead of having delicately rounded cups, the tops of the cups pointed up in a triangle shape. It looked pretty fabulous, but it was also like wearing a stunning piece of incredibly heavy, bulky piece of jewelry – great for a photo shoot, but less great for an entire day.
Though none of the old bras fit like a glove, they did have a feature that seems to have been phased out by the bra Gods that be (and much to my dismay): an extended bottom. Rather than just ending at the underwire, decades-old bras extended down as an almost half-corset, covering the rib cage. Sure, it sucks you in a bit, but not uncomfortably so, and also manages to offer much more support. I do wonder why no one’s thought to bring that back. I'd love to have one of those, but at around $400 a pop, they wouldn’t be making a trip to my closet anytime some soon.