The Myth of The Perfect Breast, Part 2: From The No-Bra to The T-Shirt Bra

Wacoal How Perfect Soft Cup Bra

Wacoal How Perfect Soft Cup Bra

Personal preference aside, American society believes breasts should look a certain way. They should be smooth, separated, perky half-spheres that ignore gravity and have no visible nipples, else people perceive them as looking vulgar, obvious, or strange. But this preference for the gravity-defying, no-nipple look hasn’t always existed.

The first part of this series examined the changing ideals of breast shape in America, from the 1920s to the 1950s. The second part continues from the 60s to the present day, to see how styles have changed and aesthetics have evolved over the past fifty years.



1968 Bestform advertisement, via flickr. https://www.flickr.com/groups/vintage_lingerie/

“The shape you want.” 1968 Bestform advertisement, via flickr.

The bullet shape of the 1950s softened into the 60s, thanks in part to a new fiber called spandex, but stayed relatively pointy.

1966 Gossard advertisement

1966 Gossard advertisement, via flickr.

The 1960s are famous for the idea of “bra burning,” where feminist activists are said to have lit their bras aflame at the 1968 Miss America pageant to make a statement about oppressive beauty standards in American society. By all accounts, no one actually burned any bras, but the idea became a relic of the time and reflects the cultural climate. Throughout the decade, many women still wore bras, especially those with full busts who wanted the support, but others still wanted a less restrictive bra.

1960s "no bra" advertisement. Interesting that the model still has the slightly-pointed "ideal" shape under her "no bra," along with the strange airbrushing on the low back model's bustline! via The Jumping Frog www.thejumpingfrog.com

1960s Exquisite Form advertisement. Interesting that the model still has the uplifted, slightly-pointed “ideal” 60s shape under her “no bra,” and what’s up with the strange airbrushing on the low back model’s figure? via The Jumping Frog

Women wanted liberation from their expected roles as wife and mother, and bras represented those restrictions. So Rudi Gernreich created a stir in 1964 when he invented the “no-bra bra,” a two-part bralette made of newly-invented stretch mesh.

1960s Rudi Gernreich advertisement, via http://agnautacouture.com/2012/11/25/rudi-gernreich-misunderstood-fashion-prophet/

1960s Rudi Gernreich advertisement, via A. G. Nauta Couture

The “no bra” look was especially favored by young women, who wore it under new loose, printed dresses.

"...playgirls who are wearing the “No Bra” bra have gotten “hooked” on its new-found liberation and the feeling of freedom it gives them and they don’t want to go back to wearing old-fashioned harnesses..." via Modern Mechanix http://blog.modernmechanix.com/rudi-gernreichs-no-bra-bra-comes-in-threes-slightly-nsfw/

Part of a 1960s multi-page advertisement for variations on the No Bra. “…playgirls who are wearing the “No Bra” bra have gotten “hooked” on its new-found liberation and the feeling of freedom it gives them and they don’t want to go back to wearing old-fashioned harnesses…” via Modern Mechanix

Structured bras with their detailed seaming looked bulky under the straight silhouette of the 60s, and women felt liberated by this soft cup bra.

1979 victoria's secret lingerie advertisement

from a 1979 Victoria’s Secret catalog, via Retrospace. I love this image because in their modern photoshoots, you would never see that breast shape on the right, much less a pair of visible nipples!

Into the 70s, more women started going braless and a more “teardrop” shape was in style.  Shows like “Charlie’s Angels” helped coin the gross term “jiggle TV” because of their braless leading ladies.

1971 advertisement for a Bestform juniors set, via flickr.

1971 advertisement for a Bestform juniors set, via flickr.

New developments in synthetic knits and other stretch fabrics made soft bras more popular for women who wanted a little more coverage.

1971 Maidenform advertisement, via flickr.

1971 Maidenform advertisement, via flickr.

However, the shape of structured bras stayed similar to the shape of the 60s, with a bit less point. Seamless bras like this one were the first of what we call “t-shirt bras” today.

1970-jc-penney-lingerie-ad

1970s Penneys advertisement via flickr.

Thanks to the growing influence of feminism, a “natural look” was in style for cosmetics, and ensuring that no one could see your support garments may have stemmed from that ideal.

1985 Maidenform ad via Ebay http://www.ebay.com/itm/1985-Sexy-Woman-MAIDENFORM-Lingerie-Bra-Panty-Print-Ad-2-pg-/151242699840

1985 Maidenform ad via Ebay

The American woman became more body-conscious as the fitness craze took hold in the 1980s. Underwires came back into style and created the beginning of today’s globular shape: round and lifted. Breast implants existed in the US since the 60s, but weren’t popular until now.

1988 Warner's advertisement, via http://pzrservices.typepad.com/vintageadvertising/2011/01/1988-ad-for-warners-bras.html

1988 Warner’s advertisement, via Found in Mom’s Basement.

After the straight silhouettes of the 60s and 70s, fashion once again emphasized the breasts in the 80s. Fashion was quite top-heavy with broad shoulders, reflecting the American woman’s desire for more power in society and business.

From a 1982 Victoria's Secret catalog, via Retrospace http://www.retrospace.org/2012/09/catalogs-24-victorias-secret-1982.html

From a 1982 Victoria’s Secret catalog, via Retrospace

Victoria’s Secret was sold to L Brands, which began a massive mall-based expansion and brought lingerie into the mainstream in the US.

1990s JCPenney lingerie advertisement, via Guerrero Street Lingerie http://guerrerostreetlingerie.tumblr.com

1990s JCPenney lingerie advertisement, via Guerrero Street Lingerie

Minimalism was huge in 1990s fashion, and lingerie was no exception; the focus was more on the body than the lingerie. Bras still lifted and shaped, but going braless wasn’t unheard of as a thin, straight silhouette, similar to the 1920s, was popular.

wonderbra-hello-boys_grande.jpg 24165.jpg

The iconic (and very heteronormative) Wonderbra advertisement from the 90s, via NY Post

However, many women wanted to add the appearance of additional cup sizes and cleavage, so bras pushed their breasts up and together. Even pixie-like Kate Moss loved the Wonderbra, which was relaunched in the US in the 90s and became an instant phenomenon.

1900s Victoria's Secret advertisement, via Harper's Bazaar http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/models/a3358/evolution-of-victorias-secret-catalog/

1990s Victoria’s Secret advertisement, via Harper’s Bazaar

The Victoria’s Secret’s Angels “spokesmodels” brought huge sales to the brand during the 90s; they were a gamechanger when it came to American women embracing lingerie, and the globular shape, in the late 20th century.

2014 Aerie advertisement

2014 Aerie advertisement via Adweek

Today, the most important parts of the “perfect” breast shape in America are lift, smoothness, and roundness with emphasis on cleavage.

Victoria's Secret Add-2-Cups Push-Up Bra

Victoria’s Secret Add-2-Cups Push-Up Bra

Foam injection creates round cups, and bands are super stretchy, thanks to technological developments in synthetic fabrics.

Freya Deco plunge bra

Freya Deco molded plunge t-shirt bra

It almost seems like today’s “perfect” shape couldn’t get any more round; absolutely no ‘pointiness’ is given with modern contour bras. I’m not sure what is socially influencing this round, uplifted shape, or why visible nipples are so taboo today.

Tommy Hilfiger microfiber pushup bra

Tommy Hilfiger microfiber pushup bra

Gel inserts and thick shaped foam add volume, and small-busted women often complain about not being able to find bras without padding. Breast augmentation is now the most popular cosmetic surgery in the United States.

Frederick's of Hollywood MyFit Smooth Plunge bra

Frederick’s of Hollywood MyFit Smooth Plunge bra, which “enhances your cup size by up to 200%.”

Celebrities going braless in sheer gowns on the red carpet, along with movements like Free the Nipple, could be changing that, but as far as mainstream American society goes, nipples are still seen as taboo. I spoke with a couple of UK-based lingerie labels at the last Curvexpo NY tradeshow, and almost all of the bras they sold to US-based boutiques were molded t-shirt bras.

The interconnected modern world means different shapes and styles of bras are more accessible than ever in the US, but there is still such a small range of breast shapes that are seen as “normal” by mainstream America. It would probably be unprofessional for an American woman to show up to her corporate job wearing a stretchy bralette or a longline bullet bra under her blouse. “Proper” undergarments are determined by what we see as “normal,” and this is the norm today in America.

So is this it? Are American women destined to shape their breasts into gravity-defying half-globes for the rest of eternity? Is this the perfect breast shape? Of course not. Aesthetics don’t evolve with an end point in mind; they’ve changed continuously throughout history and will likely keep changing into the future. America’s current idea of perfection isn’t the pinnacle of breast shape or the height of perfection. The preference for the globular breast didn’t evolve from decades of society trying out different silhouettes in pursuit of the best one; it’s evolved over and over for the past 100 years, and will probably be a different preference entirely in the next century.

And that’s totally okay! Part of the fun of lingerie and fashion in general is playing with shapes and proportions. But it’s important to remember that it’s just another shape, no better or worse than any previous shapes, and not the end-all-be-all of breast preferences. Too many women beat themselves up for having breasts that don’t fit the “ideal,” but the ideal is lifted and contoured to suit the modern age. In fifty years, it’s entirely possible the current ideal will look absolutely ridiculous.When it comes to aesthetics, perfect is subjective.

Do you agree that in fifty years, the current ideal breast shape will look ridiculous to Americans? Or do you think the globular shape is here to stay? What aspects of our culture do you think influenced the shape?


Quinne
Quinne Myers

Quinne Myers is based in Brooklyn, NY where she runs the ethically-made loungewear line, she and reverie. She is also a textile designer, a watercolor illustrator, a writer, and a consultant for the lingerie industry.

24 Comments on this post

  1. ZoeH says:

    I really dislike the current trend. I very much so like playing down my cleavage and letting my droopy boobs hang, so this is really interesting to see how the trend has changed over the years. Very cool!

  2. Nyx says:

    I hope the future of bras is a focus on comfort. I hate bra shopping no matter whare I shop or who fits me underwire bras are instruments of torture. My breasts don’t sit closely in the middle so the bra looks loose and flappy in the front and the wire digs into the side of my breasts painfully. And finding a bra without underwire can be very difficult.
    So my dream for the future is to step into a machine that will scan you unique shape and measurements and then ‘print’ your chosen bra and have it fit and be comfortably and provide the level of support you desire.

  3. Lara says:

    I often see people saying the round-breast look is unnatural and the retro tear-drop shape is far more natural, which is always strange to me… because my breasts are shallow but very round. Any bra with even a minimal point to the shape is going to be empty at that point, and bras meant for the ‘natural’ teardrop shape have a mile of empty space in the bottom and cut in like the devil at the top.

  4. Netta says:

    Do you suppose the fascination with ‘sideboob’ in the last few years might point to a future aesthetic? Maybe we’ll see lower cut sides and straps moved more to the center of the back, with the focal point being a soft, tender look on the side rather than robo-babe pushed-up cleavage in the front?

  5. DDtop says:

    Hi well as a male that’s “Grown” ive according to the chart perfect breasts! separated globes rounded perky and stand out with no droop! lol about only time ive ever been perfect at anything! but to me there is no perfect breast as all different and all beautiful each and every one and i think you all spend far too much time worry about what others think you look like or should!
    Just be your self and enjoy your self and if they don’t like to hell with them as the only person you have to please is?………….yourself simple. yes ok it’s nice that people think you look great but what most never realise is that the other person is try to impart there insecurities about themselves on to you.
    Life is just too short to worry about looks but what you should be doing is to look after them better because as many have found you can soon have them taken away from you and yes even males! know a guy in 20’s that had breast cancer so instead of worrying about do they look perfect instead check them for signs and if so please go get it checked out know two close to me that had worries but turned out being a cyst even so very worrying but atleast if checked out they have on list to keep you in mind.
    Has someone that has a tumor/s?(won’t know if more till few weeks as had re scan)Had a TIA/minor stroke(said scan should show which)Been on Tgels for lower T which has screwed my life up now as high BP/breathing problems etc etc.
    Know what life means to be and how being taken away from me!
    But has given me great breasts! 44E/F but do have large firm nipples now too nurse in hospital said woman would kill for those breasts? but said guess one thing is i do get to wear some very nice bra’s!.
    Have had great help from Elomi always my number one i do wear or try to wear the matching bottoms which since my hormones have been wrong for so long have changed things some what but there so much more comfortable than our cacks as with my Illness Fibro/Raynauds things irritate/get painful so have to choose clothes wisely like with some bra’s press really hard on breast bone which marks or get sores so go for ones i find better love my Empreinte and Prima Donna Deauville is excellent if wider set ladies as there are some similar to males coming more from sides/wide set so have a look at it.
    But since wearing full time ive learn’t a lot about subject with shapes/styles of cups etc and even helped others

    But my advice is find a bra brand/shape/style/cup that fits/works and more importantly comfortable for you and go with that not what someone else wants you to wear as even shops try to put you in what’s best for them not you as what you want is a bra that you forget even wearing so not fidgeting all day and moment walk inside home tearing it off.
    I prefer underwired myself just like the shape/support more but do have some non wired which are ok like my Anita 5529 sports bra and Glamorise 1166 SB both still give you a ice shape but are very comfortable.

    How does that commercial go? Because your worth it!

    But remember bra’s are for breasts not for males or females as both have breasts just some have more some have less so look at them with pride no matter what shape/size as all fantastic and above all else there yours!
    Look up the breastlife great info on breasts
    i’m on twitter DD+top/DDtopX

  6. Betsy says:

    Good Article. I’ve seen it all myself these 60 years……and I would love it if we in America could go back to appreciating the nipple. It is sensual and feminine. The days of sheer bras still had support. All the molding – trying to make us “fit” just doesn’t do it for me.

  7. Thursday says:

    “Gel inserts and thick shaped foam add volume, and small-busted women often complain about not being able to find bras without padding.” THIS. Also, clothing is designed with this “ideal bust” in mind so it can throw the fit off if your beasts don’t conform. I also think the rise of the seamless, foam-padded t-shirt bra is related to the decline in fabric quality of most clothing, along with linings becoming almost extinct. A single layer of cheap, thin fabric necessitates a smooth, solid undergarment.

    • Quinne Quinne says:

      Very interesting thought re: foam cups & linings–that 100% makes sense to me.

      • wendybien says:

        I totally agree–though I guess I don’t know what came first… the tissue weight tee that might as well be made of TP, or the molded, padded, single piece bra cup? Both can be made more cheaply than seamed bras with complex construction or lined/better fabric clothes.

  8. Meli says:

    Great articles Quinne, it’s awesome to learn the history and how we have come this this globular ultra padded fad. They were appealing… when I was in my late teens/early 20’s and didn’t mind having my breasts practically pour out of every garment. But now, in my mid 20’s, I don’t find that look on myself very appealing or dignified. It’s difficult to find something that is supportive (aka acceptable to society) but also very natural in shape.

    • Quinne Quinne says:

      I feel you! I still like foam cup bikini tops; it feels like I’m less “on display” when I have a foam barrier between me and the beach hah. I wonder if “acceptable to society” and “natural in shape” just aren’t compatible at this point in time?

  9. TJ says:

    Given how much technology has influenced/enabled past shapes, it should be interesting to see what 3-D printing and other new developments bring as they move from maker-spaces into general manufacturing techniques. The globular shape might not have risen to market domination without molded foam and stretch fabrics. What will become available next?

  10. wendybien says:

    No, of course this shape won’t be in fashion forever! It’s an endless cycle of trends… 50 years from now I’m sure the young ‘uns will be aghast at bras that give that “matronly” shape that is the in thing right now. Meanwhile little old ladies will be scouring the interwebz (or wherever folks will shop by that time) for the handful of styles that resemble the bras of their youth.

    • Quinne Quinne says:

      I always wonder what will be “old lady style” in 50 years. Fruity-floral perfumes, tattoos & foam cup bras are high on my list! So funny.

      • wendybien says:

        Leggings, boy short panties, foam dome bras. They’ll be soooo embarrassing, then they’ll be all over etsy– the height of granny chic!

        In body shape trends, I think we’ve gone so far into the big derriere/giant augmented boob trend, the next 25-50 years are almost guaranteed to bring back breast binding or 20s/60s small bustline trends. Possibly also girdled mono-bums.

  11. Ashley says:

    Loved these two articles. Great reference point, and allows for a new perspective on ideal breast shape.

  12. Kay says:

    This explains so much! I dislike the modern T-shirt bra but until recently didn’t know about my options. I’m petite but busty with broad shoulders, and in T-shirt bras I looked top heavy. Despite the padding and underwire, I also felt poorly supported (even with professionally fit bras). Discovering other shapes (in no small part due to TLA) has made a huge difference. I now stick to underwire-free longlines (34DD). My shape is natural and might not sound sexy (bottom heavy, a little bit of nipple, not much cleavage) but actually looks and feels much better.

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