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Making Vintage Bras Work For You: Sizing, Sourcing and Wearing Bras Underneath Your Vintage Clothes

Vintage Longline Bra by Marcel Worth

Vintage Longline Bra by Marcel Worth (image via The Nylon Swish)

All products featured in this article were purchased by me. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

While I talk exclusively about lingerie here on TLA, if you've ever seen my Instagram account you know that my daily wardrobe is extremely vintage-inspired. Over the past few years, I've found myself drawn almost exclusively to vintage-style dresses, both authentic and reproduction. As my interest in vintage fashion grew, I found one big gap: vintage-style bras in my size. I've written about this before, but today I wanted to present a more in-depth look at the subject. Today we'll tackle sizing, common misconceptions about vintage bras and where you can find the good stuff. To make things extra clear, today I'll be using the term vintage to talk about the eras between the 1940s and the 1960s. Before that, bras were not quite what we know today, and after that lots of modern fabrics came in to change the way sizing is commonly calculated.

Whether you're a reenactor, a vintage clothing lover, or just interested in the way bras used to be --- read on!

The Elephant In the Room: Talking about +4

Plus four is a constant source of debate among bra bloggers, but today I'm going to cover it from a historical perspective rather than a current one. Way back when, bras were made without the strong stretchy elastic and powermesh that we take for granted today. To calculate their bra sizes, women added four inches to their band measurement and then subtracted to get their cup size. The result of this is that vintage bra sizes skew towards larger bands and smaller cups, while modern bras skew towards smaller bands and larger cup sizes.

The upside of this is that if you're really sure that you're too busty to get into a vintage bra, you may be shocked to find out how wrong you are. I certainly was! Keep in mind that vintage bras need to be tried on with vintage sizing in mind, while many modern companies making retro-inspired lingerie (like What Katie Did or Kiss Me Deadly) still use modern sizing. If you have a larger cup size, vintage bras will offer the most sizing flexibility when using the plus four method.

Vintage Marcel Worth Longline Bra

Vintage Marcel Worth Longline Bra

Sourcing Vintage Lingerie:
There are lots of places to buy vintage lingerie, from Facebook groups devoted to vintage clothing to Etsy. My favorite store is run by Elinor of The Nylon Swish blog, who sells unworn Marcel Worth vintage bras and shapewear. All of the pieces shown today are from her store. She is super knowledgeable about both vintage lingerie and her stock. If you're going to buy vintage lingerie anywhere, here are some things to look at and think about.

- Is it new old stock or worn? This refers to vintage pieces with the tags still on them. Obviously, these are likely to be in better condition than worn vintage bras.
- Is the bra still sturdy? Again, this comes down to knowing and trusting your seller and doing your homework. There are lots of scary things that can happen to vintage fabrics, so make sure that the bra is in a condition that you are happy with.
- What style is the bra? Vintage bras open up a whole new world, from bullet bras to front closure bras that fit bustier women. Think about what you'll wear it under and what silhouette you want to create. Longlines are better for creating an hourglass shape, for instance. If you're going for a style from a specific time period, make sure your bra gives you the right look.

Vintage Marcel Worth Bra - front closure

Vintage Marcel Worth Bra - front closure

Common Misconceptions About Vintage Lingerie:
There are lots of weird misconceptions about vintage lingerie, but I wanted to tackle a few of the big ones today. I've also included some comparison photos so you can see how much of a difference a genuine vintage bra can contribute to your overall vintage look.

Most vintage bras won't have underwires, which may seem daunting to those of us who feel the need to be locked in tight to an underwire bra before we leave the house. Amazingly, these soft bras can create great lift and shape in the correct size (see the photos above for proof!). I also know people worry about the bullet shape these bras can create. Both of the ones I've taken photos of for this article have that bullet shape, but as you can see below it isn't noticeable under clothing. If you do want more of that look, you can always add bullet bra pads as an extra layer.

To demonstrate I've taken pictures in the same vintage 1940s dress --- it's one of my favorites and one of the reasons I started my vintage bra search. Here you can see the big difference that a vintage bra makes.

Vintage dress with modern bra

Vintage dress with modern bra

Here it is with a modern bra that meets all of the modern fit criteria. Not bad, but now check out this.

Vintage dress with vintage longline bra

Vintage dress with vintage longline bra

Now that's how it's supposed to look! See how it creates extra lift and a narrower profile? This helps create the hourglass silhouette of the era. I'm not wearing a girdle or garter belt here, but the effect would be even more enhanced if I were. As you can see, the slightly pointy shape in the picture above translates to lift and an added hourglass shape once clothing goes over the top.

While I don't wear vintage bras exclusively, I do feel like they create an effect under some of my favorite outfits that no modern bra can match! I'm also enjoying the occasional freedom from underwires, especially now that it's hot and underwires can feel bothersome.

Have you tried vintage bras? What do you think of them? Would you try one in the future?

Holly Jackson

The Full Figured Chest provides creative and elegant copywriting for the high end lingerie industry.

9 Comments on this post

  1. georgie says:

    Like Melissa29 I too would love to wear the longline – No obvious bones or wires. The ‘Bra only’ picture makes your large boobs appear full without obvious wires and shaping. A photo of you without the bra would clarify the amount of sag ‘rescued’ by the bra.

  2. Bonnie Sue says:

    Gosh, I just found this page!! I was on sabbatical last year and I just did a search for “bullet bra” and I found it! Late in the 90’s, on a whim, I decided to try a bullet bra. I had always been fascinated by them, and then there I was, looking at one on ebay…..

    It was an original Chansonette in 38B, but the cups looked way too small (I wear a 38C in a modern bra). So I bided my time until I found a 38D in a Chansonette and I went for it. Its been all uphill since then! That bra fit like a charm, and I set about looking for, and acquiring, all of the other wonderful bras from that era. Which I did! The upshot (pun intended) is that I realized that these were absolutely the most comfortable bras ever made, if you find your size. And that can be an issue, as not all mfgrs. of bullet bras used the same sizing. So you have modern vs. vintage, and Exquisite Form vs. WonderBra (no, not the 90’s decolette underwire renditions, but the original ones).

    I also learned that once you spend some time in them, you literally cannot go back! They are so pointy and projecting, that you feel udderly squashed if you try to wear a modern bra again. By 2000 I was addicted. Go pointy, and pretty soon you can’t go back! I only wear my carefully acquired stock of true-blue original bullet bras in my carefully researched size ranges (depending on who made it). And yes, I spend some time sewing them back together now and then. It’s worth it……

    These days I have a very difficult time comprehending why these incredibly comfortable and effective brassieres ever went out of fashion.

    Bonnie Sue

  3. Frauke says:

    Great article, amazing results. Thank you Holly! May I ask which sizes you tried on here and what size you usually wear in modern sizing? Would be interesting to get a feel for which sizes to order.

  4. Iris says:

    Your reasoning behind +4 is sadly incorrect. Pre-70s bras were made with a completely different sizing logic and didn’t use +4.

    In the modern sizing system the number means your underbust measurement and the letter the measurement difference between underbust and bust. In vintage bra sizing the number meant your bust measurement and the letter the overall proportion of breast to your frame.

    This means that a vintage 36B had a *larger* band size than 36C as a larger portion of the bra was taken up by the cups in 36C. Both of them measure 35-37″ around the bust but the band size is relative to cup size – the opposite of the modern system where cup volume is relative to band size.

    • Iris says:

      To elaborate on this more – it’s well documented that Marilyn Monroe wore 36C bras but it’s glaringly obvious that her ribcage is nowhere near 32″.

    • PB says:

      Nailed it! Well done, although everybody seems to be ignoring this post…

  5. Ms. Pris says:

    I used to wear vintage bras a LOT when I was in high school. I had a bunch that used to belong to my grandmother. I don’t think I would wear one today, but I do prefer my bras to give the kind of lift and shape you have in the second clothed picture. I wouldn’t buy a bra that gave me the look you have in the first clothed pic- too low and wide.

    I do prefer what some call a “pointy” look in modern seamed bras.

  6. wendybien says:

    I love my vintage-design bras! Playtex Original 18 hour and Exquisite Form Ful-Ly are old school designs but are still sold today. I can’t wear them under everything (or rather, won’t) but they are incredibly comfortable and the lift is spectacular. Their 34 bands work perfectly on my 30″ underbust. The cup sizing is also “vintage”–a 34DD in these brands was AMPLE when I was a 32G in UK modern sizing. The Triumph Doreen is also available on ebay and Figleaves and has an even larger size range.
    I have a short torso and am hard to fit in longlines, but a few models that are still made today, and that have the same vintage sizing (meaning they’ll fit bigger cup sizes and smaller backs than you would assume based on your size in modern bras) include Rago’s 2202 Lacette and Carnival’s 730.

  7. Melissa29 says:

    I would love to purchase the vintage longline bra. It looks good under the vintage dress! Thank you.

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