Derived from the french word meaning upper arm, the brassiere is a mass-produced support undergarment worn by women that consists of two fabric cups attached to two side panels, a back panel, and shoulder straps (unless strapless) that fits snugly. They are sized according to a universal grading system first introduced by Ida Rosenthal, the founder of Maidenform, in 1928. Two measurements are crucial to determining bra size: the chest circumference below the underarm and the fullest part of the breast. Cup size is calculated from the difference between the two measurements. The greater the difference the larger the cup size. Brassieres support breasts, separate them, and give them a shape or form.
These undergarments are made of many different materials including cotton, rayon, silk, spandex, polyester, and lace. They are available in many styles from cups that come without any padding (and are quite sheer) to those that add significantly to the size and shape of the cup. A woman can alter her silhouette by simply purchasing a brassiere with cups that are designed to render a specific shape.
Prior to the advent of the modern bra, a term coined in 1937, corsets were the only support garments available. Originally fashioned with whalebones, the one-piece corset was made popular by Catherine de Medici's demand for slim-waisted court attendants during her husband's—King Henri II—reign in France in the 1550s. The corset's popularity was withstanding and lasted over 350 years, with whalebone being replaced by steel rods. The corset design changed to accommodate the reigning ideal figure, pushing bust and hips around according to the fashionable silhouette.
In the late nineteenth century, several precursors to the modern bra were developed. In 1875, a loose, unionsuit was manufactured by George Frost and George Phelps. During this period, corsets were lengthened to produce the fashionable figure type, the top of the corset dropped low, often not supporting or covering the breasts. As added support, fabric undergarments called bust bodices were worn over the corset to cover and shape the breasts (by pushing them together but not separating them), somewhat similar to the modern brassiere. In 1889, a Frenchwoman named Mme. Herminie Cadolle devised the a garment called the Bien-Etre (meaning well-being), which connected with sashes over the shoulders to the corset in back.
Early in the twentieth century, the need for a less obtrusive undergarment became necessary as the fashions changed. In 1913, the modern brassiere was born out of necessity when New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs' whalebone corset poked up above her low cut gown. Fashioned from silk hanker-chiefs and ribbons, the mechanism proved useful and Jacobs filed the first patent for a brassiere and began producing brassieres under the name Caresse Crosby. Jacobs sold the patent and business to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500.
The raw materials gathered for the production of brassieres vary tremendously depending on the product. Some are all cotton, some are all polyester, some are combinations of natural and synthetics, and so forth. Most brassieres include an elastic material of some sort on the back panel that allows some expansion and movement of back muscles. Spandex, a modern synthetic fiber extensively processed from Malaysian tree sap, must be processed prior to the assembling of the brassiere because it is, in some products, the most important material in the brassiere. A closure of some sort (most often metal hooks and eyes) must be included on the brassiere unless it is an elastic sports brassiere which can be put on over the head. Cups, padding, and straps vary not only from manufacturer to manufacturer but by style.
The design process for developing a new brassiere style is an important part of the manufacturing process. Brassiere manufacturers, like other clothing manufacturers, must supply not just a functional item but one that appeals to a large enough segment of women that the products can be sold with a profit. Before a new product or product line is designed, the marketing and sales departments review data on the current line of products. They examine comments from retailers as to what they feel might sell well, female consumer attitudes in general and trends in women's purchasing habits. They may also talk to focus groups who offer their opinions on products and needs.
By the time this review is complete, the marketers and designers have decided on the next season's collection. Decisions are based on how the new styles will be positioned within the collection, special features, cut, sizing, production costs, market pricing, quality specifications, and when the new product will be launched publicly. These general specifications are essential for the designers and design engineers to use as guidelines once they leave that meeting.
Prototype drawings are made, pattern pieces are designed, and often the pattern pieces are devised using computerized programs. Components of the brassiere—cup top and bottom and side, central and back panels—render the shape. These components are cut out of cardboard using a computerized cutter. This prototype is assembled and is subject to important fine-tuning and modification. It is important to note that more styles and prototypes are created than the company intends to produce. After modifications, the appropriate prototypes are selected. Computer production of pattern is useful to size the pattern in order to fit different sizes of women.
Final selections are tested by laboratories to ensure quality, fit, sizing, etc. Then, the prototype is manufactured in the factory in some quantity and tested once again by everyone from designers to shop foremen to marketers. When all agree in the quality, fit, and market appeal, the brassiere is ready to be produced in quantity.
The methods for constructing brassieres vary from one company to the next. It is a product that is still pieced out in some plants, meaning that the sewing that connects all the components may be contracted out of the plant to smaller sewing operations. In addition, materials utilized in the construction of the brassiere affects the manufacturing method. For example, if an undergarment company utilizes spandex within the product, they may manufacture the material on premises. If a company uses cotton, it may be supplied from a manufacturer who makes the material based on their specifications.
Quality is controlled in all phases of the design and manufacture of the brassiere. First, experienced designers and design engineers understand the requirements of the wearer as well as the marketers and design with activities and cleaning requirements in mind. Second, a very important part is procuring fabrics and components (underwire, hooks and eyes, or buckles) that are durable. Testing of materials include assessing shrink-resistance, color-fastness and durability, shape-retention, stretch, manufacturing stability, and comfort. Companies work with suppliers in order to acquire new materials that provide service as well as value. In fact, some manufacturers have developed their own fabrics or underwire because all other similar support materials on the market were inferior. Third, prototypes are extensively examined by many members of the company and problems are discovered and solved when many are involved in the assessment of new products. An essential part of this is when the prototype moves from a single example to early manufacturing. Those involved in the manufacturing assist in solving the problems that can occur in the initial stages of manufacturing. Finally, manufacturers must offer consumers brassieres that fit well. In prototyping and in manufacturing, the brassieres are inspected and expected to be within 0.125 in (0.3175 cm) of the desired measurements (one French company requires that the brassiere must not deviate from the standard pattern more than 1 mm[0.0394 in]). If not, the brassiere is rejected as an inferior or second.
Fabric wastes are the primary byproducts of this manufacturing process. They may be recycled or discarded.
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— Nancy EV Bryk