Let's talk about something that most people, vintage aficionados or not, probably don't even think much about: the bust line silhouette. A delicate combination of the bra you're wearing and, well, whatever you've got in that bra.
I don't like typical modern round cup bras. You know the kind, it's the shape of probably 95% of the bras on the market. I'm sure you know it well.
Now I don't mean to insult anyone who wears this style. I wore it for years and years. There's nothing wrong with it. And I'm certainly not saying that I think you must wear a bra tailored after a vintage shape to wear vintage fashions! Not at all. I personally have just found over the years that for my own body shape, which is a relatively small frame, large bust and short waist, the general shape of a modern bra will never look as good on me as the shape achieved by a vintage bra or a bra that approximates a vintage bra. This is particularly true because I wear vintage styles, which are high-waisted. So the less vintage-style uplift my bra gives, the less waist I have...and the more I start to resemble a garden gnome.
But not only do most modern bras like the above not provide the type of lift I'm looking for, I just don't really like the shape they give along with the lift, which is very round. And to clarify, I don't mean that they don't provide lift if they fit well, it's the type of lift they provide that I'm talking about. There is a discernible difference if you get anal-retentive about it like I have over the years.
So what are some more vintage alternatives, for those of us who prefer fashions from further back and feel a typical modern bra isn't showing our 'assets' in the best light?
The silhouette of the 1950s bullet bra
The first thing many people think of when they think of vintage bras is the infamous bullet bra of the 1950s. There are at least a few modern manufacturers that make very good replicas of the original. It can be a rather severe look (especially for the bustier gals), pushing the bust dramatically up and out in a conical shape. That's usually achieved by a series of concentric circles stitched around a cup that gets dramatically smaller as it reaches the tip, forming the classic "bullet" or "torpedo" shape. (Incidentally, this same type of bra with the concentric stitching did exist in the 1940s.)
Here's a modern rendition of a bullet bra...
Now if you've never worn a bullet bra, you might be thinking, "But I'm not really shaped like that." True. And that's the reason some people need bullet bra pads.
They are just a little foam padded cone, and help fill in the extra space at the end that you might get. Otherwise you are liable to get wrinkles. Not exactly an attractive look, though historically accurate—in fact I spied wrinkled cups on Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind (1956) recently.
While it's great that such pads exist, they're not really something that fuller-busted gals like myself need nor necessarily want. I have enough of my own 'oomph' in that department, so wearing a bullet bra pad is just too much. Not to mention that they don't always match up exactly with the true shape of the bra, which still leaves the bust line not completely smooth and defeats the entire purpose of using them, if you ask me. While I find bullet bras to be quite comfortable in general and I like the lift they provide, even if they are a bit severe, I can only wear them under thicker tops or sweaters. Because let's be frank—who wants wrinkly boobs? So I don't usually wear this style of bra myself. (But it should be noted here that bra pads were also used back int he day by women with smaller busts to provide the proper shape, kind of like the precursor to push-up bras. A perfectly period thing to do!)
The silhouette of the 1940s bust
I'm more interested in the bust line silhouette of the 1940s, which was high like the 50s, but a bit less severe. Plus I find it an all-around good shape for modern clothes and vintage styles from many other other decades, too.
With a dress on, the 1940s bust silhouette looked something like this:
With just a thin layer on top (in this case, long underwear to keep out the winter chill), it looked like this:
And the bras themselves looked like this:
But what do you do if YOU want that 1940s silhouette?
It can be hard. Finding a modern bra that gives your bust the look of a proper 1940s silhouette is pretty difficult. Actually it can be really difficult.
Yes, you could look for actual vintage bras. But that can be be like finding a needle in a haystack, and if you have a hard-to-find size, geez, you could be searching for ages. And then you may only find one, and what if it's a bad fit after all that? And what do you do once it's seen better days? You're back to the hunt. If you're an adept sewist, you could create your own, à la the very talented New Vintage Lady, but I admit that's more than I want to undertake.
It took me awhile to figure out what made the 1940s silhouette work. The line is a slightly more delicate cousin to the 1950s torpedo silhouette. Defined by one manufacturer in a 1940 Sears catalog ad, it "Uplifts... Accents... Supports." Bras in the 1940s provided firm support, flattering uplift, separation, and a slight conical shape. The same year Maidenform called their bras "sculpture perfect". A pretty apt description, if you ask me!
I hit on a common feature found in the majority (though not all) of 1940s bras. It's something that provides the desired aspects of that era's silhouette, and it's such a simple little thing: a horizontal seam that follows what I'll call the 'equator' of the bra, essentially cutting the bra in half from top to bottom across its apex. (This seam probably has a technical name in bra manufacturing terms, I'm by no mean an expert on brassiere construction!)
If you look at bra ads from the 40s, you will see a seam like this in many of the bras shown.
This seam existed in the 1930s in limited form, but was most popular in the 1940s. By the late 40s the majority of bras included this type of a seam. (And while I've not researched it as in-depth, I imagine it lived on well into the 50s as an alternate to its pointier cousin.)
As you probably know, modern bras usually aren't shaped like this. However, they do exist! This seam is sometimes the hallmark of bras aimed at "full-figured" gals, probably for one of the main reasons it was the hallmark of 1940s bras: uplift. A larger bust needs extra help in the lift department, and bras in the 40s were just as interested in keeping the breasts uplifted, regardless of size. The other 40s hallmark, the slightly more pointed, less rounded shape, also goes hand in hand with the silhouette that bras with a horizontal seam provide. Which means if you'd like to achieve this look yourself, you have a great starting point when searching for bras!
Compare a vintage bra ad with a modern bra ad, both featuring the same type of seam, and you'll immediately see the similarity in the silhouettes.
One downside is that because modern bras with this seam running across the fullest point of the bust (the 'equator seam' as I like to call it) are not that easy to come by, there aren't a ton options in terms of colors, styles, fabrics or even brands when you do find one. This isn't like going to Victoria's Secret and being able to pick among 6 colors and 4 patterns for the same style of bra. You will likely find white, beige, and possibly black, with little pizazz. Some are downright utilitarian looking. This may be enough to turn some people off the hunt entirely. But even when I had a drawer full of bras in fun colors and prints, I almost always reached for the white or beige ones, anyway, as they were more versatile. If it's new to you to have more plain bras, just consider that it's more like the options you'd have had back in the 1940s, anyway, though I do know there were sometimes more colors or patterns. But I actually find them quite lovely, classic, and certainly practical. (I do really wish I could find one in peach satin, I admit. I'd buy an armful!) If you're crafty, you can always consider dyeing them! I think this is a fabulous idea that I haven't yet tried out, but I'd like to some day. This, I admit, is the main downside of this type of bra. I wish more manufacturers would recognize the beauty of this silhouette and make bras in pretty fabrics and details for us! Surely there is a market for it with vintage fans alone, like the companies making bullet bras have discovered! But I disgress.
The other downside is it might be difficult finding your size in a bra shaped like this. Many are for larger busts and/or larger frames, so you may have to do an extensive search to find a style that comes in your band and cup size. I was easily able to find 34D bras like this for years, but once I discovered that a 32 band fit me much better and more comfortably, suddenly my options were more limited. In fact I have found exactly one bra in a 32DD with a horizontal 'equator seam' so far, the Bali Flower bra. The good news is that I believe that bra goes down as small as 32B, for my smaller busted friends out there.
Some tips for shopping for that a bra that gives you a 1940s silhouette:
- When shopping in person, look in the areas where you'd find "grandma" bras and panties. Don't look where the pretty, frilly things are. They won't be there.
- When shopping online, look on sites that focus on larger busts, shaping garments, or are general sites that carry a large variety of brands (unlike stores that only carry their own line). Places like Bare Necessities, Figleaves and Freshpair are good starting points. Don't be deterred if at first you only find them in larger sizes. Compare to other sites, as one site may not carry all sizes or colors.
- It can be daunting sifting through 50 pages of bras if you're shopping online. Try narrowing it down first by your bra size. They usually have other categories like underwire, non-underwire, nursing, soft cups, sports, etc. Look under soft cups as a general starting point.
- Look for bras in non-stretch fabric for the cups. Stretchy fabrics will distort the shape. If you can't tell online, look for keywords in the description like: control, firm, lift, uplift, support, full coverage.
- When you try it on, don't do it like you would a normal bra. Once fastened, bend forward to maneuver yourself into place, pull the straps onto your shoulders, then stand up straight. The bra may not sit quite right if you simply pull the straps up.
- Whether in person or online, examine the shape carefully. Does it have a horizontal 'equator seam' and get slightly more narrow closer to the tip of the bra? Even if it's touting a vintage look, if it does not have those defining features, be cautious. I have one bra from a popular manufacturer of retro bras that's supposed to give a 1940s look but it falls short on me. It's a gorgeous bra and I love it nonetheless, but the silhouette on me is disappointing, even though I do know it's an accurate style (though less common than the 'equator seam' I've been going on about). And of course I realize that not every bra looks the same on everyone, but the placement of the seams on this bra does not provide the correct lift nor shape for my personal body. Actually their bras are so lovely that I've contemplated writing to them to see if they'd ever consider producing a bra with the specifications I've discussed in this post but fear they'd think I was just some annoying girl who didn't know what she was talking about. (And I'm sure there's truth in that. Ha ha!)
- When you try the bra on, if you don't feel it's providing the correct lift, but everything else seems to look right in the front, check the fit in the back. Is the strap riding up (closer to your shoulder blades than it should be)? If so, you may wearing the wrong band size. This was a problem for me until I went down one band size (and up one cup size, due to bra grading), which made all the difference in the world in terms of how my bras performed. Often if it's riding up in the back, the front is going in the opposite direction if you catch my drift, so you lose the proper uplift you're looking for. My bust line is much better in a 32DD bra than in a 34D bra (and the bras are more comfortable, too).
- Want suggestions for a few bras that should approximate the 1940s silhouette? Try the Bali Flower bra or the Exquisite Form Fully bra, the two I showed in my comparison above. You might also try the Playtex 18 Hour Original Comfort Strap bra, the Dominique Cotton Lined Soft Cup bra or many of the bras by full-figured specialists like Goddess and Glamorise (I once had a Goddess bra I liked but unfortunately it doesn't seem their sizing goes down to my band size any longer). I really like the Bali Flower. The straps aren't too wide or too thick (they are slightly wide, but I need that with my size anyway), and it has a little bit of lace to keep it pretty, too.
I feel I should dedicate some time here to say that just because I've found a connection because bras with an 'equator seam' and the silhouette achieved by actual bras in the 1940s doesn't mean those are the only bras that will provide you with the right look. If you look through enough catalogs from the 40s you will certainly see examples of bras without that horizontal seam, though they are less common. The main reasons I'm focusing my effort in this post on a particular type of bra is twofold:
- I know from personal experience this style of bra usually provides a bust line that is quite close to a true 1940s silhouette.
- It's easy to spot! It's overwhelming when you can't just walk into any store and know that the bra you try on will give you the silhouette you're looking for. It's also not something tons of bloggers or online resources talk about. And searches for terms like "retro bra" mostly turn up bullet bras or else bras that otherwise might have a vintage feel to them, but don't approximate the right silhouette. It look me literally years to find bras I was happy with and I had dozens of frustrating shopping experiences where I felt I was just never going to find what I was looking for. Having at least one defining feature you can recognize immediately narrows the playing field. If you can't find one with an 'equator seam' or try one and you don't think it's a good match for your body type, try looking for other bras with soft cups (no padding), in non-stretch fabrics. Non-stretch is still key. Look for ones that aren't quite as round as the natural shape of a breast, but get a little narrower towards the tip. Looking for a bra like this may take more trial and error to get a good fit as it's hard to just look at it and know if it will be right or wrong. I had a Wacoal non-stretch lace bra for a long time that approximated the right silhouette, but then tried a Wacoal Everyday Soft Cup bra and it was completely wrong. (Not only wrong but saggy. Ugh.)
I hope this post has been helpful to some of you! Since it's an issue I have struggled with for ages (and long before I was dressing vintage on a daily basis), I wanted to share my experiences and research from over the years. If you're looking for more info on the subject, I also recommend you read Moxie Tonic's post on foundation garments (great minds—she posted this just yesterday!). She gives some suggestions on normal bras, long-line bras, girdles, knickers and more. Do you have any suggestions? Please do share! I'd love to know I'm not the only one out there who thinks about these kinds of fiddly vintage details. ;)