For the first half of the 20th century, the best thing that could be said about a bra was: “Well, it’s better than a corset.” The uncomfortable laced whalebone structures that had been tormenting female torsos for centuries were completely unsuited to the boyish silhouettes and delicate fabrics of the Jazz Age. A Manhattan debutante named Mary Phelps Jacobs is generally credited with creating the first modern bra in 1910, assembled by herself and her maid out of two handkerchiefs and ribbon. “The result was delicious,” she wrote. “I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”
But it wasn’t until three American corporations – the Warner Corset Company, who’d cannily bought Jacobs’s patent for $1500, Maidenform, and Playtex – that bras were pushed up into the mainstream. Maidenform was set up in 1922 by two Russian immigrants with a small dressmaking company, rebelling against the flat-chested “monobosom” silhouette of the time. (Their name was a deliberate contrast to a creepily named lingerie competitor, ‘Boyishform Company’.) Maidenform developed cup sizes, and, in 1949, their radical “Chansonette bra” had a cone-shaped cup stitched in a whirlpool pattern. It became better known as the Bullet Bra and Hollywood actresses like Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield, and Jane Russell posed for publicity shots in tight sweaters over bullet-shaped bras.
However, it was Playtex who finally capitalised on comfort as well aesthetics. In 1966, The Cross Your Heart Bra was rolled out in department stores – and breasts would never be the same again. Bucking the trend for underwiring, the Cross Your Heart had a comfortable soft-cup full bra, instead offering support from a signature criss-cross construction. “It’s one of the only vintage designs still in modern production,” says vintage lingerie expert Michelle Metens, of Dollhouse Bettie. Over 50 years on, it remains Playtex’s second bestselling bra, outsold only by the 18-Hour Bra launched in the 1970s. So what did the Cross Your Heart get right, to stay on women’s bodies for more than half a century?
According to Metens, the Cross Your Heart Bra was the perfect all-rounder. “It’s actually a very natural silhouette, rather than pushed up under the chin into a foam globe with two inches of padding,” says Michelle. “It has a very comfortable fit, and great support without wires.” The Cross Your Heart has a touch of the va-va-voom about it, but it’s comfortable, and affordable.
Vintage fashion obsessives have long been scouring eBay and vintage lingerie specialists like What Katie Did and Dollhouse Bettie for original 1960s Cross Your Heart Bras. But even for non-vintage nuts, what was right for the breasts of 1966 seems right for 2016, with women rediscovering the joys of a non-wire, pointy triangular retro bra. Comfort is crucial, and we’re moving away from the try-hard silhouettes of 1990s and noughties push-up Wonderbras. Lululemon has even created a sporty version, Cross My Heart.
Since the Playtex version has been modernised (AKA mucked around with), lingerie purists prefer copycat versions of the original, such as National’s Lace Cross and Shape Bra or Wacoal’s Retro Chic Wire Free Bra, beloved by Lady Gaga. “Today women want fantastic lift, shape, and support, and flat seams which disappear under clothing,” says Wacoal lingerie designer Pat Conway. For our breasts, that means going back to the 1960s.
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