Breast in Show:After It Was Invented, the Bra Is Still Ready for Its Close-Up

At Revelation in Fit, the new lingerie store that opened last week at 386 State St. in Los Altos, the bras in the showroom – seasonal and, in some cases, rather fashion forward – are only the tip of the bosom iceberg.

The Los Altos location includes an appropriately drape-y lounge area studded with fitting rooms, but don’t stop there. The real surprise remains cloaked behind a curtain even farther back in the shop – a voluminous and workmanlike “library” of approximately 2,500 bras that stretches the length of the store. Revelation welcomes walk-ins to browse in front or try an entire fitting, but also book appointments in advance to guarantee a
leisurely consultation.

Owner Robynne Winchester worked in San Francisco as a professional corset maker, coming to know ladies’ curves from measurements to pattern making, needlework and final fit. Historically the corset functioned as a preamble to the bra – as women began to unbind from full-torso-wear, they found key body parts still seeking support. Enter the brassiere, and a century and a half of evolving style and fit.

Women love to hate their bras. Mid-back muffin top. Straps cutting into shoulders. A half moon of underwire imprinted halfway up a breast. Most American bra retailers carry a limited range of band sizes (30-40) and cup sizes (AA-DD), and those in limited combinations. Winchester wanted to start a business that specialized in providing a fine-grained fit, rather than squishing all breasts into a narrow range of cup sizes.

“I wear a rare size myself and used to get all my bras from England, because no one makes my size,” Winchester said.

The European designers Revelation carries, including Marlies Dekkers and Ewa Michalak, use tailoring and judicious hardware to bring an avant-garde look to still-feminine bras, with hints of Valkyries, silken Madonna tributes and a denim/suspenders racerback situation that looks like it could handily double as self-confident outerwear somewhere other than Los Altos.

The women behind a Revelation in Fit have the steampunk edge of businesswomen who know that they are “a little bit of a throwback,” according to Winchester. Women of a certain age will remember a time when this level of lingerie fitting might be routine. And millennial readers have probably already heard online – often – that they are wearing the wrong bra size. For those in the middle, Winchester and her coworkers can provide an introduction to the concept.On May 30, 1889, 127 years ago, Herminie Cadolle filed a patent for a prototype of the modern brassiere. Essentially she cut the corset in two, attaching straps to the top portion. Within two decades the new undergarment was being marketed alone as the soutien-gorge.

Cadolle’s invention, which she called the bien-être, was exhibited at the Great Exposition of 1900, but IRL it was meant to remain invisible. This remained the case for about the next 60 years. For the bra—and the braless—1968 was a banner year. In Paris, Emanuel Ungaro presented an ensemble that included an armor-like metal bra at the same time that Yves Saint Laurent shocked with his sheer “birthday suit” looks. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Miss America pageant, women’s libbers reportedly protested by burning their bras. Whether or not those bras were set aflame is a point of debate; the symbolism is not: As The New York Times put it in 1970, “bralessness” was equated “with women’s freedom.”

But where could women go from bare? Many went back to (redesigned) bras, which they used as fashion as much as lingerie. Madonna, in her “Like a Virgin” phase, ushered in the era of visible bras—and bra straps—before co-opting Jean Paul Gaultier’s postmodern takes on the corsets and the 1950s cone bra for her Blond Ambition tour. Gianni Versace would titillate the fashion crowd with his provocative 1992 Miss S&M collection. Later, ska-pop singer Gwen Stefani wore bra tops with a sporty street edge, a tradition continued by artists as different as Rihanna and Grimes. In an age when the “naked dress ” is de rigueur red carpet fare, there’s something retro—dare we say modest—about an exposed bra.

Here, from the 1970s to now, 19 women who have fashionably flashed their bras.

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