Chapter 2 - 1920s: rayon, elastic and patents

The first manufactured fibres, developed from cellulose in the late nineteenth century, became extremely important to manufacturers of women’s underwear, offering a much cheaper alternative to pure silk. Originally known as artificial silk or ‘art silk’, viscose was used in the production of underwear extensively in the 20s and became known as rayon in 1925. Bra wearers would have been very aware of these new fibres because the chemical companies advertised to end consumers as well as fabric and clothing manufacturers. They encouraged consumers to believe that rayon was not an inferior replica of silk, but a desirable fabric in its own right.

Farrell-Beck and Gau report that, at this time, manufacturers who were used to producing corsets now had to not only cope with new designs but also working with lighter lingerie fabrics. ‘Manufacturers such as Kops Brothers, who had worked exclusively with heavy materials, scrambled to adjust machinery and production methods to accommodate sheer textiles, laces, and ribbons.’ A fashionably active lifestyle meant that your undergarments would be required to move and stretch with you, so elastic began to be introduced to the backs of bras. Many patents were registered in the US at this time for innovative smoothing, supportive and, towards the end of the 20s, uplifting styles.

'Circlet' wraparound bandeau bra by Nemo, c. 1919 The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

‘THE CIRCLET’ WRAPAROUND BRA BY NEMO

Date: 1919

Origin: United States

Fabric: Cotton bobbinet tulle and cotton twill

Brand: Nemo

A very early brassiere style with an extremely innovative design for the time period, named ‘The Circlet’.  A bandeau style, this bra is designed to compress down and streamline the bustline, creating the fashionable silhouette associated with the 1920s. This garment was patented in 1919, indicating that the Nemo company were one of the leaders in this particular silhouette trend.  It also indicates how the confines of decades for particular fashion trends can often blur.

Brassiere US Patent no. 236,237 by Waldemar Kops. The Underpinnings Museum

BRASSIERE US PATENT NO. 236,237 BY WALDEMAR KOPS

Date:  1925

Origin: Patent filed in the United States, document from the Netherlands

Founded in 1894 by Waldemar and Daniel Kops and registered as a company in New York in 1924, Kops Brothers was a corsetry firm with a zeal for patents. The brothers secured at least forty-one patents between 1904 and 1931. It was relatively easy for corset manufacturers to switch to making brassieres at this time because they were typically made from either the same types of lightweight fabrics as corset covers and drawers, or corset-weight coutil which was used for heavy duty styles to control and support the bust.

Textile and clothing historians Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau say in their book Uplift: The Bra in America that the Kops Brothers’ bras were perhaps the most conservative in styling and their ‘wrap-around designs and extensive use of corsetlike adjustments may have appealed to mature women.’ They claim that the Kops Brothers brassieres, Nemo Circlets, ‘had a stodgy image’ before 1924 when Kops Brothers switched their advertising account to a firm known for its market research, in an attempt to address flagging sales. By following the demands of their customers, Kops Brothers escaped the fate of many other early twentieth century bra companies and survived until the late 1960s.

JACQUARD WRAP AROUND BANDEAU BRA

Date: c. 1920s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Jacquard Cotton Blend

Brand: Unknown

A very simple early bra, designed to bind and flatten the bustline to emulate the 1920s fashionable silhouette. The main fabric is a relatively heavy weight rayon/cotton blend jacquard floral weave. It is simply constructed, with four small darts on the bottom edge of the front panel for shaping. Seperate panels form the ‘wings’ of the garment, with each tapering down into a point that leads to a twill tape ribbon tie. These ties can be either tied in a bow around the back or wrapped around the front of the body, giving some flexibility in fit.

Floral jacquard wraparound bandeau bra, c. 1920s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017
Satin bandeau bra with tripartate strapping by The Modishform, c. late 1910s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

SATIN BANDEAU BRA WITH TRIPARTATE STRAPPING BY THE MODISHFORM

Date:  Late 1910s, early 1920s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Rayon satin

Brand: The Modishform

A relatively simple bandeau bra, this piece would have been considered unusually technologically advanced when it was created due to the use of tripartate strapping for the bra ‘wings’. This would have given the garment an unprecedented level of fit flexibility at a time when clothing had very little stretch. Early elastic usually used a rubber core coated in fabric, and as such was relatively unstable and prone to rotting or drying out. Sadly, the elastic panels on this garment are extremely brittle and retain no stretch.

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