Chapter 4 - 1930s: bra sizes and whirlpool stitching

The first commercially produced style of underwired bra was sold in America in 1931 and the first overwired strapless bra appeared in 1934, but wiring only became common in the UK after the Second World War due to the limited availability of the metal needed to make the components during the conflict. Early underwired bras could often be exceedingly uncomfortable and the metal could easily poke out through the fabric after wear, so it became common for the inside of the garment to be padded or covered with velvet where the wires touched the skin in order to improve comfort and reduce the likelihood of the wires escaping.

Perhaps the most important development which improved bra fit was the introduction of graded cup sizes. Until that point, there was no way for manufacturers to differentiate between chest size and breast volume which is vital for achieving a perfect fit. There are conflicting reports of which manufacturer first used sizing for the cups as well as the band, and in which year this was first brought in. According to Uplift: The Bra in America, Formfit Company were the first to announce production, in 1932, of three different volume cups available in each band size. These were labelled ‘small’, ‘average’ and ‘full’. The same authors claim that S. H. Camp and Company ‘pioneered in relating the size and pendulousness of breasts to letters of the alphabet, A through D’, stating that Warner did not feature cup sizing until 1937. However, other authors who have studied the bra in detail claim that Warner were first to develop the A, B, C and D cup sizes in 1935. In the UK it took a while for lettered cup sizes to be fully introduced, as many manufacturers and retailers still labelled cup sizes as ‘medium’ or ‘average’ into the late 1950s.

Manufacturers also experimented with different combinations of pattern pieces in order to create supportive bra cups, but soon realised the limitations of the materials they were using. Once the fashionable breast silhouette became more pointed, further innovations in cup construction were needed to achieve this effect. A variety of different stitching techniques to reinforce the cups and provide uplift to the breasts were developed, starting with the spiral stitching of Hollywood Maxwell’s ‘Whirlpool’ brassiere in the US in 1935.


Date:  c. 1930s

Origin: Spain

Fabric: Rayon satin

Brand: Rita Ro

The cathedral bra is a style that is often associated with the 1950s, but was in fact first created in the 1930s (as was the case with the spiral stitch ‘bullet’ bra).  The name ‘cathedral’ refers to the manner in which boning is placed on the bra, as it is supposedly reminiscent of arches within the aforementioned architectural structures.  The structure of the bra is designed to lift and point the bust shape. The 1930s were a time period were brassieres were beginning to grow in popularity as they helped women to achieve the fashionable silhouettes of the era.

It is worth noting that the bone channels in this garment are interrupted, leaving the interior celluloid boning partially visible. It is possible that this is either intended to display the unusual technology used in structuring this garment, or to allow the bones to be removed when washing the garment.

Celluloid is an early plastic, and saw a certain amount of popularity in the 1930s, used in components such as bra strap adjusters.  The use of celluloid was soon replaced with other plastics such as bakelite, arguably due to the fact that celluloid is relatively unstable and flammable.

The bra fastens at the centre back with three rows of elastic loops on each side, with enamelled metal hooks. This use of elastic provided a certain level of fit flexibility, when many of the garments of this period had a very rigid and unflexible fit.

Satin Cathedral Bra With Celluloid Boning By Rita Ro, c. 1930s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017
Pleated tulle and satin bust pads, c.1930s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017


Date: c.1930s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Tulle and rayon satin

Brand: Unknown

The 1930s saw a change in fashionable bust silhouette, moving from a flattened shape to a more lifted and shaped bust. These bust pads would have been designed to be inserted into a bra to pad out the breast shape whilst still retaining a ‘natural’ look. They would have allowed for smaller busted women to fill out the new style seperated-cup brassieres, and  to fit the fashions of the period. They have a padded rayon satin base and are embellished with tulle arranged in circular ruffles, for shape and volume.

Padding was not just used to create uplift, it was also used to make breasts appear larger and an increasing numbers of products became available in the mid-1930s to enable women to boost what nature had provided. Options available in the 1950s were more extensive and technical, including: padding built into a bra, made from foam rubber, felt or eiderdown; removable pads that slipped inside pockets in the cups; separate ‘bust forms’ or ‘falsies’ to be placed inside any brassiere.


Date:  1935

Origin: United States

Brand: Hollywood Maxwell

Hollywood-Maxwell was the first in a line of Californian brassiere manufacturers which entered the American market from 1929. Hollywood was a place of glamour and aspiration in the 1930s and it wasn’t long before the American woman’s desire for a movie star look had boosted the sale of the latest bra innovations from these companies, simply via their association with this famous Los Angeles neighbourhood. Although most brassiere adverts did not feature movie stars, Hollywood-Maxwell claimed that its products were used exclusively in motion pictures made by Paramount.

Hollywood-Maxwell founder Joseph R Bowen patented a cup stabilisation technique he called ‘Whirlpool stitching’ in 1935. This much imitated innovation used concentric rings of stitches to produce a rounded shape in the 1930s and a more pointed cup in the 40s and 50s. The text in this advert describes the bra as ‘a challenge to Paris’, referencing the dominance of the French capital on Western fashion at this time. The advert also suggests that a youthful yet smart look could be achieved through the wearing of these supportive bras.

Hollywood Maxwell 'V-Ette' Whirlpool Stitch Bra Advert, c. 1935, USA, The Underpinnings Museum