Lift & Separate: Technology & The Bra The Underpinnings Museum

This exhibition is split into chapters, which can either be navigated chronologically page by page, or through your area of interest with a full list of links at the bottom of each page. Clicking on images will take you to their dedicated object page, where you can learn about the individual piece in detail.

All photography by Tigz Rice Studios

Curation and extended essay by Lorraine Smith

Object descriptions by Karolina Laskowska and Lorraine Smith

Chapter 1 - 1900s: corsets, bust bodices and aertex

Before this exhibition starts, we must address something very important. As fashion historian Valerie Steele states in her book The Corset: A Cultural History, ‘no one person invented the brassiere. Various types of bust-bodice, soutien-gorge and brassiere had been patented and advertised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.’ This exhibition does not focus on the invention of the bra or the history of its design, but it will concentrate on the technology which made some of the twentieth century’s most iconic looks possible. These are the developments in fibres and stitching technique which took us from sturdy Edwardian ‘bust improvers’ to the light ‘no-bra’ look of the 1970s, that is popular once again today.

The bra is a unique and important garment, providing a woman with support for her breasts but also shaping the female form to the latest fashionable ideal. Although it plays a vital part in both fashion history and women’s history in the twentieth century, the bra is often overlooked or only discussed from a purely aesthetic or erotic perspective. However, technology’s role in its fascinating history cannot be understated.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, fashionable straight front corsets provided less bust support than women were used to and so the popularity of various types of brassiere increased. These new styles of garment were often worn by fashionable women for modesty under increasingly sheer Edwardian blouses, and also by dress reformers as an alternative to heavily boned corsets. As health was often a focus for underwear advertising at this time, fabrics like wool, cotton and Aertex – which was invented in the UK in 1888 – were sometimes used for these garments as it ensured they were breathable in the summer and warm in the winter.

Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau state in their book Uplift: The Bra in America that ‘By the mid-1910s, brassieres rather than corsets had become the source of increased business in foundation departments’. The increasing prominence of women in the public sphere – through work and recreation outside of the home – meant that many more were moving over to wearing less restrictive garments and the modern department stores, which were an extremely popular place to shop, were keen to cash in on this trend.


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Sahlin 'Perfect Form' Combination Bust Improver & Corset, c. 1908 The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017


Date:  c.1908
Origin: United States
Fabric: Cotton coutil
Brand: Sahlin

At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, womenswear saw dramatic changes.  The ideal silhouette began to shift from the hourglass form of the Victorian era to the Edwardian ‘S-curve’: a silhouette that saw a heavily emphasised ‘mono-bosom‘. Women’s undergarments began to include pieces that explicitly shaped the bust, such as structured ‘bust-improvers’ or ‘bust-enhancers’.

The Sahlin ‘Perfect Form’ was a radical patented innovation in foundationwear, offering not only a garment that combined a bust improver with a corset, but offered a much more flexible and less compressing fit than previous corsets, with a fraction of the bulk and weight that other bust improvers relied on.


Date:  estimated to be 1900s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Aertex

Brand: Unknown

This bust bodice is a highly unusual garment, representing a pre-cursor to the modern bra. At the time, it would have represented a number of impressive technological innovations, including cellular fabric, adjustable shoulder straps and elastic panelling.

Stretch panels in clothing were extremely innovative at this time and offered an unprecedented amount of fit flexibility. Likewise, the buttons at the shoulders represented a level of adjustability in an area where it did not become standard until the 1960s. The tabs at the bottom of the garment were likely designed to button onto underwear worn on the lower half of the garment to keep the underpinnings smooth and in place during wear.

Cellular fabrics, like Aertex – which was invented in the UK in 1888 – ensured that underwear was warm in the winter, as pockets of air were trapped in the holes (or ‘cells’), yet also breathable in the summer. This was often marketed as being healthy underwear, or being ‘clothed with air’.

This garment would have offered support and lift at a time where women relied on rigid and structure corsetry for their bust support. Such a piece would likely have been part of the ‘Rational Dress Reform’, which criticised corsetry for how it restricted women.

Aertex and elastic bust bodice, c. 1900s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017