0

Bras have come a long way since they debuted in 1907

Ah, the bra. It's a girl's best friend, and occasional worst enemy. It lifts, separates and supports, but sometimes binds, squeezes and pinches.

For good or bad, this year, the over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder is celebrating a very big anniversary: it's 100 years old. First hitting the market in 1907, the brassiere has come a long way from its initial design of two handkerchiefs sewn together with a piece of ribbon.

Though the bra started out as a nondescript, one-size-fits-all model, in 1935, the cup system was introduced. From there, it snowballed and today, ladies can choose from a near endless array of options.

With or without padding, with or without underwire. Plain colored or striped, polka dots or hearts. Lace or cotton. Sports, strapless, tagless, seamless, front-snap or back.

When wading through the field of brassieres, sometimes, a girl needs a little help. Here's our guide to the best bras on the market today.

Natural Wonder

The Wonderbra has a distinct place in brassiere history. Making its U.S. debut in 1994 with the Push-Up Plunge bra, the Wonderbra has been giving women a boost for more than a decade.

Originally created in 1964, the uplifting undergarment features what is referred to as "precision engineering,"according to the Wonderbra Web site. That translates to mean a three-part cup construction, precision-angled back and underwire cups, removable pads, a "gate back" back design for support, and ultra-rigid straps.

Most recently, the Wonderbra introduced the Light Lift. A lightweight bra, it gives cleavage a natural boost, with gel pads tucked discreetly into the lower cup. The Light Lift has a low-cut neck and is made of flexible material, making it a versatile undergarment that can be worn with dresses or Ts.

The bra is available at area department stores.

Lines no more

There are two codes of conduct bra-wearers should follow: don't let the straps show and avoid unseemly bra lines under snug shirts. With the strapless Invisible Look collection from Barely There, a girl can do both.

The straps on this convertible bra can be removed with a simple snap, and the stretchy, seamless fabric makes it easy to wear under any top. The collection includes three other styles: underwire, wire-free and front-closure with T-back.

The Invisible Look collection is sold at area department stores.

Not one size for all

One of the biggest bra shopping battles is finding the right size. In fact, statistics from a recent Hanesbrands study show that 86 percent of the women surveyed thought they were wearing the right bra size, when in truth more than 70 percent of these women were wearing the wrong size. The most common mistake was choosing the wrong size or style for their figure.

Finding the right size can be tricky, especially if your bust is extra big or extra small. In more recent years, undergarment designers have been catering to both these groups.

With bras designed specifically for full-figured gals, Bali is a jewel for women with bigger busts. The new Platinum line for Bali features three sub-categories: minimizer, wire-free and underwire models. Each is designed with fashion, but also comfort, in mind.

Playtex now offers an ingenious solution for smaller-chested consumers: half-sizes. With the Thanks Goodness It Fits line, the bra comes in nearly A to full-C cups, to fit a range of women. The bras are available with or without underwire, for any desired level of support and comfort.

Bali and Playtex bras are both sold at area department stores.

The Secret's Out

An article about bras would not be complete without a mention of the hugely popular retailer Victoria's Secret. Although Victoria's Secret is largely known for its slinky models and fashionable runway shows, the bra is still the core of the company.

Victoria's Secret was founded in 1977 but really hit its stride in the early '90s, revolutionizing the bra-shopping experience. Instead of racks of undies hanging in poorly-lit department stores, the store presents a refined but casual atmosphere with bras sorted by sizes and styles, and organized in drawers and on tables.

Victoria's Secret offers several signature bra lines, including the Angels, Very Sexy and more recent Pink collections. The ultimate Victoria's Secret bra, though, is found under the Fantasy line.

Costing millions - yes, plural - the Victoria's Secret Sexy Splendor Fantasy Bra runs about $12.5 million. Inspired by the Very Sexy collection, the bra was crafted by jeweler Mouawad and took more than 300 hours to create. The bra's focal point is a 101-carat, pear-shaped stone. The bra itself features an 18-carat white gold floral design with 2,900 pave-set diamonds and 22 ruby gems.

Needless to say, the bra isn't available on store shelves, but by special-order only. Call 1-800-555-5861.

Bra Timeline

•1907

Vogue magazine prints its first reference to the brassiere. At the time, many women still wore corsets.

•1914

The first U.S. patent for a bra is filed by Mary Phelps-Jacobs. She later sold the patent for $1,500 to the Warner's company, which had began manufacturing corsets in 1874.

•1925

The Enid Manufacturing Company is founded. The company, which changed its name to Maidenform in the 1930s, was developed by dress shop owners Ida Rosenthal and Enid Bissett, who had been including built-in bras in the dresses they sold.

•1940s

World War II causes shortages of many materials, such as cotton and rubber, and bra manufacturers turn to synthetic fabrics.

•1950s

Bras with conical-shaped, pointed cups become extremely popular, due in part to Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner and Jane Russell. Strapless bras are introduced.

•1960s

Bra construction becomes more relaxed and the "bullet" bra eventually falls out of favor.

•1970s

Colored and patterned fabrics are used to make bras.

•1980s

Luxurious lingerie of satin and lace reflect this decade's trend toward excess.

•1994

Bali's WonderBra goes on sale in the U.S. and becomes a big hit.

•1999

Sales of sports bras increase after soccer player Brandi Chastain takes off her shirt to celebrate winning the Women's World Cup.

- Compiled By Rachael Mason

Sources: Maidenform, Warnaco, WonderBra, The Washington Post and www.myfirstbra.us.