A brief history of the bra
As Ultimo claims to have created 'the world's most comfortable brassiere', Deirdre Reynolds reports on how the garment gained such widespread support
It's been a symbol of oppression and liberation, designed to make women look both more boyish and buxom and worn for fashion as well as function. In the 4,000-year history of the bra however, one thing it's rarely been associated with is comfort.
Now proving just how far we've come since the corset, a British lingerie company claims to have created "the world's most comfortable bra".
It's taken two years and a team of Hong Kong's best engineers, but Ultimo's Dreamwire finally goes on sale at Debenhams this week. The hi-tech hybrid bra, pictured left and which will retail for €37.50, features a secret wire encased in soft foam, fewer seams and microfibre straps -- and promises all the push-up of an underwire with none of the pinch.
"The underwire versus soft cup is an industry bra battle that has gone on for a long time, and we have been working to develop a hybrid model which we believe makes history in the evolution of lingerie design," says bra baroness Michelle Mone of Ultimo. "I even wear it myself while working out and it's so snug it feels like I'm not even wearing a bra."
The 'wireless underwire' is just the latest development in the timeline of the single greatest invention known to womankind.
Despite Germaine Greer's contention that "bras are a ludicrous invention", it's thought that 90pc of women here wear bras every day.
And from the 'apodesmos' of ancient Greece to Lady Gaga's pyrotechnic cups, few inventions have stood the test of time like it.
Although depictions of bra-like garments go back as far as the cave, the word "brassiere" -- derived from a French word for 'breastplate' -- first appeared in fashion bible Vogue in 1907 -- and later entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911.
It's reportedly all down to 19-year-old 'It' girl Mary Phelps Jacob, who enlisted the help of her maid to create underwear that wouldn't show beneath a sheer evening gown for a New York social event.
However, it wan't until the 1930s that the bra, by then patented by Connecticut corset company Warners Brothers, replaced the rib-crushing corset as the underpinning of choice among women.
With stretchable cups sized alphabetically, adjustable bands and straps, the modern bra gave women more freedom than ever before -- shaking up gender roles as much as it secured breasts.
Yet most of us are still squashing our assets into bras that don't fit today, according to experts.
"I see it every day of the week," says Clodagh Weber of Bramora lingerie specialists in Dublin.
"Women come in wearing bras that are either so tight that they're causing a 'four boob' effect or so loose that you could practically fit another person in them.
"The main problem is that they're being fitted incorrectly by department stores that rely solely on a measuring tape -- but the same bra isn't necessarily going to fit two women with the same bra size. "Inevitably, most women have one breast slightly bigger than the other -- the bra should be firm around the middle with no cup spillage."
Still, if women are confused about bras, it's no wonder.
Back in 1941, the average woman owned 1.2 bras -- today she owns 15.6, according to one survey. But do we really need to wear a bra in the first place?
"Wearing a bra . . . has no medical necessity whatsoever," says US surgeon Dr Susan Love in Dr Susan Love's Breast Book.
"A mistaken popular belief maintains that wearing a bra strengthens your breasts and prevents their eventual sagging. But you sag because of the proportion of fat and tissue in your breasts, and no bra changes that."
For larger-breasted Irish women, athletes or those who've had a mastectomy however, the support of a bra is often vital.
"Every pound women carry on their front adds 10lb of pressure to the back," explains Dr Benjamin Martin of Optimal Chiropractic in Ballincollig. "We often see women complaining of back pain, shoulder ache and even headaches directly related to wearing the wrong bra size.
"With a bra, you're basically wearing a rubber band around your middle all day long," explains Dr Martin. "If it's too tight, it's going to dig into the skin and muscles. If it's too loose, your neck and shoulders end up picking up the slack.
"Changing your bra is all well and good, but unfortunately by then the damage may have already been done.
"One good tip to help realign your posture at home is to set your mobile phone to go off every hour to remind yourself to stretch -- sitting up straight in your chair, rolling your shoulders gently backwards and forwards and moving your neck up, down, left and right."
Pro-bra or anti-bra, the multi-billion dollar industry is unlikely to go bust anytime soon, with Ultimo's promise of a more comfortable cleavage only likely to boost sales further.
"When buying a new bra, always start off on the loosest hook so you can tighten it as it gets looser with wear," advises Clodagh Weber of Bramora.com.
"It should feel like you've got a bra on, but not too tight, and your breasts should be sitting halfway between your shoulder and elbow.
"So many Irish women are walking around in an ill-fitting bra -- a good bra can make you look slimmer and taller instantly."
How to know if your bra's a bad fit:
Back of the bra rides up due to the
weight of the breast.
Bra moves when you raise your arms in the air.
Cup wrinkles or breast spills out at top or side of cup.
Shoulder straps, underwire or bra band dig into the skin.
Underwire sits away from the body at the front of the bra between the breasts.