Let’s talk about underwires and why they are used so frequently in bras. The thing I really want to emphasize before getting any further is that when your bra is fitting you properly the wire should not rest on your breast tissue, it should not pinch, it should not rub, it should not poke you and it shouldn’t cause irritation on the skin. When your bra and wire fits your breasts correctly it should just barely trace around ALL of your breast tissue, from under your arm pit to the center of your chest between the two breasts. If that description sounds like a mythical fairy tale then come on by and we can help you figure out what’s happening.
Having the breast tissue separated but contained within the wires allows for the weight of the breast tissue to be more evenly distributed across the chest as you are no longer relying on fabric and creative seam work to support the breast tissue. The use of wires allows for lighter, thinner and more elastic materials to be used in other parts of the bra which can be helpful in larger cup and band sizes as it allows for more breathable materials. Stiffer materials, while stronger and more resilient to wear-and-tear aren’t always the softest and comfortable for the more delicate skin of the breasts. This is why at times it can be difficult to find wire-free bras in larger sizes that are also soft and delicate feeling as well as supportive. However the association that wired bras are painful is why a lot of women look for wire free options.
Beyond the support aspect of the wires, they also help to bring the breast tissue up and forward, which allows for for different design changes within the structure of the cup itself. The underwire didn’t gain popularity until the 1950’s. Prior to the use of the underwire stiffer fabrics, extra layers of fabric, extra stitching, and boning or stays were used within the cups instead of around the base of the cups to provide more support for women with that needed more support for their breast tissue.
Because of this lift and more forward projection with a wire you will sometimes get a different shape within the bras. They can make the breast tissue appear smaller, they can create more separation of the breast tissue (unless the bra is designed to create more cleavage), and it can help ensure that no breast tissue is resting on the rib cage. Some wire-free bras can also provide the appearance of separation of the breast tissue however depending on the cut it can lift the breast tissue outwards in what we call an ‘east-west’ look, so instead of the apex of the breast tissue being lifted front and center they are more splayed out. Now this might be the look you’re going for but depending on your body shape it can help create the illusion of an hourglass figure.
But a bra that is designed with an underwire will not provide the same support or shaping if you were to take the wire out of it. The materials, the stitching, and the wires are all designed to work together and if one of those elements is removed the entire physics behind the garment is compromised. The same premise will also apply to a wire free bra, if you were to add a wire to a classic bralette shape the entire structure will change and it won’t be doing what it was designed to do.
When we look at styles of bras from earlier bra designs there is a much wider band, and much more bulk to the bras, now obviously things like the bullet bra are trying to achieve a very pointed and projected silhouette, and different bras from the 40’s are either very muted or use fewer fabrics (due to fabric rationing during war time which I might go over in a different post) however, they still are using a lot of darting and creative shaping to provide subtle coverage and support. Even with modern wire free bras designed for larger cups you see a lot of similarities, stiffer fabrics, more pointed/projected cups, fuller coverage, and wider bands and straps, etc. However styles like modern bralettes look very similar to a lot of wire free bras from the 1920’s- 1940’s.
Now whether you love wired bras or hate them they do exist for a reason, and if your bra isn’t fitting you properly no matter what the style, cut, material or brand it’s most likely going to be uncomfortable and you’ll want to rip off as soon as you can. On top of that our bodies are constantly changing and what might have worked for you a year or two years ago might not be the best option for you now.