Its development offered equality for women to also play sport comfortably and modestly. Later, the bra became a fashion item in its own right, breaking the mould of underwear being worn out of sight.
Brassiere is old French, for protector of arm such as a brace. But bras are not really a modern invention. In 2500BC, Cretan women used to lift their breasts out of their clothing and archaeologists have found cloth used for binding breasts during sport in ancient Greece.
On average, a B cup breast weighs about 150 grams to 200g while a D cup is about three times as heavy. Without a bra, the B cup bosoms can bounce more than 4 centimetres during normal activity. During vigorous exercise, such as running, they can leap 8cm.
More recently, French sports doctor Jean-Denis Rouillon claimed his 16 years of research into bra wearing showed it weakened natural muscles leading to saggy bosoms.
“What rubbish. The breast is made up of mainly tissue and fat, and depends on Coopers ligaments and skin to give it support. Once pulled too far the ligaments are stretched permanently,” she says.
She wonders: Had he not seen women who had spent their life bra-less in parts of Africa and noted the results of gravity on their breasts?
The average cup size in the 1980s was 12B and when Mrs Stevens left in 2011 it was a 14C or 14D. She puts the dramatic increase down to lifestyle changes. The number indicates the size around the back which allows for different body shapes and frames while the letter indicates a larger cup as it progresses further into the alphabet. Thanks to new technology, minimiser bras take an inch off the projection and add to the circumference for bigger bosomed women. “So instead of up and out, they sit in.”
On the other hand, flat-chested women have plenty of bras to choose from which offer the illusion of extra inches.
It was not until the late 1980s that New Zealand trade barriers were removed, opening the flood gates to overseas lines finally offering women more choice but inconsistent sizing. A more relaxed approach was taken by designers such as Australian model Elle Macpherson, who tested every one of her designs personally.
New technology created a moulded structure and modern fabrics were introduced in a variety of colours – beige was left behind. On occasions, women would be fitted for a new bra, wear it and ask the corsetiere to dispose of their old one in the rubbish.
Mrs Stevens says a bra has a manufacturer’s life expectancy of just three to six months before it stretches and needs replacing. It is recommended that women have three bras on rotation, and they be preferably handwashed or placed in the washing machine in a lingerie bag to keep the wires flat.
Her favourite customers were the women who had undergone mastectomies and were feeling really nervous. “They had lost their self worth but it was good to send them away feeling like a new person.”
Bird seed in a bag was used as a prosthetic until silicone was moulded into inserts. The silicone pieces can be slipped into the specially designed flap of a bra to fill it out.