The Quest to Build the Perfect Bra

It's a challenge familiar, and frustrating, to every woman: how to find a bra that's fashionable, feels good, and works with almost every outfit. Despite decades of innovation and millions of dollars spent on research and development since the first "breast supporter" was patented in the United States in 1863, lingerie makers have yet to design a bra that strikes just the right balance of fashion, function, and fit. But thanks to new technology, and a growing body of scientific research on women's breasts, they may finally be getting close.

Sales are sagging: they slipped almost 5 percent last year, to about $5.7 billion. To boost them—and to accommodate women's growing needs (the average bra size in America has increased from a 34B to a 36C in the past 15 years)—bra manufacturers have seized on structural innovation as the latest selling point. Last month Maidenform introduced what it calls a "breakthrough" backless bra that includes silicone in the straps (which fit around the arm sockets) to prevent slippage and molded foam cups to prevent spillage; the innovative contraption was designed by a finalist on the ABC reality show "American Inventor." That comes on the heels of the much-hyped Victoria's Secret Very Sexy 100 bra, which can be fastened to fit 100 different ways—a design that Katerina Plew, a single mom and paralegal from Long Island, says the company ripped off from her. (She sued a few weeks ago; Victoria's Secret declined to comment on the allegations.) Wonderbra came out with a similar concept in England in 2006.

"Really, it's a quest for the perfect bra. It has to look good, has to be fashionable, has to be made out of new materials, has to have new comfort straps," says retail analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD Group. "Technology has entered the intimates business in a huge way, and the bra has been the recipient of that."

Why the sudden push? Part of it has to do with standard style turnover to keep the business fresh, say analysts. "Technology allows them to retain their customer base but then entice the customer to buy something new and different," says Cohen. This tactic is especially useful now, as bra companies are facing the same slowdown in sales that has plagued much of the retail world for the past year. Even industry-leader Victoria's Secret recently announced plans to back off its uber-sexy image and focus on more sophisticated styles. But the trend toward innovations like seamless technology and "smart" materials that simulate a custom fit was already well underway.

"It's really a pendulum that goes back and forth, in terms of sexy and other factors," says Mark Anglin, a strategist at market analysis firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "Five to 10 years ago everything was really lacy in bras, and the French look was popular in the U.S. Today everything is more seamless and smooth."

Of course, as analysts and savvy consumers are quick to point out, there's a big difference between clever branding and real improvements. Some developments—like the Bounce-O-Meter, a U.K.-based sports bra Web feature that offers computer animation of physically active female torsos of varying sizes—seem the brainchildren of marketing, not research, departments.

But other advances seem sensible, like the use of sturdier straps and new materials that stretch, breathe, and absorb moisture more easily. As women have become more active and their figures have become fuller, the health concerns associated with large breasts have become more widespread. The pressure needed to hold all that extra mass in place can cause thin straps to dig into women's shoulders, and in large-breasted women the problem can be severe enough to cause nerve damage, researchers say. Studies have also determined that the overwhelming majority of women—big and small alike—wear ill-fitting bras that fail to properly support the weight in the front, and that can lead to back, neck, and shoulder pain.

Maidenform president Maurice Reznik says the company plans to address such concerns with a new program called "Custom Fit," which will customize the padding and design of a given bra according to each cup size, so women could even accommodate subtle differences between their breasts. "This whole customization trend takes it to another level," Reznik tells NEWSWEEK.

As customer demands and health and comfort concerns have increased, so too has the technical expertise required to produce new bra designs. Three months ago Britain's De Montfort University, which offers degrees in "Contour Design," awarded the world's first Ph.D. in Intimate Apparel, for a project that examined how adjustments in cup design affect back pain.

Bra makers are also getting some help from sports scientists, who have been researching ways to get more precise mass measurements of breasts and to identify their unique figure-eight movement patterns. In separate studies on 3-D breast movement, which take into account more than just vertical bounce, biomechanists Joanna Scurr at the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth and Deirdre McGhee at the University of Wollongong in Australia found that breasts of all sizes move around even more than previously thought. Using lights, cameras, and sensors to monitor jiggle patterns, Scurr determined that women experience an average of about four inches of total breast movement during exercise, while some larger-breasted women have to put up with eight inches of bounce. (Scurr is currently working with bra manufacturers to direct her findings toward industry improvements, but she could not comment on the details of her arrangements.)

"We're trying to figure out: how heavy are they? How much do they move? What load is pulling the trunk forward?" said McGhee. "Biomechanists have really made significant contributions to bra design, and I think that bra companies are now paying more attention to biomechanics and to breast movement."

One U.K.-based bra company, Charnos, even brought on a team of industrial designers, putting the same concepts they use to design trains to work on designing a properly supportive bra. Another London firm, Seymour Powell, scanned several hundred women using machinery normally used on automobiles to gather data on breast shape and form, then it developed a plastic molding to replace the uncomfortable and ill-fitting underwire that has dominated the market for decades.

Taking bra design even further into the sci-fi realm, researchers at the University of Bolton in England recently announced that they'd invented a breast-screening "smart bra," which they claim can detect cancer before a tumor even develops through the use of microwave antennae woven into the fabric. By picking up abnormal temperature swings inside the breasts, they say, it can also monitor the success of ongoing breast cancer treatments.

While such advances are impressive, there remains no El Dorado of the bra world. User reviews of many of the new gadgetlike bras have been lukewarm at best. Some wearers complain that the versatile designs are complicated and uncomfortable, while custom-fit bras offer good support but limited wear because of bulky straps. Still, analysts are optimistic, pointing out that it generally takes about a year to get an idea for a new design into physical form and onto a hanger. In the meantime, with the range of innovations hitting the market, there's a good chance that even if you don't find the perfect bra you'll at least be able to find a bra that's perfect for the occasion or outfit.

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