An underwire demi bra

An underwire bra (also under wire bra, under-wire bra, or underwired bra) is a brassiere that utilizes a thin, semi-circular strip of rigid material fitted inside the brassiere fabric to help lift, separate, shape, and support a woman's breasts. The wire may be made of metal, plastic, or resin. It is sewn into the bra fabric and under each cup, from the center gore to under the wearer's armpit. Many different brassiere designs incorporate an underwire, including shelf bras, demi bras, nursing bras, and bras built into other articles of clothing, such as tank tops, dresses and swimsuits.

The concept of an underwire can be traced to an 1893 patent that describes a breast supporting device using a rigid plate under the breasts for stability. The modern underwire bra was designed in the 1930s, and gained widespread popularity by the 1950s. As of 2005, underwire bras were the largest and fastest growing segment of the bra market. A bra without an underwire is a softcup bra.

Underwire bras are occasionally linked to health conditions including breast pain, mastitis, and metal allergies. Women wearing an underwire bra have in a few rare instances been subjected to extra scrutiny when their bra set off metal detectors at security checkpoints in airports or prisons. There have been a few recorded incidents where the underwire deflected a bullet or other weapon that struck the woman's chest.[1][2]


Marie Tucek's "Breast Supporter"

See also: History of bras

The precursor to the underwire bra can be traced back to at least 1893, when New Yorker Marie Tucek was granted a patent for a "breast supporter". The breast supporter was described as a modification of the corset, and was very similar to a modern push-up bra designed to support the breasts. It consisted of a plate made of metal, cardboard, or other stiff material, shaped to fit against the torso under the breasts, following the contour of the breasts. It was covered with silk, canvas, or other cloth, which extended above the plate to form a pocket for each breast. The plate curved around the torso and ended near the armpits, held in place and adjusted to a snug fit by shoulder straps that crossed the back, forming an X-shape. It was secured with hook-and-eye closures.[3][4]

The underwire bra design emerged and took hold in the United States starting in the 1930s. Helene Pons received a patent in 1931 for a brassiere design that incorporated an "open-ended wire loop" that lay flat against the chest, encircling the bottom and sides of each breast.[5] A 1932 patent describes a U-shaped piece of wire used between the cups to keep the breasts separated.[6] A patent issued in 1938 to Pauline Boris describes a "breast support" which used pieces of wire to entirely encircle each breast.[7] In 1940, Walter Emmett Williams was issued a patent which described a wire framework, shaped like a spiderweb, that encircles and covers each breast to provide support.[8] Although development of the underwire bra started in the 1930s,[9] it did not gain widespread popularity until the 1950s, when the end of World War II freed metal for domestic use.[10][11]

In the 1940s, Howard Hughes had an underwire push-up bra designed for Jane Russell to emphasize her breasts in The Outlaw. According to Russell, the "ridiculous" contraption was painful and she secretly wore her own bra during the movie. The brassiere is now in a Hollywood museum.[11]

A selection of underwire bras in a retail store

With the popularity and widespread use of the underwire bra that started during the 1950s, the underwire was incorporated into many bra designs, and underwire bras were built into other articles of clothing. By 1990, Norma Kamali had incorporated underwire bras into both one- and two-piece (bikini) swimsuits.[12] Scott Lucretia was granted a patent for a camisole with an integrated underwire bra in 1989.[13]

Underwire bras accounted for 60% of the United Kingdom bra market in 2000[14] and 70% in 2005.[15] In 2001, 500 million bras were sold in the United States, of which approximately 70% (350 million) were underwire bras.[3][16] As of 2005, underwire bras were the fastest growing segment of the market.[17]

Underwire construction

Main article: List of brassiere designs

Underwire design in S & S Industries' patent

Underwire bras are built with a semi-circular "underwire", "bra wire", or "wire" embedded in the wire channel that circles the bottom and sides of each cup. One end, or head element, of the underwire is close to the front and center of the bra, and the other close to the armhole. The underwire can be made of metal or molded plastic; most are metallic. Plastic underwire has a very small share of the market because it does not provide the same support and rigidity offered by metal underwire.[16] A metallic underwire is a thin strip of metal, usually with a nylon coating at both ends.[18] Metals used include steel[19] and nickel titanium, a shape memory alloy.[20][21] According to underwire manufacturer S & S Industries of New York, which supplies underwire for bra makers such as Bali, Playtex, Vanity Fair, Victoria's Secret, Warner's, and other bra labels, about 70 percent of women who wear bras wear steel underwire bras.[16]

Because underwire can tear through cloth, most women hand-wash underwire bras or machine-wash them on a delicate cycle. Bra wash bags, usually zippered mesh pouches, can also be used to protect bras and prevent the underwire from separating from the bra during machine washing.[22]

21st century patents

In 2002, S & S Industries obtained a patent for an underwire design that includes a spring-loaded plastic cushion tip on one or both ends. The spring is designed to keep the wire from poking through the bra.[3][23] In 2008, Scott Dutton of Wales invented the "Bra Angel", a simple device to repair a bra when the underwire pops out of its channel. It is a barbed plastic cap that fits onto the end of the underwire, which is then inserted back into the bra and held in place by the barbs.[24][25]


Metal underwire protruding from a worn bra

Underwire bras can rub and pinch the breast, causing skin irritation and breast pain, and the wire of a worn bra can protrude from the fabric and scrape or cut the skin.[26] When the fabric of worn bra exposes an underwire, skin contact with nickel and other metals may cause contact dermatitis in a few women.[27][28]

Effect on lactation

Underwire bras, like other constrictive garments, may contribute to clogged milk ducts during the nursing period.[29][30] Fluctuating breast size during pregnancy poses another problem. Because underwire bras are rigid, they do not easily accommodate changes in breast size, and an ill-fitting bra that does not support the breasts correctly can cause discomfort and pain.[31] For several days after a mastectomy, or as long as the breast is tender, a woman is advised not to use an underwire bra.[32][33]

Defibrillator use

Use of an automated external defibrillator on a patient in a metal underwire bra can cause burns, and the bra should be removed by the first responder before the AED is applied.[34] In their 2007 season, the television program MythBusters tested the possibility of burns resulting from using a defibrillator on a patient who is using an underwire bra, and concluded that while it is possible, it is not likely unless the metal underwire is exposed and paddles of the defibrillator are very close to it.[35][36]

Tropical disease

A medical report documented that wearing an underwire bra in the tropics, specifically East Africa, can lead to severe furuncular myiasis of the breast caused by the Tumbu fly. The eggs and larvae from this fly are deposited in clothing, especially along the length of the metal wires of an underwire bra, and can only be killed by applying heat through ironing. It is almost impossible when ironing a traditional underwire bra to achieve the required heat to kill the larvae deposited along the underwire.[37]

Legal issues

The United States Transportation Security Administration recommends that women do not wear underwire bras because they can set off metal detectors.[16][38] Though most women travelers wear them without any problem, it can depend on the material of the underwire.

Transportation security

On Sunday, 24 August 2008, film maker Nancy Kates set off a metal detector during security screening. She objected when the agent attempted to pat-down her breasts. She said she told the agent, "'You can't treat me as a criminal for wearing a bra." A TSA supervisor told her she had to either submit to the pat-down search in a private room or not fly. Kates offered to take off her bra, which the TSA accepted. She went to the restroom, removed her bra, and walked through the airport and security screening braless. She said that a supervisor told her that underwire bras were the leading cause of metal detector false alarms.[39][40]

In August 2010, cancer survivor Cathy Bossi, an on-duty flight attendant for U.S. Airways, was passing through security screening at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on the way to her next flight. Due to the radiation involved, she reluctantly passed through a full-body scanner. "The T.S.A. Agent told me to put my I.D. on my back," she said. "When I got out of there the agent said because my I.D. was on my back, I had to go to a personal screening area." During what she described as an "aggressive" pat-down search, security screening personnel forced her to remove and show her prosthetic breast.[41] Their action violated TSA guidelines, which state that agents do not need to touch or inspect a mastectomy prosthetic.[42]

In October, 2010, CNN employee Rosemary Fitzpatrick was subject to a personal search after her underwire bra set off a metal detector. The TSA security official applied an invasive "hand-sliding inspection" during which she "ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks and her inner thighs, and even touched her most private areas."[43] Fitzpatrick said that she cried during the experience. "I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated."[44]

In response, Triumph International, a Swiss company, launched what it called a "Frequent Flyer Bra" in late 2001. The bra uses metal-free clasps and underwires made of resin instead of metal that are guaranteed to not set off metal detectors.[16][45] The bras were not available in the United States, and in 2004 a Canadian spokeswoman did not know whether they were still manufactured.[16]

Correctional facility rules

Some correctional facilities, like San Quentin State Prison, require visitors to either cut their bras and remove the underwire, or temporarily use a soft cup bra provided by the institution before being granted entry. The result can be embarrassment and consternation for unsuspecting visitors.[46] Other facilities require women to remove their underwire bras in a bathroom, pass through the metal detector, and return to the bathroom to put their bras back on.[47]

In June 2010, attorney Britney Horstman was barred from visiting her client in the Federal Detention Center at Miami, Florida when her underwire bra set off the metal detector. Although she reminded guards of a detention center memo that permitted female attorneys visiting clients to wear an underwire bra, the guard refused her entry. That memo existed as a result of an agreement negotiated by the Federal Public Defender's Office, which represents inmates held at the institution before trial. That agreement allows female lawyers entry if her underwire bra is detected by a metal-detecting wand. Horstman removed her bra in a bathroom and returned to the security checkpoint braless, but was then turned away because she did not meet the facility's dress code. Horstman had previously worn an underwire bra into the facility without problems. Warden Linda McGrew later promised the incident would not happen again.[48][49]

Accidents and attacks

There have been several cases where the underwire from a bra has helped deflect bullets or other objects, saving the wearer's life.

In 1996, a girl was impaled on a railing and, according to hospital personnel, the underwire from her bra probably saved her life by helping deflect the spike from her heart.[50] There have been multiple incidents where bullets were deflected by the underwire of a woman's bra, either keeping her entirely from harm, or directing the bullet away from the heart to another part of the body.[51] One such incident occurred in 2004 when a stray bullet shot by a member of the Ghetto Boys hit the narrow metal wire in Helen Kelly's bra and was deflected away from her heart.[1] In 2008, a robbery victim was saved from being stabbed in the chest when the attacker's knife was caught and deflected by the underwire of her bra.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b Akbar, Arifa (2005-10-08). "Underwired bra saved shooting victim's life". The Independent. Archived from the original on February 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-22. Helen Kelly's underwired bra deflected the bullet which doctors believe was heading towards her heart. The narrow piece of metal wiring, which snapped under the impact of the shot, bounced the bullet away from her heart and through her right breast.
  2. ^ a b Stokes, Paul (2008-09-07). "Barmaid saved from stabbing by £6 Asda bra". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-04-22. During a struggle the youth thrust the weapon at her chest, the point puncturing her skin. But the blade's serrated edge snagged on the wire under the cup of the cheap supermarket bra and prevented it penetrating further.
  3. ^ a b c Riordan, Teresa (2002-10-28). "Patents; In bra technology, an incremental improvement can translate into comfort". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2009-04-23. Retrieved 2009-04-21. Professor Farrell-Beck said the antecedents for underwire in bras date to at least 1893, when Marie Tucek of New York City patented a breast supporter, a sort of early push-up bra made of either metal or cardboard and then covered with fabric.
  4. ^ US patent 494397, Marie Tucek, "Breast Supporter", issued 1893-03-28 
  5. ^ US patent 1798274, Helene Pons, "Brassiere", issued 1931-03-31 
  6. ^ US patent 1970920, Roth, "Brassngre", issued 1934-08-21 
  7. ^ US patent 2104725, Pauline Boris, "Breast Support", issued 1938-01-11 
  8. ^ US patent 2222523, Walter Emmett Williams, "Ijldrs Health Brassiere And Health", issued 1940-11-19 
  9. ^ Napoleon, Anthony (2003). "Wardrobe". Awakening Beauty: An Illustrated Look at Mankind's Love and Hatred of Beauty (Illustrated ed.). Virtual Bookworm Publishing. pp. 31, 130–131. ISBN 1-58939-378-3. Retrieved 2009-04-21. Warner standardized the concept of "cup" size in 1935, and the first underwire bra was developed in 1938.
  10. ^ Kanner, Bernice (1983-12-12). "The Bra's not for Burning". New York Magazine. New York Media. 16 (49): 26–30. ISSN 0028-7369. Retrieved 2009-04-21. In 1938, strapless and under-wire bras were invented, but neither hit it big until the 1950s, when exaggerated, pointed bras—with cups that bore more resemblance to those from paper-cup dispensers or Brünnhilde's breatplate than to the human body—were also popular.
  11. ^ a b Seigel, Jessica (2004-02-13). "The Cups Runneth Over". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-05-09. The new lift and separation evolved into the torpedo shape of the 1940s, which went nuclear with underwire in the 1950s, when the war's end freed metal for domestic use [...] The struggle to buttress what is naturally low-lying has produced its own mythology, like the legend that in the 1940s Howard Hughes used airplane technology to build a better bra for Jane Russell in The Outlaw.
  12. ^ Schiro, Anne-Marie (1990-05-13). "Fashion; Half a Yard or So of Nylon and Spandex, and Voila!". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-24. The big news this year is the return of the bra. Norma Kamali pioneered the swimsuit with underwire bra, and the idea has caught on with manufacturers like Too Hot Brazil, La Blanca and Karla Coletto that cater to the daring young woman
  13. ^ US patent 4798557, Scott M. Lucretia, "Camisole underwire bra garment", issued 1989-01-17 
  14. ^ "Charnos takes the plunge with a brand new bra". UK: Aroq Ltd. 2000-10-25. Retrieved 2009-04-22. The underwired bra accounts for 60 per cent of the market, but women with average or fuller busts must wonder why it is so popular. It is uncomfortable, non-machine washable, and difficult to make, but there has been nothing to replace it
  15. ^ "Boom in Bras as Women Go Busty". Daily Record. 2005-10-12. Retrieved 2009-04-22. Demand for the underwired bra is up by 12 per cent in the last two years and now makes up 70 per cent of the bra market.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Goo, Sara Kehaulani (10 December 2004). "Functional Fashion Helps Some Through Airport Checkpoints". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 24 April 2009.
  17. ^ "Lingerie – UK – September 2005 – Market Research Report". Mintel. September 2005. Retrieved 2009-04-21. Sales of underwired bras have been growing at a faster rate when compared to both soft bras and sport and maternity (12% between 2003 & 2005)
  18. ^ Madaras, Lynda (2007). The "what's happening to my body?" book for girls (Third ed.). Newmarket Press. pp. 48–50. ISBN 978-1-55704-764-9. Retrieved 2009-04-21. Underwire bras have a flexible wire sewn into the lower edge and sides of the cup for support. They also lift the breasts for a fuller look.
  19. ^ Hessler, Peter (2008). "China's Instant Cities". The Best American Magazine Writing 2008 (Illustrated ed.). Columbia University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-231-14714-9. Previously, he had manufactured the steel underwire for women's brassieres
  20. ^ Brady, George Stuart; Henry R. Clauser; John A. Vaccari (2002). Materials Handbook (15 ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 633. ISBN 978-0-07-136076-0. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
  21. ^ Jones, Gail; Michael R. Falvo; Amy R. Taylor; Bethany P. Broadwell (2007). "Nanomaterials: Memory Wire". Nanoscale science (Illustrated ed.). NSTA Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-933531-05-2. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
  22. ^ "Time saving tricks. (The Best of Everything: Testing From the Good Housekeeping Institute)". Good Housekeeping. 2005-10-01. Archived from the original on 2012-11-04. Retrieved 2009-04-22. You can protect bras and hosiery with Woolite's new double-compartment Bra Wash Bag [...] In our tests, the padded pouch prevented twisting and snagging
  23. ^ US patent 6468130, Ajit Thakur, Joseph Horta, "Underwire for brassiere", issued 2002-10-22 
  24. ^ "Bra repair invention strikes gold". BBC. 2008-11-28. Archived from the original on 2009-04-30. Retrieved 2009-04-24. Scott Dutton, from Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, came up with a simple DIY device to fix his wife Laura's bra when the underwire popped out of the seams
  25. ^ Blake, Aled (2008-12-10). "Bra Angel launched to save underwear from the bin". Wales Online. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  26. ^ Legato, Marianne J.; Carol Colman (2005). What Women Need to Know. E-Reads. pp. 33–34. ISBN 0-7592-5444-3. Retrieved 2009-04-21.[dead link]
  27. ^ "Boobs! an owner's guide". Girl's Life. Monarch Avalon. 2002-10-01. Retrieved 2009-05-08. If you are sensitive to nickel and other metals, it could cause contact dermatitis when you sweat [...] The metal comes in contact with the skin due to the moisture connecting the two[dead link]
  28. ^ Lauersen, Niels H.; Eileen Stukane (1998). The Complete Book of Breast Care (Illustrated ed.). Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-91241-8. Retrieved 2009-05-08. Sometimes the material covering the underwire deteriorates, exposing the metal underwire, leading to skin irritations, perhaps due to an allergic reaction to metal
  29. ^ Littleton, Lynna Y.; Joan Engebretson (2002). Maternal, Neonatal, and Women's Health Nursing. Cengage Learning. p. 915. ISBN 0-7668-0121-7. Retrieved 2009-05-05. Avoid tight clothing, underwire bras, infant carriers that may block milk ducts or prevent breasts from emptying adequately
  30. ^ Hatfield, Nancy T.; Violet Broadribb (2007). Broadribb's Introductory Pediatric Nursing. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-7817-7706-3. Retrieved 2009-05-05. ... and to avoid constricting clothing or bras, including underwire bras.
  31. ^ "To underwire or not to underwire, that is the question". The Guardian. 2001-12-30. Retrieved 2009-04-24. The reason the advice is conflicting is because your breast size (as you are finding out) fluctuates a great deal during pregnancy and it is essential that you are properly fitted for a bra, otherwise you will be uncomfortable and your breasts won't be well-supported
  32. ^ Burden, Nancy (2000). Ambulatory Surgical Nursing. W.B. Saunders. p. 742. ISBN 978-0-7216-6847-5. Most surgeons recommend that patients wear a brassiere, without underwire, to provide support for several days postoperatively.
  33. ^ Gates, Rose A.; Regina M. Fink (2007). Oncology Nursing Secrets. Elsevier Health Sciences. ISBN 978-0-323-04457-8. Women should avoid underwire support postoperatively and during radiation therapy, when the breast is tender and edematous.
  34. ^ Craig, Karen (Spring 2006). "Take charge with an automated external defibrillator". Nursing. 36 (Cardiac Insider): 24–26. doi:10.1097/00152193-200604003-00008. PMID 16641690. Retrieved 2009-04-30.[dead link]
  35. ^ Scott, Shana (2008-03-19). "Shocking Defibrillator". b5media. Archived from the original on 2008-05-08. Retrieved 2009-05-22. the team will test whether a defibrillator can burn someone if the electricity connects with: 1. an under-wire bra 2. a nipple piercing
  36. ^ Scott, Shana (2008-03-20). "Underwire Bra results". b5media. Archived from the original on 2008-05-05. Retrieved 2009-05-22.
  37. ^ Adisa CA, Mbanaso A (2004). "Furuncular myiasis of the breast caused by the larvae of the Tumbu fly (Cordylobia anthropophaga)". BMC Surgery. 4: 5. doi:10.1186/1471-2482-4-5. PMC 394335. PMID 15113429.
  38. ^ "TSA Travel Assistant". Transportation Security Administration. Archived from the original on 11 May 2011.
  39. ^ Fargen, Jessica (18 August 2008). "Heavy metal: Underwire bra trips up airport cops". Boston Herald. Archived from the original on 30 April 2009. Retrieved 24 April 2009. A California woman is crying gender discrimination after she claims she was forced to strip off her bra and walk through airport security without support after being busted when the underwires in her lingerie set off a metal detector
  40. ^ Hendricks, Tyche (26 August 2008). "Delayed by her bra, air passenger is indignant". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on 17 November 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
  41. ^ Molly Grantham; Brad Hyatt (Nov 18, 2010). "After removing prosthetic breast, flight attendant says TSA goes "too far"". Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  42. ^ "Assistive Devices and Mobility Aids". Transportation Security Administration. Archived from the original on 2011-12-29.
  43. ^ "American Morning". CNN. October 29, 2010. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  44. ^ Barnett, Jim (October 28, 2010). "TSA to phase in new pat-down procedures at airports nationwide". CNN. Archived from the original on 21 November 2011. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  45. ^ Siskos, Catherine (July 2002). "Please be Seated". Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Kiplinger Washington Editors. 50 (7): 26. ISSN 1528-9729. Retrieved 2009-04-21.
  46. ^ Comfort, Megan (2008). Doing Time Together: Love and Familyin the Shadow of the Prison (Illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-226-11463-7. Retrieved 2009-04-21. The regulation of garments during visitor processing even encompasses undergarments, and virtually every woman on her first visit is sent away to remove the wire from her underwire bra so that she can pass through the metal detector without triggering the alarm.
  47. ^ Sullivan, Dennis; Larry Tifft (2006). Handbook of restorative justice: a global perspective (Illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 266. ISBN 0-415-35356-4. Retrieved 2009-04-21. Women with an underwire bra can trigger the metal detector, requiring them to go into the bathroom with a paper bag, remove their bra, place it in the bag, return bare breasted under often revealing blouses, suffer the stares of the correctional officers, take back the bag and redress.
  48. ^ "Florida Attorney Barred From Jail Over Bra, Then for Taking Bra Off". Fox News. 12 June 2010. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  49. ^ Jay Weaver (June 12, 2010). "Wrong bra, no bra: Jail bars lawyer". Miami Herald. Retrieved July 14, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  50. ^ "Bra saves girl's life". London, England: The Mirror. 1996-07-05. Archived from the original on 2012-11-04. Retrieved 2009-04-22. A girl's underwired bra saved her life when she was impaled on railings. Caroline Baptiste, 14, slipped as she climbed the fence after being locked inside a park at Dartford, Kent. An iron spike went into her body under the left arm. Mum Patricia said yesterday: "The hospital told me the spike was probably deflected from Caroline's heart by her underwired bra."
  51. ^ "Police: Bra Deflects Bullet, Saves Woman – Milwaukee News Story – WISN Milwaukee". Internet Broadcasting. 2009-04-21. Retrieved 2009-04-22. The bullet shattered the woman's living room window but barely grazed her skin. Police said it was the underwire in her bra that deflected the bullet.