What the Heck Is a Bust Bodice?

Are you working on an Edwardian or teens-inspired outfit? Perhaps you’ve made or purchased one of our s-bend or underbust corsets and are now wondering what to pair with it to build the perfect historical silhouette. Enter the bust bodice. Or the bust improver. Or the brassiere. Whatever the advertisements called them (and, wow, did they love naming them), the goal was the same: create an ideal figure while supporting and shaping the bust.

1913 Eatons

T. Eaton Co. Catalogue, 1913, Archive.org

1900–10 Corset Cover Met

1900–1910 Corset Cover, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.316.8

Augmenting one’s body to achieve the fashionable shape was nothing new. Skirts supports like panniers, crinolines, and bustles had been used for centuries, and padding to smooth or fill out the chest was also popular. However, as the corset styles of the late 1890s and early 1900s shifted to sit lower on the body, often hitting below the bust, more was needed. The tension of the shift underneath the corset provided some support, but if you had a larger bust or simply wanted additional structure, a separate garment was necessary to control as well as enhance the figure.

Shirr-Ruffle Bust Form

In the early 1900s, the bust bodice or brassier filled that role. One article from September 1912 claimed, “A brassiere is usually worn in addition proving a supple, dainty extension of utmost value in consideration of the contour of the gown or costume, and as much in request with the extremely thin (for whom it conduces actually to ‘form’ the figure’), as it certainly is a necessity for those of generous build.”

1910 Combined Corset Cover and Bust Supporter

While the shape of the garment morphed from the early 1900s to the late 1910s, changing with the fashions, the basic idea remained the same. They were often constructed from a lightweight cotton or silk, decorated with lace and ribbons, and structured with boning to support but not lift the chest. Bust bodices could be combined with corset covers, but they were meant to be worn over the corset and chemise, and under the dress or blouse and skirt.  

 1900 Bodice Met

1900 Bodice Met – Back

1900 Bodice, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.291

In the early part of the period, the s-bend silhouette demanded a low, wide mono-bosom effect. To achieve the pigeon-breasted look, bust bodices could be full coverage garments, extending from shoulder to waist, with ruffles to soften or fill out the line. These could have a pointed front that dipped below the waistline of the skirt, with a hook and tape to anchor it to the corset and hold the brassiere in place.  

 1905 Bust Bodice V&A

1905 Bust Bodice, V&A, T.340-1978

But this was just one style. There were a variety of options to choose from depending on your body and personal preference. They could be strapless. They could wrap around the body, or they could be laced or tied in back. They could even be combined with a corset, for an all-in-one garment like the Sahlin Perfect Form. There are several extant examples of this particular style in museum collections, including one made from mesh!

Sahlin Perfect Form Ad

The Delineator, April 1905.

Mesh Sahlin Perfect Form

Sahlin Perfect Form, Antiquedress.com

1908 Sahlin Perfect Form

1908 Sahlin Perfect Form Combination Bust Improver & Corset, The Underpinnings Museum, UM-2017-002

Later when fashions shifted to a more columnar line, the brassiere evolved with them. Now the focus was more on smoothing and compression, and less on creating volume. Still there were a variety of styles available, from smaller bandeaus to more full-coverage bust reducers, each choosen to best suit a person’s individual needs.

1910 Bust Improver V&A

1910 Bust Improver, V&A, T.33-1996

Fairy Health Brassiere MFA

1915–25 Fairy Health Brassiere, MFA, 1979.449

This is just a brief overview of this fascinating garment. Period advertisements and patents offer a wealth of examples, and it’s worth going down a research rabbit hole if you are interested in finding more styles and shapes. We also might have something related up our sleeve for next month, so keep an eye out for more bust bodices to come!

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