Bust bodices and early brassières

The bust bodice had appeared in about 1900 when the straight-fronted corset came in.  Until then, shoulder straps on the corset, if necessary, had supported a full bust. The new low-bust model meant that this was not possible.  The average corset ceased to have shoulder straps in the 1840s, though from 1890-1914 were added once again to corsets for tailored suits.

The 1900 bust bodice evolved from the earlier ‘petticoat bodice’ worn over the corset to keep it clean and conceal it.  (Sometimes called a camisole, although this term has different meanings throughout history).  Now it separated into two distinct garments:

  • ‘Bust bodice’ – more fitting and lightly boned it was worn by the full-busted woman.
  • ‘Camisole’ – looser and more decorated, it was preferred by ladies with a smaller bust to add bulk.

Whilst the corset still went over the voluminous underwear (woollen combinations next to the skin, then a heavy white calico chemise trimmed with tucks, broderie anglaise and lace) which was well pulled down inside the corset, the bust bodice was unnecessary.  When the summer lines came along in 1907, and the Empire line demanded a high, rounded bust, the bust bodice, (or brassière) came to be worn.


The First World War halted fashionable exaggeration, as looser more comfortable clothes were worn out of necessity.  Corsets became more comfortable with no structure.   These less restrictive corsets had been around since 1900 for sports or ‘rest gowns’ and were made of ribbon or knitted weave with a slight give.  In 1911 the first elastic waisted belt that was lightly boned with a side hook fastening, meant there was no need for the centre busk.  Now, only older women wore the heavily boned corsets.

Underwear was now very simply cut and made from delicate silks, crepe-de-chine. Georgette and chiffon for luxury wear, or for every day thin cottons and voiles – most popular in pink.

After 1918 a period of fashion trade recovery took place, and the straight “chemise” frocks continued to be worn, hanging straight from the shoulders with no attempt to fit the body.  Corsets were selected for comfort.


In 1921 the new fashion arrived of the androgynous/ girlish figure that required no support.  Corsets now had to make a woman’s figure shapeless, hiding the waist and flattening any curves.  The chemise dress became more fitted, but its waist was at the hip line, and the corset was now only a belt, starting at the waist.  Increasingly, more elastic was used, until the “all elastic roll-on” captured the market and was worn with a brassière.

The 1920s Brassière was made from a straight piece of material, very slightly darted and seamed at the side (sometimes in elastic). Its main function was to flatten the bust.

The Corselette filled in the gap between the brassière and belt and was worn by the more mature ladies. Young girls of fashion, educated with lots of physical training and games at school, had a firm, muscular body and would often only require a suspender belt.