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Historical design development: the influence of Lycra

In the area of study: Design you will learn about design developments in society through ONE of the syllabus focus areas. This tutorial focuses on the historical development of underwear, specifically the brassiere (bra), and highlights the influence of Lycra on society while outlining the influence of societal development on the bra as a piece of underwear design.

This material addresses aspects of the following syllabus outcome:

H6.1 The student analyses the influence of historical, cultural and contemporary developments on textiles.

Extract from Stage 6 Textiles and Design Syllabus © Board of Studies NSW 2007.

From the whalebone, cane and steel corset to the Lycra bra

The modern bra as we know it is about 100 years old in design. It was first developed in 1907 and at about this time, was advertised in the American Vogue magazine.

Tracing the development of underwear, specifically the bra, from the focus area of apparel, demonstrates well the wide reaching impact specific textiles have had on contemporary society.

Beauty is perceived in many cultures to be about shape and women have throughout history looked for ways to contour the female form using their clothing and underwear. For thousands of years the bra and its earlier versions were influential in creating beauty for women. Materials such as whale bone, steel rods, cane and fabrics such as linen, buckram, and stiffened cotton fabrics were used to fashion undergarments for women with the aim of enhancing the female body shape.

Historical development of the bra

Click here for background information about the development of the bra and the impact of Lycra.

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Activity 1

1. Complete the following table on the historical development of the bra.

Year Textiles used Style adopted Social influence determining the design

2000 BC


4th century








1875 and 1877














From 1960s to now



2. Click on http://www.fashion-era.com/bras_and_girdles.htm (external website) and describe the early style camisole bra. How does the design of this bra tell us it was made of a woven fabric such as cotton drill? How effective do you think this bra would have been?

3. Outline in your own words, the development of the bra as a piece of underwear highlighting the significant developments in textiles which have impacted upon and contributed to the development of the design.


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Influence of society on the development of underwear

The main societal influences that have impacted on the development of the bra from 1900 to today are:

Activity 2

1. Outline how World War II and the 1960s period impacted on the development of the modern bra.

Reference: http://www.fashion-era.com/bras_after_1950.htm (external website)

2. Evaluate the impact Lycra has made to the performance of the bra.


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Influence of Lycra on society

Lycra is a stretch and recovery fibre. Stretching up to six times its length and bouncing back immediately as well as fitting snuggly without squeezing and constraining. It was these properties of Lycra that helped to revolutionise the way in which fabrics could be used. In beachwear Lycra replaced thick and heavy swimsuits with light, quick drying garments like the bikini and the one- piece. In 1968, the medal-winning French Olympic ski team became the first high-profile athletics to wear ski suits made from Lycra, a trend that soon spread to other sports. By 1972, Olympic swimmers swore by the sleek, lightweight suits contoured with Lycra. The fibre soon became an integral part of performance wear for millions of amateur and professional athletes. In short the concepts of cover and support, provided by underwear such as the corset and now the bra, were adapted to a broad range of fields including outer fashion and sports.

In the 1970s, Lycra fabric started to make an impact on the fashion scene as disco fever and interest in fitness, made leggings and figure hugging leotards the look of the moment. Stretch jeans with Lycra and the T-shirt bra gained popularity and defined this decade.

By the 1980s, Lycra began its move into mainstream fashion. People enrolled in yoga, squash, tennis, jogging, health clubs and aerobic workout classes. Lycra replaced the stretch knit track suit of the 1950s. By the mid 1980s, over half of all women’s hosiery and underwear relied on Lycra for a close comfortable fit.

During the 1990s the position of Lycra in the sports market strengthened through the development of high-tech products such as Lycra power compression shorts which help reduce athlete muscle fatigue.

Lycra continues to be at the cutting edge of sports and fashion technology.

Sportwear bodysuits for specialist sports, including the full bodysuit for swimmers, e.g. the Fastskin developed by Speedo featured at Commonwealth and Olympic games. Constructed from a warp knit fabric made from nylon and elastaine coated with Teflon and tailored to the contours of the athlete’s body, the swimsuit is designed to reduce drag and energy dissipation. The main benefit being athletic performance.

Lycra-based surgical stockings for post-operative management reduces complications and improves patient recovery. Constructed from nylon or cotton with an elastaine core from a circular knit fabric, the advantages include a reduction in the time taken to convalesce and decrease in medical costs.

Demand for Lycra from the clothing industry continues to grow as many strive to make garments with flexibility and high performance values needed to match the lifestyle of the 21st century consumer. A Lycra component, as little as 2 to 5 % can enhance garment shape, improve handle, reduce creases and makes care easier.

People today expect more from their clothes than style alone. Market research highlights that comfort, durability, permeability and lightness are extremely important to consumers and Lycra delivers this performance criteria.

Activity 3

1. Outline in your own words, your understanding of how Lycra has influenced textiles and textile usage in the wider society.



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