The science of lingerie: Smarty pants and brave new bras

At the lingerie counter, science wears hot pink and baby blue. It comes in stretch satin, breathable mesh and tiny lace daisies. Making a bra, says one designer, is harder than building a bridge. Lift. Support. Hold. Don’t look now, but there’s a thesis in biomechanics sitting in your underwear drawer.

From knickers made with fabric that absorbs odour, to shapewear that dispenses cellulite smoothing moisturiser and bras with silicon instead of underwire, science is revolutionising our smalls.

The real miracle? That it’s all taken so long. A century after the first bra patent, nearly three-quarters of women who exercise still experience breast pain. A recent survey of 10,000 women determined 64 percent were wearing the wrong bra size ā€“ and 73 percent agreed the fit of their undergarments could make or break their day.

Trade import data from Statistics New Zealand shows that last year, some $54.9 million worth of bras entered the country. Lingerie companies know that making their offering your undie of choice is big business. And they’re turning to science and technology to get the commercial edge.

“Sports apparel companies used to think of the trainer as their only true technical product,” says Professor Joanna Scurr. “Now, sports bras are their lead technical product for women ā€“ and I’m delighted they realise that.”

Scurr works in the breast health research group at the University of Portsmouth, on England’s south coast.

“When we first started research on this area, there were only six published papers on the biomechanics of the breast. Six papers! In 2005!? It’s just unbelievable.”

Today, Portsmouth’s clients include international lingerie giants, and (more on this later) a tiny New Zealand company which makes chest protection gear for female karate fighters ā€“ and has just sold the intellectual property rights to a cantilevered bra its inventors believe could change the underwear industry forever.

Mary Phelps Jacob is credited with making the moneyed world’s first bra, in 1914, from two handkerchiefs and some ribbon. The earliest sports model was created in the 70s from, reportedly, two male jockstraps. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but clearly a pouch designed to hold testicles was never going to be a long-term solution.

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The science of lingerie: Smarty pants and brave new bras |


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