See the vintage ‘bullet bra’ look that was big in the ’50s

Vintage bras - Retro fashions

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Abreast of trends, and history, too (1988)

Excerpted from a column by Robin Abcarian Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) May 26, 1988

Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a unique talent: the “ability to date art within one year of its origins by the relationship of the breast to the body.”

“In a nutshell,” explained Maeder, “in 1798, the bosoms were under the chin. In 1803, they were in front of the shoulders. In 1903, they hung over your belt and were called the ‘monobosom,’ and in the ’20s, you weren’t permitted to have them at all!

Silent movie actress Miss DuPont from the 1920s

“The history of Western fashion is the rearrangement of that part of the female anatomy, which nature, unfortunately, has never been able to put in the place required by the mode.”

“In the ’30s, everyone thought they’d gone so far in the ’20s that the next step was total nudity,” he said. “In fact, that’s what was achieved!”

I said I hadn’t ever heard about that. “Well, bias-cut fabric is like total nudity, because women in those gowns couldn’t wear underwear — it would cause a line,” said Maeder.

Unless you were an adolescent then, the ’40s were a boring time for breasts, but, ahhhh, the ’50s, were much better. “It was the antithesis of the ’20s,” said Maeder.

“Everything was lifted and separated. We’d achieved the atomic bomb, better living through chemistry, and all this naive optimism produces very flamboyant dress, and nothing could be more flamboyant than the ’50s breast. In bullet bras, they were lethal weapons.”

Bullet bra style

Busting through TV’s bra barrier — and the underwear-related words that were too improper for television

By Bob Bernstein – Billboard (Sep 29, 1956)

The heavy saturation campaign of International Latex is the strongest entry to date of brassiere and girdle advertisers into television. But it doesn’t mean that stations, networks and citizen groups feel any more comfortable about putting such products on the home screen.

Previous excursions by Exquisite Form, Sarong, Flexes, Maidenform, Playtex, Question Mark and other brands proved short and unsatisfactory. The breaking of the bra barrier in the fall of 1950 brought many companies into TV, but lose ratings and continued head-shaking hurried them out.

1955 Maidenform bras

The new International Latex schedule, launched August 1, calls for 70 spot commercials a week, 52 weeks a year for five years, in each of the nation’s 100 major market areas. The company expects to triple its business within two years through these spot films, which have been created with both eyes on the taboo lists.

Topper method

Playtex bras and girdles, leading items for International Latex, are now displayed via a technique created by Don McClure, the firm’s director of film. McClure has dubbed it the “Topper” method, because it utilizes the vanish-reappear technique made famous by the “Topper” films.

They used to call it ectoplasm. McClure avoids the danger zone of showing real live females wearing lingeries before your very eyes. He does this by filming his girls fully dressed and then causing them to fade away while their undies remain floating through the scenery.

Pointy vintage bras

Of the three existing ways to accomplish this, rotoscope, rear projection and lens cutouts, he chose the second as being most original and least costly.

Despite the fact that protests have been negligible, International Latex doesn’t feel that the breach between stations and sponsors has decreased in the torso field.

An executive of another bra-and-girdle company that tried TV briefly sums it up this way: “The networks underestimate the age level of the home viewers. Only after women’s products considered even more shocking arrive in force on TV will bras be accepted as decent enough for Mom and Dad to look at together.”

Until September, 1954, brassieres were considered too intimate to be advertised on network radio or TV in Class A time. ABC-TV did carry such commercials twice before, for Exquisite Form in 1930 late at night and for Maidenform in 1951, Saturdays at noon.

Both campaigns were on sharply limited networks and had numerous rejections from individual stations, in spite of agency efforts to woo them with personal visits in 42 states.

Maidenform bras from 1962

And the commercials, which were live, covered the models with so many veils and layers of netting that the product could hardly be seen.

Exquisite Form was discouraged by network restrictions, which prevented the girls from moving even one inch to demonstrate the virtues of the product, and by thousands of angry letters labeling a girl in a sweater as indecent. Its sponsorship of “The Robbins Nest” halted after 13 weeks.

Firm depressed

Maidenform was equally depressed. Its one-minute dream sequences on “The Faith Baldwin Theater of Romance” were eventually okayed by 51 stations, but the sales department found that women didn’t want to buy bras worn by frozen statues.

Women: Do you have the ideal figure? Here's what 'they' thought in 1950

Pointy vintage bras from 1954

Sarong tied in with Gimbel’s department store, New York, in 1954 for a brief series if TV spots using an early form of the ectoplasm technique.

“We’ll be back in TV when the networks relax their hidebound rules,” says Bob Hall, vice-president in charge of advertising for Sarong, Inc. Each station, network, religious group, fraternal organization and viewer has a special set of do’s and don’ts, making bra-and-girdle storyboards among the most difficult compositions of any creative field.

Continuity departments of the networks now favor a case-by-case coverage of all commercials, hot the detailed lists of taboos still exist.

Vintage Bullet Bra fashion

Word taboos

The number of words whose use is forbidden, for example, has increased rather than diminished.

Among them are pants, bust, chest, lift, uplift. cup, flat, round, separated, padded, firm concave, con-vex, pelvic, hippy, ride up, plunge down, spread and cling to as well as more obvious ones. This makes it pretty difficult for a sponsor to get his message across.

1963 Fashion - pointy bras

Some companies keep coming back for more, however. Exquisite Form retreated to magazines after “The Robbins Nest,” but returned to TV late in 1954 on “Stop the Music,” using three ballerinas and an animated sprite at a cost of $25,000 per two minutes of commercial.

After a heroic 39-week stint, Exquisite Form again retired to the printed word, which draws no letters of complaint. Now, after some tests in Washington, it is back on ABC-TV’s “Afternoon Film Festival” for 13 weeks with Janet Tyler (now ABC weather girl) and a dummy. The dummy wears the bras.

Spring fever - Vintage bra ad


The two solutions of Playtex and Exquisite Form, today’s only two national TV advertisers in the lingerie industry, represent thousands of hours of trial and error approaches to the problem of over-coming TV’s diffidence, which takes the word “unmentionables” be just a supplementary means of communications.

As for station managers, as one undies king put it, “They are poor little sheep who have lost their way, bra, bra, bra… ”

Vintage Perma-Lift Brassieres

Vintage Perma-Lift Bras

Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield in pointy vintage bras

Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield in pointy vintage bras

Marilyn Monroe's first husband, who she married at age 16, fondly remembers their four years of marriage (1976)

More pointy vintage bras & bullet bras from around the ’50s

Vintage bras from the '50s

Perma-Lift bras: “The lift that never lets you down”

Perma-Lift bras: The lift that never lets you down

Party secrets: Fashionable bra from the ’50s

Vintage bras from the 50s (2)

“I dreamed I opened the World Series in my Maidenform bra” (1952)

1952 maidenform baseball

Model Diana Dors in vintage sweater bra

Diana Dors in vintage sweater bra

Lilyette Reflexion bra from 1950

Woman in bra and satiny dress

10 stunning vintage evening dresses worthy of the red carpet: Eye-catching form-fitting bodycon styles from the 1950s & 1960s

1958 Maidenform bra

Yours, for rounded beauty in Lobable’s Ringlet bra

See how Ringlet lifts, rounds, firms the bustline — thanks to the thousands of tiny stitches that spiral ’round the cups. 

Vintage Ringlet bras from 1951

Driving them wild in a Maidenform bra

1961 - Pointy Maidenform bra

With this sweater bra on, men have to wait in line to get her phone number


Dreamed she was a heavenly body (1950s)

1950s bras and underwear fashion

Actress Ann-Margret in a sweater bra

Ann Margret in bullet bra

The Twist dance fad: Almost everyone was doing it, from Chubby Checker to Ann-Margret - but some wanted it banned


Vintage Chansonette bra

Maidenform pointy bra

Strapless bra has wire over bosom (1946)

Alene, largest wired-bra manufacturer, makes three shapes: sweater, cup-shaped and accentuated, or Ubangi.

Early strapless bras from 1946

Strapless wired sports bra, ’40s-style

“Even in action, the bra defies force of gravity.”

1946 Wired bras

Social butterfly – Vintage Maidenform bras (1950s)

Social butterfly - Vintage Maidenform bras

Masquerade: vintage bras

Vintage fashionable bras from the 1950s - Maidenform

Concertina bra with “Action frame” cups (1964)

1964 - Maidenform bras - fashion

'60s lingerie, pantyhose, girdles, garters & more from the 1968 Wards catalog

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. It seemed to me none of the bras pictured were bigger than a B cup.
    There might have been a 34 C somewhere in the lot. Perhaps they wanted to keep the photos moderate so the censors would stay off their backs?

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