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Here’s Why Dust Masks and Bra Cups Look So Much Alike

3M’s face masks may have originally been conceived as bra cups.

A woman wears a disposable dust mask.
There’s a weird link between disposable dust masks and bra cups.
Photo: Getty Images/fStop

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Kids really do say the darndest things, and one man’s tweet about his daughter’s observation has gone viral.

Apparently, the 4-year-old insisted that the “cup thingie with straps” in her dad’s car was a bra. In fact, it was a dust mask.

Incredibly, the little girl may be on to something — no, not that her dad has random women’s bras lying around, but that undergarments and face masks are oddly linked.

According to a 2009 Chemical and Engineering News article “Lingerie Legends, Lost in Translation,” the manufacturer 3M in the 1960s intended for those now-ubiquitous dust masks to be brassiere cups: “Then for some reason — some cite a more accessible market while others point to the decade’s trend for bra burning — the molded cups were reborn as facemasks with little need to alter the product’s design.”

Ernest Gundling’s book The 3M Way to Innovation: Balancing People & Profit, published in 2000, mentioned a lingerie-face mask link. So did 3M’s 1962 patent for heat-molding polyester fibers into three-dimensional forms.

“US Patent No. 3,064,329, outlines a brassiere as the principal product for the process, complete with a drawing,” according to Chemical and Engineering News. “The patent makes mention of other possible molded garments, including shoulder pads, slippers, and a surgical facemask.”

While the patent suggests a connection between face masks and lingerie, 3M’s official company history apparently does not name lingerie as the source behind its respirator device. And 3M employees haven’t been able to unearth any papers in the company’s archives about a brassiere-production project. So it’s unclear exactly what the original concept was for its face mask.

The same can’t be said for the RAD Emergency Bra invented by scientist Dr. Elena Bodnar, head of Chicago’s Trauma Risk Management Research Institute. Originally from the Ukraine, Bodnar helped evacuate and treat children from Chernobyl, the site of the devastating 1986 nuclear accident. She credits that experience with inspiring her to invent the Emergency Bra, for which she won the Ig Nobel Prize in Public Health in 2009. Bodnar’s creation leaves no doubt about the overlap between face masks and brassieres.

The RAD Emergency Bra
The RAD Emergency Bra, invented by Dr. Elena Bodnar, doubles as a protective face mask.

Called the EBbra for short, the garment can be worn like any other bra, but the two cups are detachable and the body of the bra includes a radiation sensor.

“In case of emergency, it can be quickly and easily converted into two face masks without removing any clothes,” the EBbra website states. “In case of emergency, where no specialized respiratory devices are available, it can decrease the inhalation of harmful airborne particles. Because the Emergency Bra masks can be securely fixed to the head, it frees a survivor’s hands to keep balance while running and removing objects on the way out of danger.”

The garment may also lessen the chance that someone will have a bout of panic and can be used during a chemical attack or air contamination outbreak. Bodnar figured a bra-mask combo would be more convenient than constantly carrying a face mask everywhere. Her award-winning invention is available to the public for a quite reasonable $49.99. It takes just seconds to put into use.

“Ladies and gentlemen isn’t it wonderful that women have two breasts, not just one,” Bodnar joked during her Ig Nobel acceptance speech. “We can save not only our own life but also the life of a man of our choice next to us.”

Her invention and the origin stories about 3M’s disposable dust masks show there’s probably more to face masks — and bras — than most members of the public have realized. And the fact that a 4-year-old effortlessly observed the similarity between the items could mean she’s well-poised for a career in STEM.