Breast cancer is now globally the most frequent cancer and leading cause of women’s death. Two thirds of breast cancers express the luminal estrogen receptor-positive (ERα + ) phenotype that is initially responsive to antihormonal therapies, but drug resistance emerges. A major barrier to the understanding of the ERα-pathway biology and therapeutic discoveries is the restricted repertoire of luminal ERα + breast cancer models. The ERα + phenotype is not stable in cultured cells for reasons not fully understood. We examine 400 patient-derived breast epithelial and breast cancer explant cultures (PDECs) grown in various three-dimensional matrix scaffolds, finding that ERα is primarily regulated by the matrix stiffness. Matrix stiffness upregulates the ERα signaling via stress-mediated p38 activation and H3K27me3-mediated epigenetic regulation. The finding that the matrix stiffness is a central cue to the ERα phenotype reveals a mechanobiological component in breast tissue hormonal signaling and enables the development of novel therapeutic interventions. Subject terms: ER-positive (ER + ), breast cancer, ex vivo model, preclinical model, PDEC, stiffness, p38 SAPK.