August 2007: I love the feel of a sexy, lace bra against my skin. I think it is one of the greatest pick-me-ups in the world—and so do most men!
Though the humble brassiere has been around—in various and not-so-evolved forms—for some centuries now, it was in 1907 that it was first mentioned in the media, in the American edition of Vogue. So this year is the bra’s official 100th birthday. And all of us ladies have much to be thankful for—or not, actually, depending on the way you look at it!
Clothing is often laden with political and cultural overtones. In fact, it can be said that the changes in social perspectives on women, the female body and the feminine are reflected in, and indicated by fashion for the female body in general, and breasts in particular.
The precursor to the bra, the corset has been traced back to about 2000 BC. Recorded history indicates that the corset of those times was used to lift and expose breasts. As the Greek and Roman civilisations grew more male-dominated, breasts were flattened and large breasts were ‘constricted’. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, fashion in France had women in corsets that deemphasised breasts. In the 16th century, the breast was acceptable again and corsets made of whalebone and steel created cleavage while reducing the waist-size to less than 10”, expectedly causing many health problems. It was only in the late 19th century that traditional views of the ‘ideal’ woman began to be challenged and questions were raised about the unhealthy undergarments women were expected to wear.
Designs that resembled the modern-day bra began to appear in the 1850s. Marie Tucek patented the Breast Supporter in 1893 and socialite Mary Phelps Jacob patented her Backless Brassiere design in 1914. With World War 1 forcing women into the workforce, the corset, that was time-consuming and uncomfortable to wear, lost popularity and the bra began to gain widespread use in the 1920s. In 1928, Ida Rosenthal created cup size categories though it was in 1935 that bra manufacturer Warner came up with the cup sizing system—A to D—which continues to be in use today.
Since then, many social, fashion and economic reasons and manufacturing processes have revolutionised the bra and the way it is worn.
In the 1950s, (fashion) necessity became the mother of the invention of the strapless bra. It is safe to say that the invention of Lycra in 1959 has been a defining moment in the history of the bra. As was the entry of the legendary Wonderbra in 1964. Those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Wonderbra can do, let me tell you this: it does a lot! Sangeeta, mosquito-bites-where-breasts-should-be, actually has people complimenting her ‘well-fitting clothes’ when she wears hers (reserved for special occasions, considering the Wonderbra’s price and lack of availability in India). She once remarked that the Wonderbra was uncomfortable. When I asked her why she continued to wear it then, she said, "Who cares about that! It makes me feel like the sexiest thing alive!"
It was in 1968 that the notorious ‘bra-burning’ incident occurred (or didn’t—the jury’s still out on that), though what is clear is that it didn’t happen quite the way it’s gone down in popular imagination. A group of women protesting the Miss America pageant threw ‘feminine’ items, which they felt hindered the liberation of women—including bras—into a rubbish bin, called Freedom Trash Can. Some say they set it alight, others say the media ‘misreported or invented’ the burning of the can and bras. Yet the bra is still here. And we’re as liberated as we’ve ever been.
The bra came out of the closet, as it were, during Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour in 1990. The Queen of Pop’s pointy golden bra is etched in public memory. "She looked beautiful," says Aman, "glorious and Princess Leia-eque, but not!"
Today, the bra is hard to ignore. From the Wonderbra to the minimiser; underwired and padded; the sports bra to the nursing bra; backless, strapless, seamless… now, there seems to be a bra for every shape, size, form, utility and sag of that beautiful piece of creation, the female breast. There are numerous books about the bra—Bras by Rosemary Hawthorne, Hoorah for the Bra by Cheree Berry and others, an interesting site called aroundtheworldwithonebra.com, and bra ads that are now in a league of their own. From the outright sexy (Eva Herzigova addressing her Wonderbra-clad breasts with a "Hello Boys") to the demure (Enamour: ‘No bra fits as beautifully’), they run the whole range.
Of late, many have begun to question the medical and practical need for the bra. Some believe that bras cause health problems that include backaches, shoulder aches, headaches, impairment of respiration and increased sagging due to decreased efficiency of the chest muscles. Socially too, aside from the feminist movement, many women are questioning the traditional values that propagate the use of bras.
Much has been said about the feminists’ take on bras. In the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement denounced the bra as a symbol of servitude and some radical feminists saw it as a tool to make what is naturally feminine conform to male desire and aesthetics. Radical feminist and writer Germaine Greer sees the bra as "oppressive". And the image of the ‘bra-burning feminist’ is an urban legend that refuses to die!
I think the decision to wear a bra is a matter of aesthetics and comfort. Mahima hates the bra and goes braless when she’s in the States, where she’s studying. As for me, well, I see nothing wrong with the bra. And I don’t see that as contradictory to my strong, strong feminist leanings. Bralessness, brafreedom or breast freedom (whatever you choose to call it) is not for me. I’m a 36 D. On a practical level, besides dealing with the natural sag of my breasts (that I have come to accept as normal, despite what porn and silicon-enhanced fashion icons will have me believe), bras also give me the freedom to run without a bounce, that often leads to breast pain. (You know what they say—one man’s food, another man’s poison? Some feminists believe a bra is oppressive. I’ve called it freeing!) I love the way a lacy bra makes me feel—and not solely for the benefit of my partner. A peeking bra strap doesn’t embarrass me and I like wearing my bra as an accessory through a sheer top, as and when.
Today, the bra straddles the worlds of functionality and wild fashion. To belong in either category though, it is important that a bra fits well. Here lies the catch. We’ve all seen what a bad bra can do. A badly fitted bra can result in double breasts (those funny, horrible-looking pouches of breast flesh above the bra area and/or under the underarms) and quite a bit of discomfort and pain. Unfortunately, cup sizes and fits vary between manufacturers and designs. And in India, large sizes are so difficult to find! Much like shoes, one has to try bras to get ones that fit just right and provide enough support.
So can someone please share this information—about the fit, fashion and functionality of the bra—with our actresses in Bollywood and Down South! The plain dirty white bra showing through clothes has been a Bollywood staple, while in the South, the double breast created by an ill-fitting bra is considered almost fashionable and alluring!
The bra. At the very least, it is a garment that supports the breasts. On a grander scale though, the bra is loaded with sociocultural significance that outweighs its actual, practical use. Bravo brassiere!
An edited version of this article appeared in Man's World in August 2007.