A political history of the bra
“Wear a bra. Don’t smoke.”
Tina Fey (1970-), Actor, Comedian, Writer, Producer, and Playwright: advice to the graduating class of 2006, New Caanan Country School, Connecticut.
“I have more faith in my bra than I have in my accountant.”
Laurie Notaro, Writer (1960-)
When it comes to women and what they should do with their breasts, it seems everyone has an opinion. Every week brings some new mammary-inspired media controversy: from paparazzi photos of suspected boob jobs in glossy magazines, to internet gossip about who’s showing too much or (not quite as frequently) too little, to complaints about breastfeeding in public, women’s breasts seem to get an awful lot of coverage. And throughout much of human history it’s most likely always to have been the same—public attitudes have run deep and sometimes wild.
The question of whether and just how women’s breasts should be covered is a surprisingly contentious one. Why so? After all, aren’t breasts just another part of the human body? And surely the garments constructed for cover and support are no more subject to the whims of fashion, and changes in technology, than other garments that clothe the human body? While it might seem as if the bra is nothing more than a physical necessity, designed to allow modern women to get on with busy and active lives, in actuality the history of the bra, along with its predecessors, is closely tied to the political, social and cultural history of women’s breasts, and of women themselves. It’s an up and down history—and one that’s not always uplifting.
It’s odd to think that a part of the body can have a ‘history’. It’s not as though breasts themselves have changed radically over the millennia. But if we track the way that women’s breasts have been perceived through the ages, the degree of regard in which they’re held, as well as their relative freedom (or oppression), is often connected to women’s wider social status. It’s all highly dependent on contemporaneous religious, social and political agendas.
If we go right back to the first known representations of recognizably female figures, Neolithic cave paintings and Venus figurines, highly stylized forms of women can be distinguished from their male counterparts by the representation of breasts and hips. Not only do these antediluvian depictions of women’s busts appear to be free of any form of covering, let alone corset, it’s surmised by some anthropologists that during this era women and men were relatively equal, sharing roles such as hunting and gathering, preparing and cooking and child rearing. (Allow me to be personally skeptical that pre-historic men were into gender-equity and shared responsibilities). On some interpretations the women’s breasts in these images don’t have any particular significance other than they are generously represented. They aren’t emphasized or covered in any other way, and may simply signify an exaggerated portrayal of the more convex female form as distinguished from the straighter, more up and down male figure.
Move on a few thousand years to the ancient world and women’s breasts—and women themselves—are in a markedly different situation. Breasts aren’t always covered, but they’re beginning to be subject to both fashion and functionality.
In Minoan culture (modern day Crete in the eastern Mediterranean) dating from 800BC-500BC women applied a woolen or linen band wrapped around the chest area (the apodesmos). Centuries later Roman women followed suit with the strophium. In Roman society, large breasts were considered unattractive, and even comical, and young women bound their breasts to prevent the development of large and sagging bosoms. Ancient Egyptian women’s breasts were often unsupported, whether covered by tunics or on display, while traditional Greek and Chinese cultures also had apparel that covered and supported women’s breasts. Some garments were for support (Greek athletes wore a top surprisingly similar to a modern sports bra) while others restrained, or provided uplift and emphasis.
That said, in cultures where women wielded more power, or were judged to have greater value, breasts were treated differently. Legend has it that Amazon warriors lopped off one breast to make it easier to wield a bow, while depictions of the multi-breasted Goddess Artemis of Ephesus celebrated the inherent power of women’s nurturing capacity.
During the Middle Ages, the covering of breasts was required by the modesty demanded of Judeo-Christian cultures. Necklines were worn high, smallish breasts were fashionable, and female dress was generally functional rather than decorative. Breasts were neither emphasized nor restricted by any undergarment, although when dresses became more figure-hugging, a simple tie beneath a bodice provided some support and definition. In art, the physical function of the breast—a sacred function, and divinely ordained—was frequently emphasized in religious paintings of the adoring Mary suckling the infant Jesus.
During the relative loosening of the church’s stranglehold through the Renaissance, the decorative and erotic aspects of the female breast gained currency. While poets and artists rhapsodized over the “crown jewels of femininity”, displays of décolletage became fashionable. Simple corsets made from stiffened linen were required to compress and push breasts up. The sexualization of the breast meant that paintings of the virgin no longer depicted Mary nursing the baby Jesus, and breast feeding itself became demode amongst the wealthy—who, fearing the figure-altering effects of nursing (and perhaps made uncomfortable by the sexual connotations of a child’s exposure to a mother’s breast) sent their children to peasant wet nurses in their infancy and beyond. (This was a practice that continued well into the early nineteenth century).
France, ever the fashion trend-setter, saw the emergence of the corset from the 1500s, at least amongst the aristocracy and the French court. The idea caught on in Elizabethan England, with the front of the bodice in polite society held firm with whalebone.
After the French Revolution, women’s breasts enjoyed a short period of Liberté. Necklines were reasonably modest, and undergarments, which included loose stays, petticoats and chemises, were worn to disguise rather than shape, and breasts were allowed to sit naturally beneath high-waisted gowns, with only a seam or a tie beneath the bust.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the battle over breasts had begun in earnest. Respectable women’s figures, including their busts, were as tightly controlled as was their morality. Adult women were expected to be covered from mid-neck down to the ankle, regardless of climate, and middle and upper-class women were also expected to keep their figures tightly corseted: their waists cinched to an eighteen inch ideal, and busts compressed into a smooth monobosom. Despite this attempt to cloak and suppress any physical expression of female sexuality, or perhaps as a reaction to it, the fight to expand women’s social and political rights was well under way. At least in the West, women were slowly becoming more prominent in the public sphere. By century’s end, women were studying at university and receiving professional training as doctors and lawyers, and had been granted (by men responding to women’s agitation, of course) voting rights in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho as well as New Zealand and Australia
Many suffragists were also supporters of female dress reform, advocating women’s emancipation from the physical restrictions and sometimes downright dangerous impositions of high Victorian fashion. The tight-lacing required to create a fashionable hour-glass figure is reported to have not infrequently resulted in female infertility, damage to internal organs, restriction of physical ability, and general malaise. In addition to the health costs, suffragists also considered corsetry to be a vanity, representing a slavish devotion to a highly artificial ideal.
Dress reformers promoted the liberty or emancipation bodice as an alternative to the corset. The bodice, which allowed unrestricted movement and provided minimal shaping or uplift beneath fashionable garments, was more popular with the working classes than the wealthy and fashionable, who continued to tight-lace for decades. By the early years of the twentieth century, however, the restrictive nature of tight-lacing was recognized by many young women who wanted to engage fully with a world that was gradually opening up to them.
While a number of prototypes were designed as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, there is some controversy over the originator of the modern bra. It appears that Vogue magazine in the US was amongst the first to use the term, in 1907. In 1910, Mary Phelps Jacob, a young New York socialite, discovering that her uncomfortable whalebone corset ruined the line of her fashionable diaphanous gown, innovated an early brassiere design, fashioned from two silk handkerchiefs and a length of ribbon. This was remarkably popular amongst Jacob’s friends and family and by 1914 she had patented the first backless brassiere, a lightweight garment that both supported and separated the breasts. The brassiere, or bra as it came to be known, was suitable for wear underneath most clothing, and provided comfortable support for all physical activities, including “violent” sports such as tennis.
Initially only popular amongst the chic young, the bra moved though different manifestations, its shape and function varying depending on current fashion and technology, until it became a standard foundation garment for women young and old. During the twenties a bandeau style bra was popular, helping to create the famously boyish silhouette of the flapper. By the 1930s the modern conception of the bra evolved—with adjustable straps and specific cup sizes, along with padding as needed. The war years led to military-influenced designs: firm, upright, with bras shaped and named after bullets and torpedoes into the 1950s, and underwiring was invented. Marketers, crass then as today, variously advertised that bras were for “maximum protection” or “maximum projection.”
By the 1960s when women were again agitating en masse for equal rights, the intrigue-inducing capacity of the bra had overtaken its war-time functional properties. Women’s breasts—their size, contours and position—were once again to be re-shaped by fashion and politics.
When that second wave feminism hit during the 1960s, the restrictive nature of female underwear came squarely onto the agenda. In September 1968, a group of female protestors, hoping to raise other women’s consciousness about the oppressive and limiting nature of beauty competitions, picketed the Miss Universe pageant in Atlantic City, USA. The women, brandishing a sheet with “women’s liberation” emblazoned on it, removed their bras, girdles and heels, and threw them, along with other “instruments of female torture” such as make-up, magazines, mops, pots and pans, into a giant freedom trash can. While they didn’t actually set fire to anything, the legend of bra-burning was born.
Bra-lessness became a symbol not only of women’s liberation, but the sexual revolution that followed, and during the seventies and into the early eighties, a natural looking bust was again de rigueur, particularly amongst young women. At the same time, with the introduction of a scientifically-constituted baby formula, breastfeeding—a duty some regarded as oppressive—became for many Western mothers a thing of the past. For the first time ever, women were able to make their decisions about their breasts’ function, as well as their appearance.
While women have access to every imaginable type of support, from bras for jogging and yoga, to bras shaped specifically for t-shirts, bras that augment, and bras that reduce, women are also increasingly willing to undergo invasive cosmetic surgery to reduce or augment their breasts. On the other side of the coin, at a time when the health benefits of breastfeeding are widely known and advocated, barely a week goes by without another story about a nursing mother being harassed for baring her breasts in public.
As in so many aspects of contemporary culture, the bra’s significance is highly variable, echoing the contradictory roles that women are expected to play: is the bra a sexual object, fashion statement, emblem of empowerment, weapon, sign of riches, symbol of nurturing capacity, or merely the most practical way yet discovered of creating a feeling of freedom? It seems we’re all still rather confused as to what breasts represent, and no wonder, when we’re still arguing about how women themselves should be regarded. You don’t have to be a woman to be outraged at the absurdity of the arguments about women in the twenty-first century: it’s unbelievably crass and insulting to postulate dichotomies, as some still do, such as Madonnas or whores? Moms or Lawyers, Doctors or Engineers? Breeders or ornamental objects?
Or how about fully functioning citizens of the world, equal but different to men? That’s what most thinking people want, or should want, but frustratingly, returning full circle, prehistoric thinking still seems all-too-often to raise its ugly head. It seems that in the political, energy-sapping and never-ending battle for a fair society, the breast—and the bra—even today, remain on active frontline duty.
Author Unknown (2014). The history of the bra. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/06/the-history-of-the-bra_n_5701368.html
Garber, Megan (2014). The first bra was made from handkerchiefs. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/the-first-bra-was-made-of-handkerchiefs/382283/
Greenfieldboyce, Nell (2008). Pageant protest sparked bra-burning myth. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94240375
Taylor, Tim (2012). Female breasts. InnerBody. http://www.innerbody.com/image/repo03.html