Friday, March 30, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #136: The History of Bras, Part 3

Last week, we left off in the 1960s, which I thought was a good place to disembark the bra train, because the history of the bra takes a new turn at this point.

For the first half of the decade, bullet bras remained very much in vogue; according to some, their shape made them comfortable for all-day wear, although others argue that the bullet bra’s popularity stemmed from its ability to increase the size of a woman’s bust by a full cup size. If you have worn a bullet bra, let us know in the comments how comfortable it is.

Changing social mores in the 1960s saw mastectomy and maternity bras get more popular, as society began to consider that having a baby or a disfiguring, potentially fatal disease (one and the same, if you ask me) was not a cause for deep and abiding shame, but rather perhaps a more superficial and transient shame. Girdles went out of fashion, much to the apparent chagrin of my aunt, the nun, who would, when I grew breasts of my very own, go off on a tirade about how, if you didn’t wear a girdle to middle school in the 1950s, you were a hussy. I tried to explain that it wasn't the 50s anymore and that I couldn't wear a girdle under my flannel shirt and baggy jeans any more than Kurt Cobain could, but there's no getting through to Auntie Nun when she's got her mind made up. In any case, Kurt Cobain probably would have worn a girdle under his jeans if he'd thought of it, and I just googled "did Kurt Cobain wear a girdle" so now I'm probably on some kind of list. I hope you guys appreciate the things I do for you.

But I digress. Multiple phenomena in politics and fashion coincided to change the bra. First, the birth of the first-wave feminist movement, if you can call it that, called the bra into question as an object of patriarchal oppression. On September 7, 1968, outside the Atlantic City Convention Hall, 400 women protesting that year’s Miss America pageant staged a symbolic act that would forever after be known as the impetus for the bra-burning movement, although the women also burned girdles (fair), corsets (also fair), high-heeled shoes (still pretty fair), false eyelashes, curlers, makeup, hairspray, and other symbols of appearance policing, including Playboy and Vanity Fair magazines (definitely fair). At least one other public bra-burning event took place, on June 2, 1970, in Berkeley, California, where a single bra, a copy of Redbook, a package of birth control pills, and a pair of nylon stockings, among other items, were symbolically burned. If you’re inclined to question why feminists chose to burn a package of birth control pills, it’s because those early pills weren’t as safe as the pills we have today (which still occasionally kill people).

Turns out 10 mg of hormones is kind of a lot. ~ Image by user Tirante on Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t just the feminist movement that changed the way women support their breasts – fittingly, haute couture had a say as well. Fashion designer Rudy Gernreich, of topless swimsuit fame, followed up on this questionable success with the No Bra, a wire-free, seamless, and sheer bra for A and B cups, because who was he kidding? No one, that’s who. This design, perhaps more so than the topless swimsuit, is credited with introducing the era of natural shapes and comfortable fabrics, a development that came not a moment too late. Further designs from Gernreich included the backless bra, because we weren’t quite at the point where you would just wantonly go around braless in a backless dress, and the All-in-None, a bafflingly-named bra that allowed the wearer to don a (probably scandalously) low-cut top. That same year, 1964, saw the invention of the Wonderbra, which traded in lift-and-separate for lift-and-push together.

Through the next several decades, bra manufacturers would increasingly focus less on function, and more on form, as bras became less a foundational or protective garment and more a fashion statement. This development would lead at least one op-ed writer to blame the prevalence of unsupportive, itchy, and uncomfortable bras for the increasing popularity of breast implants, which, she claimed, women were getting because their bras weren’t offering them enough support anymore. If you have breast implants, let us know in the comments whether you do or do not need a more supportive bra as a result.

The next great innovation in over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders (ha ha, I can’t believe I haven’t been calling them that this whole time) came with the invention of the sports bra. The first sports bra was invented by costume designers at the University of Vermont’s Royall Tyler Theater, but the item was not widely marketed until the 1990s, with the introduction of the JogBra. Sports bras were bra of choice as an adolescent, because my mother insisted on sizing my bras by stretching the cups over my breasts right out on the middle of the sales floor. It was over my shirt, but still. This kind of thing is why I needed so much therapy.

Today, I wear real bras, because my breasts are so big that I can’t find sports bras to fit them – I just have to buy XXL and hope for the best. Oh, sure, I could probably find a sports bra that fit if I was willing to spend more than I spent on my entire professional wardrobe at Goodwill, but no one will give me a job because I bought my professional wardrobe at Goodwill, but also most likely because I blog about my boobs. Bras have grown from two handkerchiefs sewn together in a teenager’s bedroom to a $15 billion industry in the U.S., and as the average woman (and her breasts) gets larger, so too are the bras. The average American cup size has ballooned (teehee) from a 34B to a 34DD in the past 20 years, a phenomena that writers blame on the obesity epidemic, despite the fact that 34 is still not a very big band size.  

Probably all those breast implants.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #135: The History of Bras, Part 2

So, here we are with Part 2 of the history of bras. I have to apologize because, yet again, it’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged. I have a good reason for not having blogged the Friday before last. I was traveling all day, as I had been in Seattle visiting a sick friend, and when I finally got back to the Pittsburgh International Airport, it was to discover that I’d left a light on in my car and drained the battery. It was completely dead. I couldn’t even use the fob to unlock the door. When I got off the shuttle, I did what I always do when I’ve lost my car in a large parking lot – I pressed the panic button, because everything knows the word PANIC in this context means, “Help, I’ve lost my car!” But the panic alarm didn’t go off, and that’s when I panicked. It was colder than a cast-iron commode on the far side of an iceberg, and I had lost one of my gloves in Seattle (I would later find it in the bottom of my bag, only to discover that I had lost the other, previously-unlost glove, somewhere in transit), and I was alone at night in a massive parking lot, walking back and forth with my big wheely duffel bag, and muttering, “I know I left it here somewhere, I clearly remember parking it in this section,” but for once in my life I hadn’t taken a picture of the sign, so I couldn’t be certain. I did eventually find my cold, dark, lifeless car, which I recognized by the alligator foot I have hanging from my rearview mirror, to protect me from voodoo curses. Thankfully I was able to huddle in it for the two hours it took for AAA to arrive, at which point the tow driver informed me that I could have called airport customer service and gotten a jump right away. I guess I’ll know that for the next time I leave a dome light on in my car while it’s parked at the airport for two weeks.

As for last Friday, I don’t have an excuse. I just forgot. Sorry.

But, I digress. After centuries of corsets, halter tops, cloth bands, and, um, nothing, women finally started getting modern bras in the 20th century. While Mary Phelps Jacob is credited with inventing the first bra by sewing two handkerchiefs together with some ribbon and string in 1910, the first mass-produced bra was developed in Germany in 1912. Many things perished in the Great War, and the corset was one of them. By the end of the war, women throughout Europe were wearing bras, and I recall reading somewhere that the food shortages caused by the war contributed to the flapper fashions of the Roaring Twenties by starving most women half to death. But that’s neither here nor there. When the U.S. got involved in the war in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked American women, too, to stop buying corsets, which is said to have freed up enough metal to build two battleships.
While some credit the war with the bra’s boom in popularity, others point out that corsets were already getting shorter by the time the war started, and shorter corsets provided less support to the bust. Early bras were of the bandeau style, which flattens the breasts and pushes them down, leading to the flapper styles of 1920s. If you were a small-chested woman in the Flapper era, you might wear a bandeau bra, a camisole, or no bra at all under your step-in, a short, slip-like undergarment that buttoned between the legs. But, if you were a curvy girl, you’d strap those puppies down with a Symington side lacer, a minimizer bra with laces down the sides that allowed busty women to literally calm their tits.

This early minimizer bra had laces in the front, back, and sides. I think. I'm not so great at interpreting patent diagrams.

But it didn’t take long for innovators to lift and separate the competition. In 1922, Russian immigrants Ida and William Rosenthal founded Maiden Form, a company built on the radical idea that women should appear to have breasts. Women liked the idea, and throughout the 1930s, multiple companies started producing bras, including nursing bras, full-figured bras, and “uplift” bras. Innovations of this decade included adjustable bands with multiple sets of hooks and eyes, and the introduction of cup sizes, adjustable shoulder sizes, padded bras for smaller-chested women, and the use of elastic.

Porn was really boring back then.

The 1940s saw women enlisting in the military for the first time, and donning uniform bras. Female factory workers had the indubitable privilege of wearing the SAF-T-BRA, which is a hard hat for your tits. I’m serious, it was a plastic bra, because back then, people thought of bras and girdles as protective gear, and factory dress codes required women to wear bras for the sake of “good taste, anatomical support, and morale,” because nothing discourages a production line like nip slip.

A female factory worker displays her SAF-T-BRA for posterity.

It was at this time that bras because weaponized, or at least their names did – the torpedo bra and bullet bra offered the eras Sweater Girls “maximum projection” and pointyness. 
The cantilever bra, as worn by Jane Russell in The Outlaw, employed underwire technology for the first time. By the 1950s, women were routinely wearing cone-shaped bullet bras, and by the 1960s, marketing campaigns tried to convince women to wear their bras 24 hours a day. Try wearing a bullet bra to bed tonight, and let us know if you stab your bed partner to death in your sleep.