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.