The bra: 100 years old and holding up well

The bra has always had a cultural significance that goes far beyond its purpose as, in the immortal words of Bette Midler, ‘an over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder’


Depending on your perspective, it may be an object of sexual lust or a source of daily irritation; a political weapon or a fashion statement; a symbol of adulthood or a symbol of oppression. You can display it, burn it, or – if you’re a celebrity after column inches – eschew it altogether, in the manner of Miley Cyrus or, at the other end of the modesty spectrum, Kate Middleton on holidays.

Occasionally, of course, a bra is just a bra.

This year, the brassiere celebrates a double whammy: the 120th anniversary of the first documented use of the word in English, and the centenary of the invention of the modern bra. Surprisingly, given our breast-obsessed culture, neither event has generated much fanfare.

The precise date of its birthday is, in common with the contents of many a real woman’s underwear drawer, something of a grey area. A 600-year-old version of a bra was discovered in Austria recently, although the first recorded use of the term in English was in 1893. But it is the garment designed by Mary Phelps Jacob in 1913 that, most people agree, gave birth to the modern bra.

Jacob first came up with the idea in 1910 when she was getting ready to go to a ball and found that her whalebone corset didn’t sit right under her dress. With the help of her servant Marie – whose full name is lamentably absent from the history books – she stitched together two pieces of fabric to create the world’s first elegant monobosom. By 1913, she was putting the finishing touches to her patent application, which was awarded in November 1914.

You can’t stop progress
Since then, though the fundamental design is the same, the bra has been subject to a few innovations – cups, wires, padding, lace, lycra, front-openings, removable straps, pulleys, the little bags of gel universally known as “chicken fillets”. There is even a bra that can be turned into a gas mask.

Jacob just wanted to smooth her bust out under her sheer frock – now, bras are expected to lift, separate, enhance, minimise, render themselves invisible or take centre stage as required, and generally perform feats of engineering that make the Sydney Harbour Bridge look unimpressive.

I came of age in the “Hello Boys” era of the 1990s, when breast engineering was at its height and cleavage was everywhere. If you had it, you were contractually obliged to flaunt it, and if you didn’t, you just faked it with a Wonderbra. Vast, plunging cleavages launched themselves into the public consciousness like uninvited guests at a party – and since then, our cultural mazophilia has shown no sign of abating.

Celebrity support
On the one hand, you have celebrities posting photos of themselves “caught” in just their bras on Instagram, or accidentally-on-purpose flashing too much side cleavage, while on the other you have braless protesters such as Femen storming the stage at Paris Fashion Week to highlight . . . well, no one actually read the captions below the pictures, did they?

The bra has always had a cultural significance that goes far beyond its purpose as, in the immortal words of Bette Midler, “an over-the-shoulder- boulder-holder”.

In wartime Europe, opting to go corset-less and wear a bra was a sign of patriotism. In the 1960s, you went braless as a sign you were rejecting the norms foisted on you by society.

Nowadays, Miley Cyrus eschews her bra, twerks, licks hammers and duly commands the kind of column inches Madonna could only have dreamed of.

But for all its visibility, or absence, our approach to the bra still mirrors our attitude to everything else to do with women’s bodies. The rule that dictates that exposed breasts are socially acceptable so long as they’re for sexual gratification and not for anything “obscene” such as, say, breastfeeding, applies here too.

As symbols of feminine allure, the rule goes, bras are fine. As practical garments designed for comfort and support, they’re icky. If you’re going to have a wardrobe malfunction, you’d better look more like Diane Kruger and less like Judy Finnigan, who (genuinely) accidentally flashed her sensible, midlife ivory lace number at a TV awards show in 2000.

But to most of us who actually wear them, most of the time bras aren’t about sexual allure, making a cultural statement or pursuing screen clicks. They are designed to stop floppy bits flopping about. For the normal woman, her relationship with her bra oscillates in the course of any given day from gratitude to indifference to irritation to the profound, unparalleled relief she feels when she finally gets to take it off.

For that alone, the bra deserves to be celebrated.

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