Posted in Writing Life

*This Is About Bras

Let’s start with the word. It comes from French for “arm protector,” referring to military uniforms that morphed into breast plates. Hence the mighty brassiere that I remember from my childhood: steely, pointy, sometimes lengthy undergarments which extended into a girdle, stuffing everything in and keeping it rigid.

As an aside, the current French term for a bra means throat support (throat being a euphemism for boobs in the land of France, which rhymes with pants, which the ladies spurned, at least according to the wisdom of my childhood peers).

In ancient Egypt, women owned land and their breasts flew free. The history of bras ostensibly begins in ancient Greece, where women’s movements were restrained and, hence, presumably, so were their breasts. Over the centuries, there were cloth binders (with cups in China which has always been more advanced), in the renaissance evolving into corsets made with stiffened linen and iron. This was a time of rebirth for men, but increasing legal restrictions for women. Do I detect a theme here?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century:

The evolution of the bra from the corset was driven by two parallel movements: health professionals’ concerns about the cruelly constraining effects of the corset, and the clothing-reform movement of feminists, who saw that greater participation of women in society would require emancipation from corsetry.

However many people, including doctors, believed that women were naturally fragile, and that pallor and shallow breath were feminine, ignoring the obvious: their chests were squished by corsets.

The bra as we know it today was invented in 1910 by Mary Phelps Jacob (who was also a poet, publisher and peace activist). At the age of 19 she got a new evening gown that was sheer and the whalebones of her corset poked through. So she asked her lady’s maid to sew a couple of silk handkerchiefs together with ribbon and cord. Voila–the bra. Her friends all wanted one. She was in business.

But, dear readers, that lovely soft silken bra of the original has been displaced by straps and hooks and underwire that, in all honesty, I detest.

In the late 1960s, some of the emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism. Feminists charged that these objects, typified as patriarchal, reduced women to the status of sex objects. Some women publicly disavowed bras in an anti-sexist act of female liberation.

When Germaine Greer stated that “Bras are a ludicrous invention,” her statement resonated with many women who had been questioning the role of the bra.

Interesting that this began a time of expansiveness for women in the public sphere and for the freedom of their breasts. You see, I don’t think that bras are about making women into sexual objects. I think it is a symbol of restraint. That, somehow, movable breasts aren’t nice. Being a woman isn’t completely nice. Well, duh.

Here is my complaint. If boobs are heavy enough to swing and sway and flop, then anything that will hold them up and restrain them must press against the skin. That is uncomfortable, my friends. And if boobies are small enough to be flopless and swayless, then why wear a bra at all?

This is why I confess that I never wear one at home or under a coat unless I am going to take off said coat in company, though I admit a bra is useful when running.

However, friends of mine have said that a good bra, one that is properly measured and purchased from a boutique, not Sears, can be so comfortable one forgets it’s on.

Okey dokey. So last week when I left the library, having forgotten it opened late on Thursdays, I meandered down Bloor Street and came to Secrets of Your Sister, just such a store, of which I’d heard many good things.

I went in. I got measured. I last had that experience when I was 15 or 16 and the measurer brought out a bra called “the minimizer” as if my boobies needed extra flattening and restraint. The very idea!

But no such condescension from Secrets of Your Sister. I stood in a curtained sanctuary, with 3 mirrors so that I could see myself front and side. You know, because a single view of my boobs is not enough. Measured, I awaited the bras. Plain and frothy, I tried them on, then donned a tight white tank top provided for me to see the effect. My breasts poked out, they rounded out, they bulged. I studied them shamelessly.

The young woman who brought the bras, dark haired and dark eyed, was efficient, nurse-like in her clinical attitude as she spoke in a rapid-fire patter, pointing out each bra’s features and flaws. Yes, flaws were admitted, at least insofar as the fit, and she recognized when I was about done with trying them on. Consequently, I bought one, a bra that cost over twice as much as I usually spend for one, but was at the low end of the range I tried on.

Indeed it is the most comfortable bra I’ve ever owned.

However, it is not as comfortable as none. It presses against my chest. It leaves marks on the skin. How could it not, holding in and up weight?

And so, after a couple of days of trying it out at home, I’m back to sitting at my computer, in my jeans and a comfortable old shirt, with my boobs unrestrained, my breathing full and free, my brain unimpeded, for, my friends, free flowing boobs mean a free flowing spirit.

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Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

13 thoughts on “*This Is About Bras

  1. What a wonderful post! I, too, got fancy new bras from a proper outfitter for the first time ever this summer. And they are lovely and very pretty and still contain underwiring that can dig and irritate (well, one of them certainly does). I have noticed nowadays that, having never been what one might term amply endowed, I need a bra to look like a girl. So in that way, they are friends to my vanity. But I don’t like the idea that they might be enemies to my spirit! I will feel better about working in my dressing gown, as I do most mornings, because it is the most comfortable, slobbish way to be.

    1. Litlove, I think it’s perfectly fine to appease your vanity and just as fine to enjoy working in your dressing gown. I’m going to the museum today with a friend, and will wear my new bra and regard it as a friend, too!

  2. Personally, I find underwiring uncomfortable if I lie down (I can’t wear a bra in bed!) but essential for standing/moving. But I strongly support every woman’s right to do whatever suits her.

    1. Rachel, the bra I bought has underwire–I don’t find the ones without any more comfortable. I agree it is much better when walking about then lying down. I flop down on my bed while working to think!

  3. Reminds me of when my wife took me to The Town Shop, a lingerie boutique in NYC. (There was a woman there, who died a few years ago, who could tell your exact size by *looking*. And she trained other women to do the same.) I think a good, not-too-constricting bra is worth the price. However, I also sometimes find myself wishing there was such a thing as an underwire jockstrap! I feel better out in public with a bra on, but really enjoy taking it off at the end of the day, too.

    1. Lilo, I am trying to imagine that degree of accuracy just with looking–but the person who measured me seemed to barely flick the measuring tape around, so maybe it was just for show and she could tell anyway.

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