The Book Club

Bra as Liberator

Dear Nell,

The bra names are a delight, as pseudo-scientifically hopeful as a shampoo label and as inauthentically French as Pepe LePew. My favorites were Besty Ross, Breathinbra, Delineator, Even-Pul, Francine of France, La Resista, Magicool, Mon-e-bra (complete with built-in wallet), Nature’s Rival, Not All That Bra, Perma-lift, and Quest-Shon Mark.

When I first encountered Uplift, I figured it would probably be too thoughtful—that it would peer deeply and portentously into the underwirings of the American bra and emerge with the kind of super-detailed product reading, full of psychological and sociological flourishes, that was trendy a few years ago. But Uplift’s almost purely a collection of facts; there’s no real thesis to the book, unless you count the obvious idea that bras have changed in response to the dictates of fashion and necessity. This is a book for historians in the field, industry insiders, or lingerie fetishists—people who care what year it was that the A-B-C-D cup system was introduced (cattily referred to by one designer as “nubbins, snubbins, droopers, and super-droopers”), or who want a close look at the history of padded bras (or inflatable ones, as the case may be—one model came with a straw through which you blew air into the cups).

It’s not that the book’s missing historical context: Many of the major trends and events that have affected American womanhood are dutifully listed, and readers get to see a good chunk of the march of U.S. history through a satin-and-eyelet scrim. But it’s a bit surreal to read about periods like the Great Depression and the World Wars almost solely in terms of their impact on women’s chests. You end up with the history of America in 10 1/2 jiggles. And because the authors are so busy tracking the fortunes of various styles and  merchandisers, they never really ask any difficult questions about their subject.

Take the bra’s role as an agent of liberation. Its predecessors first appeared in the mid-19th century as a conscious rebellion against the horrors of the corset, an attempt to support the breasts without torturously constricting the chest. The authors don’t really do justice to the major role that dress reform played in the suffrage movement, focusing on the technical details of early styles but not their political import. The bra’s mobility and comfort helped enable women to work outside the home, and within a few decades, the bra was a staple of the female wardrobe. And yet by the late 1960’s, bras were, at least in some circles, regarded as constrictive and unnecessary. How did an erstwhile improvement in women’s comfort come to be regarded as a traditional feminine trapping? Did the activists who shunned the bra know about its well-intentioned history? Uplift tells us that there was only one recorded example of actual bra-burning; but then how did the practice take on such mythic proportions? And did the activists all have small breasts? I can’t imagine any full-busted woman parting willingly with her bras: she’d be almost as uncomfortable as her corset-wearing forebears. The bra’s status may be one of those issues that seems political but is actually biological. A study near the end of the book reveals a wide variety of what might be called bra attachment among women, from those who never wear them to those who even sleep in them. Uplift doesn’t say, but bra attachment must surely correlate with breast size. Which might be one reason that some women find the bra a burden—one retailer compares it to the high heel—while others won’t get out of bed without one.

What the book lacks in analytical heft, though, it makes up for with winning illustrations, mostly of advertisements. The pictures and sketches often say more than the accompanying text: In the early ads, you can see just how stiff and chaste early bras were, as if the manufacturers knew they were introducing something radical and were trying to make it look as proper as possible. Compare these with the boldness of Maidenform’s 1952 “I dreamed I won the election in my Maidenform bra” ad, part of a series that depicted shirtless, bra-clad women living out various fantasies—traveling, playing sports, and so on. In one ad a successful candidate stands before adoring crowds and numerous microphones, her arms raised in victory and her breasts jutting out. Campaign posters bob beneath her, fireworks shoot off in the distance, and no one notices her partial nudity. The ad is the dead opposite of the classic shame dream in which you discover that you’ve showed up at school or the office naked. No wonder it sold a lot of bras.