The Book Club

Bras and the Conflict Between Being an Emma Goldman or an Evelyn Nesbit

Dear Jodi,

I liked finding out in Uplift: The Bra in America that describing a woman as “loose” is a reference to her lack of corset as evidence of a lack of moral character. It inspired me to get out my favorite passage from E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. In a fictional scene with real-life characters, radical reformer Emma Goldman puts her hand on the laced-up torso of notorious showgirl Evelyn Nesbit and says: “My God, stays like steel. Your waist is pinched tighter than a purse string. … It is ironic that you are thought of in homes all over America as a shameless licentious wanton.” Goldman gives Nesbit a glimpse of unimagined freedom: “Look at me, even with my figure I have not one foundation garment, I wear everything loose and free-flowing, I give my body the freedom to breathe and to be.”

Doctorow describes Goldman helping Nesbit out of the various contraptions, pulling out laces and unbuckling straps. “Marks of the stays ran vertically like welts around Nesbit’s waist.” At last, Nesbit takes deep, uncorseted breaths, and as Goldman massages her, her body finds “its own natural rosy white being and (begins) to stir with self-perception.”

That scene brilliantly illuminates the moment in which American women loosened their stays literally and metaphorically. Uplift is about what happened next. It documents the history of the bra in the 20th century.

It’s a great topic. Bras exist at the collision point of health, fashion, commerce, culture, gender studies, and history. They are marvels of both engineering and artistry. For historians, they are “a material and social artifact.” For economists, they are a multibillion-dollar industry. For women, they are, like all of fashion, “entertainment, self-creation, and everyday art.” And they are fun, with that naughty frisson of the secret and the hidden.

My favorite part of the book was seeing the way that bra manufacturers responded to the world around them. Bras minimized bust size for flapper fashion in the 1920s and maximized bust size for a perfectly torpedo-shaped sweater silhouette in the 1950s. They took advantage of the latest technological developments in synthetics and manufacturing. They found innovative ways to replace restricted materials during World War II, and they even used their expertise in fitting the female curves to design a special top-secret vest for carrier pigeons so that paratroopers could carry them safely. When home washing machines arrived, bras evolved to improve their survival rate.

Bra manufacturers reflected and even influenced the revolutionary concept of marketing to teen-agers and of youth as style-setters. Ads told teens that bras would make them look older. At the same time, they told women that the right bras would make them look younger, “uplift” itself signaling a bosom that has not yet felt the pull of gravity.

As fashion demanded rigidity or softness, there were bras to deliver whichever the customer wanted. As times, tastes, and fashions changed, bras came in psychedelic colors and natural fabrics, made from one wisp of fabric or 22 meticulously assembled pieces. In the 1960s, there were even bras that “fake[ed] the braless look.” Instead of the personal being political, firms like Maidenform tied the physical to the political, describing itself as “the company that understands and supports women,” with ads that looked like posters for what we used to call a women’s lib rap session.

There were corsets that produced the pigeon-breasted “monobosom” of the Victorian era and plastic protective bras issued to Riveting Rosies during World War II. There were strapless bras, backless bras, push-up bras, bras with secret pockets to hide money, inflatable bras, nursing bras for women with babies, and bras with prosthetics for women who had mastectomies. And there were tantalizing brand names: Girlish Form (and the flapper-era Boyishform), Glamorise, Sweet Nothings, Heaventeen, Sensuous Solution, Daisyfresh, Jezebel, and today’s designer names like Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne.

And here we are, exactly one century after the first bras were sold in a retail store. According to Uplift, today’s top sellers are the exercise-friendly sports bra and the hey-look-at-me Wonderbra. I’ll bet many women have one of each. So it seems to me that the conflict between Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit—and women who want to be both—goes on.

Yours in sisterhood, uplift, and support,