The Book Club

Leotards, Pearls, a Guy Without a Shirt, and Other Bra Accessories

Dear Jodi,

Uplift, even with 70 pages of notes and appendices, is slimmer than the hips of a runway model and a surprisingly dull treatment of a delectable subject. Like you, I would like to have seen less on who got what patent and a little more about the culture and the very colorful people involved. Warnaco’s Linda Wachner, on the imperiousness scale somewhere between Leona Helmsley and the Queen of Hearts, is just one recent example.

The insular, world-through-bras approach gives the authors a rather skewed perspective. The authors seem positively resentful when the smaller lingerie companies are bought or merged, though they don’t give us enough of a sense for the personalities or issues involved to make us care about it. For example, they describe Loveable as “surrendering” its brand names to Sara Lee and note that “the integrity of design-to-production that once typified these labels has disappeared,” without discussing the worldwide changes in manufacturing and distribution that made these changes inevitable.

It was nice to have them authoritatively debunk some bra mythology, like the notion that there was widespread bra burning. As you point out, it would have been nice to pursue the story further to find out how the term “bra-burner” became a shorthand to dismiss feminists who sought equal rights for women. I got a kick out of hearing the real story behind the legend of the special bra Howard Hughes designed to show off Jane Russell’s magnificent bosom in his movie The Outlaw. It turns out that Russell found it “uncomfortable and ridiculous” and never wore it. Without telling Hughes, she just adapted her own bra to make it achieve the seamless appearance he was trying for.

But I thought the authors seemed oddly eager to sweep aside socialite Caresse Crosby’s claim to have invented the brassiere. They insist on calling her by her maiden name (Mary P. Jacob), which seems a little snippy, and they dismiss her design as “innovative but commercially unimportant.” They never mention that she sold it to Warner’s, still one of the biggest manufacturers of lingerie, which seems overly dismissive.

One fascinating part of the bra story is the way that manufacturers and consumers influenced each other. Women were sometimes swayed by advertising, but they also insisted on some of the changes of styles, fabrics, comfort, and durability. The quote from the Bali representative is delightful: “Some women are resigned to the fact that their feet hurt. But in bras, they still demand comfort.” Those darn women! Wanting to have clothing that doesn’t impede their ability to run, stretch, lift, reach, work, and breathe! As the authors put it, in the 1960s there was “a clear break with the past, when women accepted restraint and moderate discomfort in order to achieve the fashionably polished look.”

So, I wish the book had included more ads, because they do such a good job of allowing us to examine those developments. There is a great example from an earlier era in Liz Smith’s marvelous The Mother Book. It is a 1937 LeGant lingerie ad from Vogue showing a mother and daughter in bras and girdles. The caption has the daughter saying: “Why Mother! You slim young thing! I thought you were one of the girls!” The mother replies: “Indeed miss! And since when has LeGant been restricted to your generation?” As Smith notes, “Did mothers and daughters ever talk like this?”

The “I dreamed I won the election” ad you mentioned was my very favorite part of the book. I was amazed to read that it ran in 1952, when the idea of a woman running for office was almost as controversial as a woman going out in her underwear. That Maidenform “I dreamed” series is worth a book of its own. My friend Bobbie was a lingerie model from the late 1950s through the early ‘70s, and she posed for a number of them, including “I dreamed I went to the circus …” She told me that the challenge when she first got into the business was the notion that nice girls didn’t pose for pictures in their underwear. For that reason, many of the early ads were sketches rather than photographs. There was even a period that had models wearing long-sleeved leotards and tights under the lingerie in photos, to preserve their modesty.

Advertisers decided that if they wanted to have photos of real women wearing lingerie without leotards, they would have to look less like pin-ups. So they switched from more buxom models to those like Bobbie, with figures so impeccably elegant that they made walking around in their underwear look positively chic. Bobbie says that for a while they even draped the lingerie models with pearls and furs, as though they were wearing very high-fashion clothes that just happened to be invisible. But finally the world got used to the idea of models in their underwear, at least in magazines. It would be a few more years before they would be shown on television. In 2001, a more dubious breakthrough was the first network television broadcast of a lingerie fashion show. The Victoria’s Secret program got high ratings for ABC, but it also triggered an indecency investigation from the FCC.

The current issue of People magazine has an ad for Lane Bryant that shows a beautiful woman wearing jeans with “sexy” on her belt buckle and a bright pink bra. A good-looking guy without a shirt leans back behind her. The woman looks confident and, um, satisfied. What caught my attention was that the model in this ad is not the usual toothpick, but a real woman with a real figure. I’d like to see that as the frontispiece for a book 100 years from now about the second century of bras.