The Book Club

Breast of Times

Dear Nell,

Last night I dreamed I delivered the State of the Union address in my Maidenform bra.

Has there ever been a tag line so ripe for re-appropriation? And as you suggest, the world may not have been ready for the election ad in 1953. Thirteen years later, hecklers greeted Lurleen Wallace’s candidacy for the governorship of Alabama with signs reading, “I Dreamed I Was Elected Governor in My Maidenform Bra.” Happily, the insult didn’t work; Wallace won with 64 percent of the vote. But strangely and sadly, she died of breast cancer less than halfway through her term.

What a wonderfully preposterous mother-daughter ad you mention. Uplift presents another winner in this category, featuring a mother protectively nuzzling her newly Teenform-bra-clad daughter. In the accompanying copy, Teenform boasts that it “keeps an understanding eye on teenage problems in growing up, with informative booklets prepared under the guidance of the Child Study Association.” The ad fusses protectively over daughters—an astute way of assuaging parents’ fears about the onset of sexual maturity. There’s something quaint and touching about this. For all the aggressive claims made by present-day bras—flawless shape, tighter curves—none of them promise anything as grand as safe passage to adulthood.

On a similar note, Uplift makes a nice point of how the undergarment industry turned a girl’s first bra-shopping trip into a coming of age ritual, on a par with going to the prom. My theory is that girls needed an alternative to that much less dignified milestone that comes at about the same time as the first bra purchase. There’s nothing to romanticize about your first trip to the drugstore to buy menstrual accessories, and it was very canny of the part of retailers to create a happier, more glamorous scenario for Becoming a Woman.

I’m glad you mentioned the Victoria’s Secret catalog, which—speaking of adolescents—seems to have replaced Playboy as the 16-year-old boy’s periodical of choice. A quick skim of its Web site provides a great postscript to the book. Turns out that Victoria’s Secret’s bazaar of sultry enticements includes … corsets! Of course, not the same corsets that damaged internal organs and not the ones so mandatory that even pregnant women had to wear them. These updated corsets have no teeth, literally or figuratively—they’re strapless bras with a little more fabric and a lot more drama. Take a look at this number, designed for a bride, or this flower-bedecked confection. The corset, arguably the most-hated garment in the history of fashion, has become an object of desire. Other old-fashioned accoutrements have been reinterpreted too: Victoria’s Secret sells garters, not because they hold up stockings, but because grooms still play the crude game of launching them at weddings. These re-vamped (and I do mean vamped), purely decorative undergarments offer your average, sports-bra-wearing chick a kind of old-fashioned womanliness, I guess.

So, Victoria’s Secret isn’t selling anything as prosaic as support, as the catalog’s acres of cleavage and oceans of scanty lace make clear. But why should it? If you want firm breasts nowadays, you can buy them, and not from a catalog either. Surely the biggest breast news these days is women’s ability to permanently modify them—to custom-build minimizers or Wonderbras from the inside out, so to speak. As a Fray poster guesses, Uplift pretty much skips any discussion of breast reduction or augmentation. Which is a pity, because plastic surgery is a natural—maybe that’s the wrong word—next chapter for its history of body modification. In the 19th century, women relied mostly on undergarments to modify their shapes. Early bras, expected to perform heavy lifting, were marketed with this in mind: One early brand was called Nature’s Rival. As the 20th century progressed, women turned to diet and exercise to reshape their bodies—which is one reason why they could switch from corset-alia to comparatively skimpy bras. But starting a couple of decades ago, breast size became a matter of choice instead of destiny: Nubbins could easily be inflated into something heftier, and super-droopers traded in for sleeker models. The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery reports that 300,000 chests—or should that be 600,000 individual breasts?—were augmented in 2001. The numbers for mammaplasty (another method of enlargement) and breast reduction were equally formidable.

And yet even women with the perkiest of perky breasts—women with more elaborate equipment installed inside their chests than they could ever wear outside them—still wear bras. Perhaps they do it for the same reason that women still buy mock corsets. Which tells you something about the totemic power of these particular pieces of underwear.