Sunday, October 28, 2007
The pretty lace bra, a seemingly simple undergarment, took a good 100 years to perfect.
"You'd be surprised how much engineering really goes into a bra; they really are a piece of technology, like a suspension bridge," says writer Teresa Riordan, who meticulously researched hundreds of beauty product patents in her 2004 book, "Inventing Beauty" (Broadway, 336 pages, $17.95).
The bra as a technological wonder was compared to the Golden Gate Bridge on National Geographic Channel's blog last month, in conjunction with its TV show, "Secret History of the Bra," on the history of this everyday, but mysterious, undergarment.
Exactly when the modern-day bra came to be is up for debate, but it's generally agreed that the first mention of the word "brassiere" appeared in a Vogue magazine ad in October 1907.
"Vogue magazine was important then, as it is now, so 1907 is as good a year as any," Riordan says.
So let's say happy 100th anniversary to the bra.
On the other hand, it wasn't really a bra as we know it. Back then women were still wearing corsets, which, in the era of the Gibson Girl, had dipped daringly low in front. What Vogue was referring to was basically a breast shaper and nipple cover-up, for modesty's sake.
Both modesty and rebellion would play their part in the bra's evolution. And it's still evolving. Designers Marc Jacobs and John Galliano brought lingerie out from under in their recent spring 2008 runway shows, treating bras and slips like accessories.
The first bra-like garments were born out of necessity. You can't ride a bicycle or dance the Charleston in a corset. During the 1940s, when satin and other lingerie materials became scarce and women were working in factories, bras were sturdy and durable. A decade later, it was all about sexy uplift.
In the rebellious late 1960s, the bra was finished! But of course, it wasn't. By the time Victoria's Secret came around in the late '70s to change the way we shopped for underwear, bras were pretty, practical and comfortable; you could opt for extra oomph or not. And they have stayed that way ever since.
The term brassiere, from the Old French bracière, means "arm protector" and refers to part of a military uniform (bras in French means arm). The word later became used for a military breastplate, and later for a type of woman's corset. (College students in the 1930s were the first to shorten the word to bra, according to Riordan.)
Corsets had been around for centuries. They supported the breasts from below. But how to lift the breasts from above while still providing support?
"There were a lot of crazy ideas out there at first," Riordan said in a telephone interview. Many patents were obtained by women. "This was one of the only areas where they could train their innovative energy," she said.
There were dozens of patents issued for bra-like inventions made of wire, cork, rubber, sheet metal or cardboard covered with silk. Early bras were designed to cover and flatten rather than lift and shape. Some of these contraptions looked like birdcages, armored vests or mummy bandages. Rubber breast pads were filled with the hair of horses, or elk and antelope.
In the late 1880s, as women began to become more active in sports, they demanded less confining undergarments. It was a seismic shift in bra history, much like the mid-'60s, when the girdle was finally abandoned for pantyhose. "It was one of the first times that a new product, the bra, came on the market not because the manufacturer was trying to sell something, but because women had demanded it," Riordan said.
It's almost impossible to attribute the modern bra - two cups, two shoulder straps and a torso band - to a single person or patent, Riordan says. But by the early 1930s, Maidenform was making a two-cup brassiere.
"For a long stretch, from the 1860s to the 1930s, dozens and dozens of inventors struggled with the same momentous design challenge: how to free up the waist to give women the ability to move easily while also supporting and individually shaping their breasts," Riordan writes.
The first really important bra moment came in 1931, when a rubber called Lastex came on the market. It was light, washable and resilient and had two-way stretch. It changed the bra industry.
It paved the way for the girdles and projectile-shaped bras that were right around the corner. Large breasts and hourglass figures were idealized in the post-World War II era, with Dior's cinched-waist "New Look," pinup girls, sweater sets and bra shapes so aggressively erotic, women were clearly meant to feel like women again.
Anyone watching TVs "Mad Men" on AMC, the impeccably styled serial drama about a group of New York advertising men and their families set in 1960, when women wore tight sweaters to the office, can see how just a few years later, women naturally rebelled against living up to this unreal fantasy.
It was the sexual revolution, and bras became a symbol of oppression. In a fun, pop-up book about bras, "Hoorah for the Bra," (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 48 pages, $19.95) author Cheree Berry titled the chapter on the '60s "Fear of the Brassiere," and included the somewhat famous quote by actress Marlo Thomas who told a national TV audience on her show, "That Girl," that "God created women to bounce."
Not for long, though. The tide turned again in the '70s and '80s, and by the time women were entering the workforce, the bra was back, though not nearly as aggressively as before.
San Francisco played a part in the bra's evolution from underwear to just another article of clothing, when Victoria's Secret, a company started by Roy Raymond of the Bay Area, opened its first store in the Stanford Shopping Center in 1977. Victoria's Secret took the bra out of the department store and into its own faux British Victoriana boutique environment, initially aimed at making men more comfortable shopping for their significant others.
The next big thing in the history of the bra was cleavage. Suddenly, everyone wanted some. The Wonderbra caused a sensation when it hit America in the mid-'90s. Instead of lifting and separating, which was the norm for decades, the rigidly constructed Wonderbra lifted and pushed the breasts together with the help of crescent-shaped inserts in side pouches.
Since the molded, seamless "T-shirt bra" has become a staple of most women's lingerie wardrobes in the past decade, there doesn't seem to be a reason to reinvent the bra or fix what seems at long last not to be broken. The new bra may now be more akin to a new shoe or bag, meant to be shown, not hidden.
E-mail Sylvia Rubin at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle