Second-wave feminists are often reported to have burned their bras in protest of restrictive beauty standards for women, but this is a myth. Feminists did throw items into a trash can at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, but they didn’t burn any. As explained by About.com:
“The Miss America Protest apparently gave birth to one of the greatest myths of the women’s rights movement: the myth of bra burning.
The protesters at the Miss America Pageant threw items of their oppression into a “freedom trash can.” Among these items of oppression were girdles, high-heeled shoes, some bras, copies of Playboy magazine, and hair curlers. The women never lit these items on fire; throwing them out was the symbolism of the day. It has been reported that the women attempted to get a permit to burn the items but were denied because of the danger fire would pose to the wooden Atlantic City Boardwalk.
The intent to set them on fire may have been what sparked the rumor that bras actually were burned. There is no documented instance where 1960s feminists burned their bras, although the legend persists.”
I have not been much of a bra-hater during most of my life, although recently it has been feeling increasingly oppressive to have to have metal underwires under my boobs all day. I have become one of those people who takes off her bra the second she gets home from work, tosses it ceremoniously away, rubs out the sore parts where the wires were, and refuses to put a bra back on for the rest of the evening. How wonderful it is to be bra-free, and let the girls relax in a comfortable cotton T-shirt!
And so I have come to hate bras. For a year now I have been going braless as often as possible. At first I stopped putting on a bra when friends came over. I only have female friends over, so who cares if they see me without a bra on? Plus, some of my female friends don’t wear bras either. Hanging out braless with other braless women is fantastic. We actually get to relax and just be female humans in our natural state, and see each other the way we would look if we weren’t trying to meet standards of perkiness. Why do breasts have to be lifted up in public anyway? Why can’t we just wear them down?
Anyway, then I started leaving the house without a bra. This was scary at first. I started taking the garbage out without a bra, but with a sweatshirt on of course. Then I started going to the corner store without a bra, then to the grocery store. After a while it got less scary. I got used to seeing my breasts hang the way breasts do, and I stopped caring about it. I still always wear two layers of clothing. I don’t go braless in the summer.
I feel so free! My breasts have been liberated from oppression! Well, partially, anyway.
I still think I have to wear a proper bra to work. It looks too weird to have a women’s blouse on with sagging breasts. Even my feminist zeal is not quite bra-phobic enough to rebel against that particular fashion rule. Once in a while, when I have a vest on over my blouse, I can wear a sports bra, which is pretty comfortable, but with just a blouse I wear an underwire bra, to get exactly the right breast shape.
Underwire bras are supposed to be washed by hand and discarded after about a year. They don’t last long because they lose their shape, especially, if like most normal people, you say “fuck it” to the washing instructions and throw them in the machine. Who the fuck has time to wash laundry by hand anyway? Also like most people, I can’t afford to buy new bras every year, and I keep wearing them for a ridiculously long time, long after they no longer fit properly and I get downright homicidal over how uncomfortable they are. Sometimes I think burning my bras would be an excellent idea. I am definitely one of those bra-burning types, after all. I’m definitely the type to prefer a natural look, very comfortable and practical, with nothing artificially lifted up, and I’m the type to rail against unfair beauty standards for women.
I have begun to wonder why and how it came to be that women are supposed to present at all times with breasts lifted up, rounded, nipples covered up but cleavage showing. Why is it that it’s considered obscenity for nipples to show, but women’s clothing often ensures that cleavage is on display? Why is one part of the breast for showing off while another part is completely forbidden from appearing in public? So I decided to read about the history of the bra. I found a book with the tantalizing and titillating title of Support and seduction: the history of corsets and bras. (Author: Beatrice Fontanel.) Here is what I learned.
Bras as we know them today have existed since approximately the 1920s. I expected the bra to have been invented by a man (probably because if I hate something then it probably comes from men LOL #misandry) but no, bras were invented by women. In France, Herminie Cadolle invented the first women’s undergarment that supported the breasts from above rather than from below, as the corset did, in 1889. In the U.S.A, Caresse Crosby also invented a bra and patented it in 1914. Cadolle and Crosby are both very interesting women to read about. For example, Cadolle’s lingerie business supplied undergarments to queens, princesses, dancers, and actresses, including Mata Hari, and her business still exists today.
“Rather than using the hips for a fulcrum as the corset does and gathering the breasts from underneath, the new principle was to hang suspenders from the shoulders to support the breasts from above.” (Support and Seduction, p75)
Before the bra was in widespread use, women were wearing corsets. You have probably heard that corsets were very restrictive, sometimes compressing the internal organs and the ribs in order to create an artificially narrowed waist, and that both doctors and feminists (suffragettes) campaigned against their use. Before corsets, a variety of fashions came and went according to time and place, sometimes lifting the breasts up to make them prominent, and sometimes hiding them. What women did with their breasts often depended on the views of the religious establishment or monarch in power at the time. It also depended on the social class of the woman. Working class women never had expensive lingerie.
Fontanel, the author of Support and Seduction, attributes two surprising social factors to the decline in popularity of the corset. One of them is the tango. Women couldn’t dance the tango in a corset since they were too restrictive for that type of dance. The other was the bicycle. Corsets were not compatible with this new mode of transportation. It seems so strange to me that the fact that corsets were physically harmful was not enough to reduce their popularity. What really did it was the tango and the bicycle, apparently. I don’t think we can possibly say which factors were the most influential, the medical evidence against corsets or new lifestyles that made them impractical, but what is clear to me is that women have been perfectly willing to harm their bodies for the sake of fashion for a really long time. Feminists campaigning against harmful beauty practices is nothing new. When I complain that women shouldn’t have to harm their bodies in order to fit a feminine ideal, I’m part of a very long line of women, going back to the suffragettes, who said the exact same thing. I had a chuckle over imagining this conversation taking place:
Suffragette: “Corsets are destroying your ribs and internal organs! Don’t subject yourself to that torture! Free yourself from oppression!”
Corset-wearer: “My ribs, my choice! Don’t corset-shame me! You’re just corset-phobic!”
In the 1930s, bras gained the elastic shoulder strap that we are used to today. Other inventions in the 1930s were cup sizes A, B, C, D, padding, and underwires. It was in the 1950s that large breasts lifted up high became popular fashion, and that’s when padded and underwire bras really took off. Hollywood stars and pin-up girls set the standard for what breasts were supposed to look like. Things have basically stayed that way until now. Women are still expected to present with impossibly large breasts, lifted up high, and media images of women are still setting this standard.
It was really, really fun reading about the history of the corset and the bra. What I learned is that I’m actually damn lucky. That’s because, even though I hate my underwire bras, I actually have more choice than women have ever had before, and I don’t live in a time when women are expected to displace their internal organs to create a tiny waist. I have never worn a corset and I’ve always thought of them as harmful and old-fashioned, something that is only worn today as fetish gear. I had no idea what a girdle even was and had to look it up. The fact that I didn’t know what a girdle was is pretty cool—it means that they have largely fallen out of use, too.
I’m lucky because I am living in a time when there are tons of bras available, from the practical and comfortable to the decorative and ridiculous, and they are affordable for most women. I’m lucky that I have so many options and that I have grown up knowing that my undergarments shouldn’t physically harm me.
“When a bra is seen hanging on a clothesline drying, it looks flimsy and comical, but in fact it is a high-precision industrial product. To make one takes twenty or more pieces, in tulle, jersey, or lace—some of them tiny. The first stage is the creation of an incredible puzzle, designed by the pattern-makers, so that when cutting the miles of fabric that pass through the workshop little waste will be left over. Then comes the assembly, which for a moderately sophisticated style may require thirty separate steps, performed by thirty different workers. Stitching, accurate to within a millimeter, fastening off, whipstitching—each operator has only a few seconds to perform her piecemeal task. The bra is the most complex item of dress there is and cannot be made by a machine. Corsetry, in consequence, remains a labor-intensive trade. As has happened in many other areas of the textile industry, its manufacturers have gone abroad to build their factories—to Portugal, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, and Turkey. All the steps prior to assembly have been computerized and mechanized. But the moment it comes to actually constructing the bra, the best that can be done is to separate the different operations. Each worker—and they are generally women—is charged with a single stitch, perhaps a very small one.” P148.
This gives me a new respect for bras. Here I am imaging burning a bra in protest and I’m forgetting about the people who really are oppressed by bras—the women working in sweatshops to make them. (Bring on the worldwide socialist revolution!)
Soon I’m going to have to throw out my old bras that have loosened and lost their shape and get some new ones. But, you know what, I’m not dreading this anymore. I have been lamenting that I have to wear underwire bras to work and that this isn’t fair, but the weird thing is, I chose those bras. I liked the way they looked. I liked the way my breasts looked in them. If I wanted to change the way I dress, so that I could always have a sports bra on, I could. My problem is not so much that I am forced to wear a bra that I don’t like, it’s actually that I can’t be bothered to make sure they are always fitting me right, and that’s something I can change. And I can still go braless at home and while running errands.
Maybe I’m not a bra-burning feminist after all.