Nubbins to Super-Droopers: The Quest for the Ideal Bra

You may have worn a brassiere, you may have helped a friend or

two take off a brassiere, but have you ever really thought about the brassiere? It’s not too late. “Brassieres must do

more than fit a multitude of bodies …. They must accommodate the same body as

it changes through the monthly cycle and through the life cycle. They must

provide for movement of the torso and arms in many directions without chafing

or binding and without slipping out of position. As if that were not enough,

brassieres must also retain their own structure through multiple wearings and

launderings; must not abrade in contact with clothing; must remain, as a rule,

inconspicuous beneath the outer clothing while harmonizing with the desired

silhouette; and must be priced to sell to many customers. No wonder hundreds of

attempts have been made to design the ideal breast supporter over the past 140

years.”

Uplift: The Bra in America

is the story of those attempts, and it’s hard to imagine it being told better.

Jane Farrell-Beck, a professor of Textiles and Clothing, and Colleen Gau, the

president of a textiles business, have collaborated to produce a minor miracle:

an informal yet comprehensively researched work of history and sociology that

isn’t dull, isn’t pretentious, isn’t politically correct (or incorrect), and

that’s fun to read as well as being instructive. It may occasionally tell you

more about cup sizes than you want to know, or more about the fate of various

undergarment manufacturers, but if there’s a certain amount of excess, it’s the

excess of a true and judicious enthusiasm. Their tone is restrained yet light,

informed yet unacademic. And besides, you learn so much.

You learn that the brassiere goes back to the 1870’s and the

Dress Reform Movement-health was a major factor, though even in those early

years an advertiser was boasting “All deficiency of development supplied.” (The

first push-up brassiere with separated cups was patented in 1893.) By the

1910’s, brassieres were overtaking corsets as the main attraction of foundation

departments: “A New Brassiere Department Just Opened,” Macy’s blared in The New York Times . It was crucial to

underline the connection between fashion and brassieres: “No woman should

indulge in a princess dress unless her figure is shapely and graceful,”

explained an ad for the Fairy Combination Bust Form and Corset Cover. As more

women entered the work force, and as they took up sports, the need for breast

support grew accordingly. Soon, too, there were specialized bras-nursing bras,

prosthetic bras, training bras for teenagers. By 1918, there were 52 brands of

brassieres on the market.

The 1920’s brought not only the Charleston but the flat chest.

However, the authors tell us, “The boyish look began to pall by late 1924 …. In

place of binding, young patrons sought uplift, as colorfully expressed by one

specialty shop buyer: ‘Chickens want support, stouts flattening.'” (This

fashion reversal drove at least one firm into bankruptcy, the tragically named

Boyshform.) The ideal outline went from flat to rounded to pointed (“a shape

referred to as Belle Poitrine”) and eventually on to the cone and the torpedo,

standby of the World War II Sweater Girl. Alert companies were already

featuring cup size in their ads. There was A through D, there was Small,

Medium, Large and Stout; a Munsingwear designer cunningly nicknamed the options

“nubbins, snubbins, droopers, and super-droopers.”

The war brought problems of

its own. Nylon, “the Great White Hope of foundation makers,” was more or less

gone for the duration. Shortages? A poem in Corset

and Underwear Review explained them: “We ask your indulgence and patience /

Your good will we value ‘bove all. / It was Adolf who started this mess, /

Blame him for your problems this Fall!” Another manufacturer pleaded, “Bombs

Are More Important Than Bras! Please Be Patient If Deliveries Are Late!”

But the war brought new opportunities as well. One company went

in for plastic brassieres to be worn over normal bras by women doing heavy

factory work. And the ingenious Maiden Form (later Maidenform) Company came up

with the Pigeon Vest, to help paratroopers carry the birds safely. (The pigeon

wore the vest, not the paratrooper.) Its label mercifully exhorted “that birds

be held in vest no longer than six hours.” Even so, the bird in the blueprint

drawing of the Pig-eon Vest does not look particularly happy.

With peace came new techniques, new fabrics, new designs.

Strapless bras exploded in popularity. Multicolored bras with “exotic and

romantic names abounded, like Nephretiri [sic], Cleopatra, candlelight, and

cinnamon-desert.” Nylon was liberated. Eyelet, power net, rayon satin, dotted

Swiss, lace-“An exclusive 1947 New York City fashion show featured fur

brassieres in ocelot and white or black broadtail.” And padding was back in a

big way, and with infinite variations: In the early 50’s, the La Resista Company

gave us the Très Sècrete, “an inflatable brassiere with a little plastic straw

for blowing it up to the desired size.” “Kabo offered the Bou-K-Bra, which

contained a removable ‘Scent-Petal’ secret pocket where a personal cologne or

perfume could be cached to add a touch of fragrance. Gem-Dandy offered the

Mon-e-Bra with zippered front section between the cups to hold money or

jewelry.” It was all part of the extravagant aesthetic of the decade-the

decade, after all, of tail fins, plastic handbags and Miami Beach’s the

Fontainebleau. As for advertising, who can forget the electrifying campaign

that brought us “I dreamed I won the election in my Maidenform bra?”

“Legs were ‘in’ and breasts were ‘out'” during the revolutionary

60’s. With the (exaggerated) rumors of bra-burnings, the brassiere was now

politicized. But if by the late 60’s bralessness was appealing to radicalized

(or just sensible) young women, undergarment companies were ruthlessly

targeting girls 10 to 12; in the words of one expert, “the bra has joined the

lipstick and ‘heels’ in becoming one of the beloved symbols of growing up.”

One of the themes of Uplift is the story of the bra-making

companies-the catalog of brands that constitutes Appendix B lists 245, from

Accentuate and Blue Canoe and Breathinbra (think about it) to Jogbra, MardiBra,

Quest-Shon Mark, Scandele and, of course, the world-famous Frederick’s of

Hollywood. (In recent years, Frederick has ceded his dominant position in the

peekaboo end of the business to the ubiquitous Victoria’s Secret.) Many of

these companies went under-perhaps they couldn’t keep up with the rising costs

of product development (“Warner reportedly spent almost $1 million to develop

its stretch strap”). As in other businesses, companies merged, consolidated,

suffered takeovers. Computers had to be mastered, exports had to be developed,

escalating labor costs led to manufacturing in Third World countries. Only the

fittest companies survived by adapting and evolving. Yet “[p]resent-day

brassieres have by no means solved all problems; much remains to be done.”

Ms. Farrell-Beck and Ms. Gau have thoroughly mastered the history

of the bra until now. My only regret is that their ideal book will never be

read by its ideal reader: Mary Smiling, best friend of Flora Poste, the heroine

of Stella Gibbons’ immortal novel Cold

Comfort Farm . You will remember that Mrs. Smiling’s great interest “was her

collection of brassieres, and her search for a perfect one. She was reputed to

have the largest and finest collection of these garments in the world. It was

hoped that on her death it would be left to the nation.” The world first

learned of Mary Smiling’s search for perfection back in 1932. In unconscious

echo, Uplift closes with these words:

“The American Woman is still waiting for her ideal brassiere.” Plus ça change ….

Robert

Gottlieb is the dance critic of The Observer.