Are you wearing a bra? I mean the kind with the metal fasteners that Mark Twain invented. You read that right. The strap with hooks that has been digging into our backs for the last century was invented by Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, in 1871. But don’t get mad at him. He invented them to replace suspenders, not to torture people with breasts.
And yet they do. Before the pandemic, 4,000,000 bras with hooks were produced each day. The average American woman owns eight. But we’ll each own over a hundred during our lifetime.
My breasts have been every cup size from AA to DDDD. I can track every decade using them. We start with training bras, then push-up bras, maternity bras, padded bras, surgical bras…. but now, all bras are off. I mean, bets. All bets are off.
In A Boobs’ Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me… and You, I bare my breasts to reveal how both women and men are influenced by history and popular culture. After all, this is the body part that enters the room first, the one that men are hardwired to look at. Biological imperative requires they find a mateable to nurture the next generation.
What they see often depends on what bra we are wearing...
Modern bras were invented in 1910 when nineteen-year-old Mary Phelps Jacobs was dressing for a debutante ball. The metal stays of her corset poked through her satin gown. Earlier inventors tried cutting a corset in two or adding pockets that hung below metal shoulder plates. But Mary wanted to dance and breathe at the same time. So, she sewed two silk hankies together with a pink ribbon, and voilà. She patented her “brassiere,” a term first used by Vogue Magazine, under the name Caresse Crosby in 1914.
The Warner Brothers Corset Company bought her patent for $1500. Three years later, Uncle Sam outlawed the use of metal in corsets to use in World War I battleships. Bras replaced corsets, and the company ultimately earned $15,000,000.
During the roaring 1920s, young women bound their chests with bandeau bras to resemble young men and get a taste of freedom. But when the party was over, cup sizes were developed to correspond with the small, medium, or large strap. Adjustable bands became common during the 1930s. Women have struggled with sizes ever since.
During World War II, when women replaced soldiers in factories, a goggle manufacturer designed the hard plastic SAF-T_BRA to protect women’s assets. The shape resembled bullets, hence the nickname “bullet bras”. How was the pointy profile better? The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation insisted they be worn for “good taste, anatomical support,” and oh, here it is: “morale.”
Billionaire Howard Hughes was such a boob man, he discovered the buxom Jane Russel and designed the seamless Cantilever Bra for her to wear in his movie, “The Outlaw.” Engineered like a bridge, the contraption was so uncomfortable that Russell wore her own bra during filming. No one who saw Hughes’ lingering close-ups of cleavage was the wiser. The concept of “lift and separate” was such a hit that twenty years later, Cross Your Heart Playtex bras were advertised to the first generation of Americans who have televisions in their homes.
By the mid-1950s, college libraries stocked Hugh Hefner’s new Playboy Magazine, defining the ideal “girl next door as amply endowed. (Raised without physical affection, Hef’s first wife cheated on him during their engagement; women have been paying for it ever since.) Soon, tight sweaters over pointed, cone-shaped bras became the uniform of America’s Sweetheart: the cheerleader.
History tells us that women burned bras as “objects of male oppression” during the 1968 Miss America Pageant.
Herstory corrects that myth to show they were thrown in “Freedom Trash Cans” to protest a business that both objectified women and supported the Vietnam War. Braless-ness became a political statement.
Ten years later, when I was a teen, halter tops were simply a fashion trend. Athletes still wore bras. When a runner named Lisa Lindahl was sick of her straps falling down, she and her friends sewed two jockstraps together and created the Jockbra. They rechristened it the Jogbra and sold it to Champion Sportswear.
But bras bounced back. In the mid-1990s, when the new Wonderbra promised to add two cup sizes, bra sales overall increased by 43%. By now, I was a mom whose babies had sucked the life from my boobs. When the Wonderbra debuted, I drove to the store at dawn to stand in line. But when the saleslady hooked it closed, I could barely breathe. How far had we come from corsets?
My daughters’ generation saw Victoria’s Secret as a rite of passage. When I took them shopping, the message for girls hung right above the cash register. The life-sized photograph showed a smiling supermodel, her breasts crowned with a diamond bra.
By 2011, 95% of women in the Western world wore bras. Some say breasts will sag without them; some say compression is unhealthy. But rarely does anyone say, I love wearing a bra.
In 2020, we’ve come full circle. Structured corsets are couture, while sports bras transcend the gym. And now we’re stuck at home, dressing for ourselves. Sales of “lounge bras” are expanding, and Mark Twain’s hooks are taking a hit.
What do you think? Will Covid kill the bra?