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Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Bra: A History

Last June, researchers found remnants of several linen bras in an Austrian Castle, bras that may be as old as 600 years, overturning an entire sub-field of undergarment history, a field which many of us are unaware even exists.
For example, did you know the earliest bra was unearthed in Mesopotamia and was made of goat leather and woven reeds?  Did you know that the bras of the ancient Amazons had only one cup?  Did you know that bra was originally short for "abracadabra," meaning, "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't"?  Well, if you don't know these things, I'm not surprised because none of them are true.
As you might expect, bras have risen and fallen on the whims of fashion, namely how men feel about women's breasts.  (The verb feel is being used as intransitive here.)  I'm generally in favor of women's breasts myself, as I would imagine are most men, and yet it turns out at various points in history people were against them.  For example, in Ancient Greece breasts were all the rage for awhile and it seemed like people just couldn't get enough of them, but then Socrates and that crowd shows up and suddenly - whammo! - it was all like, "Those things are disgusting.  Put them away somewhere so I don't have to look at them."  So women strapped themselves down, trying for all the world to look like they didn't have breasts.  So much for the Golden Age of Greece.
Gradually breasts began making a comeback, peeping out here and there, and sometime along the Age of Reason someone invented the whalebone corset.  Makes you wonder, doesn't it.  Picture Isaac Newton and Galileo sitting around throwing a few beers back, gabbing about laws of motion and gravitation and whatnot, and someone at the back of the bar says, "Hey, I got an idea!  You know how women have these beautiful mammary glands on their chests?  Let's cut a piece of stiff cloth with a waist as narrow as we can possibly make it, and stick whale-bones down inside it, and wrap it around women.  Wouldn't it be great?"  Someone should have held his head down in a butt of malmsey until the bubbles stopped, but instead he gets funding and goes into manufacture.
The whale-bone corset led to a lot of scientific advances: the whole edifice of modern psychiatry is built on the notion that "hysteria" resulted from a woman's uterus wandering at will around her body.  Given the tightness of the corset, the uterus probably did do a certain amount of wandering, along with the solar plexus and the spleen.
In 1913 Mary Phelps Jacobs created the first modern bra out of a couple of silk handkerchiefs and a ribbon.  She patented her idea a year later, calling it the  Caresse Crosby. The Warner Brothers Corset Company bought the patent for $1,500.  For a time the corset and the bra were running neck-and-neck in popularity, and corsets continued to be widely manufactured, whalebone giving way to metal stays, but in the nineteen thirties the American government weighed in, urging women to stop strapping themselves down with old-fashioned corsets.  Metal, which had replaced whalebone for corset stays, was needed for armaments.  American women pulled through and switched to bras, saving an estimated 28,000 tons of metal., which makes you wonder how many whales might have been saved had the switch been made earlier.
The above is an actual statistic I found on the internet so it has to be true.  Checking elsewhere, I find the US population in 1930 was 122,775, 046.   Assuming that half of those were women, (61,380,000) and only eighty percent of those were old enough to wear a bra (49,104,000) and only ninety percent of those made the switch (there must've been a few hold-outs who kept their whale bone corsets or who never wore anything at all.  There must've been.  Think of Lousianna.)  That leaves 44, 193, 600.  Since there are two thousand pounds in a ton, the war department saved 56,000,000 pounds of metal, or one and a third pounds of metal per corset.
My God.  The humanity.

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