On an uncharacteristically humid day last week, I felt beads of sweat dripping down my brow as I pushed back the stubbornly flippant hair that stuck to my face like glue. It was miserably hot. The AC in my car was on the fritz and the warm moving breeze created by rolled-down windows more accurately resembled the fires of Vesuvius. I cursed my husband’s ability to wear light clothing without concerning himself with strappy summer sweat-collectors commonly known as brassieres. I felt my mouth saying out loud what my mind angrily shouted: “What sadist decided that because I am a woman I have to wear a bra in this heat?!” David and I looked at each other quizzically. We are historians. We really should know this information.
And so began my quest to discover why the female sex is thus afflicted.
My questions actually started forming a number of months ago, when I began reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage (2016) by Therese Oneill. Her discussion of the daily struggles of fastening Victorian underclothes made me want to rip off my own in defiance. I enjoyed learning about why the Can-Can was really so popular (crotch-less underwear, anyone?) and why undergarments were always white. Okay, well maybe the second part really just disgusted me. Did you know that Victorians never, and I mean NEVER, planned to wash their actual dresses? They wore white underthings so they could see when they were adequately soiled and have them washed accordingly. But as for those beautiful ball gowns, they stank to high heaven. So long, fantasies of Jane Austen!
Really, though, her book fascinated me and made me think about why society is, and has been historically, obsessed with underwear. For me, the real question was why brassieres were necessary. When did breasts become things that were shameful and should be contained? My first guess was that it had to be some time near the Middle Ages, when the church was undergoing its consolidation and really deciding how people should behave. Turns out, that’s not the whole story.
It appears that ancient cultures had their own version of the now popular band-like bras, which basically wrapped around the chest area. When the corset became a ‘thing’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, support came from below, not necessarily as a means to ‘gird the loins’ but as more of a practical invention. It seems that while the invention of the corset and the bra reflected the social and physical situations of women, there really was nothing evil in the creation of the bra, as I initially thought.
According to NPR:
“Caresse Crosby patented the first modern bra in the U.S. in 1914. While primping for a debutante ball, she donned a stiff corset and tight corset cover beneath her sheer evening gown. But the corset cover — which she described as “a boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage” — poked through her gown. “Bring me two of my pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon,” she told her maid, who helped her sew the materials into a simple brassiere.
Crosby’s invention was the talk of the party; other girls crowded around, asking how she danced so freely. When she unveiled her creation, they immediately asked her to sew bras for them, too. When strangers offered a dollar for one of her bras, she decided to start a business and patented her “backless brassiere.” She managed to attract a few orders from department stores, but her startup fizzled. At her husband’s insistence, Crosby sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Co. in Connecticut for $1,500.”
So, the bra actually began as a freeing piece of clothing, designed to allow a woman to enjoy herself rather than writhe in discomfort and pain. When did this change? Honestly, it changed when the fashion industry became involved in its production. With the introduction of the underwire, the padded cups, and adjustable straps, the bra changed from a breathable undergarment to, in my humble opinion, an instrument of restraint. Nineteenth century doctors apparently agreed with me, as they attempted to dissuade women from wearing anything that was too restrictive and could cause ailments. So, bras began as something wonderful and freeing, and with modern changes, have become the one garment I despise wearing, especially on a hot summer day.
 Oneill, Therese. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.
 Pandika, Melissa. Bra History: How a War Shortage Reshaped Modern History. http://www.npr.org/2014/08/05/337860700/bra-history-how-a-war-shortage-reshaped-modern-shapewear (August 5, 2014), accessed July 5, 2017.