The history of the Bra is a long and sordid affair between feminism and sexism, one that mirrors female equality with the freedom of the female form. I have always assumed that bras were invented as a torture device, but the first modern bra was invented by 19-year-old socialite, Mary Phelps Jacob, in 1914 as a more freeing replacement for the restrictive corset (Stampler, 2014). Corsets were constructed with stiff fabrics and whalebone ribs that forced the female figure into an hourglass shape. Oftentimes, these corsets were laced so tightly that women would faint in the heat because they couldn’t breathe. The 2003 film, The Pirates of the Caribbean, depicts the problems with the corset in humorous style as seen in the clip below. You can also view the original clip by visiting Youtube.
Since the advent of the modern bra in 1914, this product has gone through many transformations in both construction and marketing. And by extension, the role of the bra in gender equality has gone through its own transformations.
1930s: The Kestos Brasierre
The 1930’s Kestos Brassiere was the first bra to feature two distinct cups that accentuated and defined breasts. Early advertisements for the Kestos Brassiere focused on comfort and youthfulness, and featured slender models in keeping with the beauty aesthetic of the 20’s and 30’s. Beyond the bra, this advertisement tells us a lot about the cultural context surrounding women at this time.
It is important to note that the “Roaring 20’s” marked the entrance of women into the workplace, which may very well have influenced the introduction of a more masculine, slender female-form in advertising. The stylized, slender female-form from Deco advertising marks a significant shift from softer, full-figured females in Art Nouveau advertisements.
The depiction of models in motion alongside the phrase, “They walk in beauty,” suggests that this bra model offers the comfort and flexibility for free range of motion. Kestos also makes the argument that their bra makes women beautiful. The major premise is that the models are beautiful, the minor premise is that these models are wearing Kestos bras and girdles, the conclusion is that women who wear Kestos are beautiful. To view this ad and synopsis on the Kestos bra, view the article on dollhousebettie.com. (warning: this site is a loungerie-producer’s website and has photos with partial nudity)
1960’s: Chasonette Bra by Maidenform
The 1950’s and 1960’s were characterized by the conical bra that accentuated breasts even under very conservative clothing. The popularity of this bra style emulated Hollywood “sweater girls” like Jane Russell, and the accentuation of breasts along with skirts that made hips look wider was a return to the hourglass figure and to women’s role in child-bearing. This could be seen as a throwback to the Classical and Renaissance full-figured females where fertility was a prominent feature of female identity.
The conflicted role of women and sexuality from the 1950’s through the sexual revolution of the late 60’s was cleverly described in the 1998 film, Pleasantville. Pleasantville explores the strict gender roles of the 1950’s through the eyes of two teens from the 90’s. As the modern teens expose the town’s inhabitants to modern concepts and sexuality, the town of Pleasantville undergoes its sexual revolution. You can also view this clip through Youtube.
The late 60’s birthed early feminism and was a period of transformative change in gender roles, and some would say the sexual revolution was the beginning of a slow death in traditional family values.
But Maidenform’s advertisements for their new Chasonette bra were ahead of their time in 1963, already hinting at the upcoming transformations in gender roles. A 2011 article in AdWeek compared Maidenform’s 1963 “I Dreamed” campaign with modern Victoria Secret ads.
Author Robert Klara stated that this vintage ad is more scandalous and provocative than our modern-day Victoria Secret ads that feature virtually nude models with “come-hither” stares. Each “I Dreamed” ad featured a model in a Maidenform bra, who confessed that she dreamed of participating in traditionally male roles or male social settings in her bra (Klara, 2011). This campaign was highly eye-catching because it rejected the era’s cultural ideology of women in the home.
2011: The Victoria Secret “Uplift”
Victoria Secret’s BioFit Uplift bra features modernized comfort with soft fabrics, volumizing padding, and the modern rounded, more natural cup shape. This ad’s tagline “You’ll think it’s custom made” is followed by a comprehensive list of sizes. The major selling point of this bra is just that, the sheer number of sizes available. The unspoken commonplace? Every woman is made to be unique (and deserves a bra that fits comfortably).
The imagery of the ad on the other hand, the young and skinny model, seems to be one of a million sexy, skinny loungerie models. This rather nullifies the “every woman is unique” rhetoric. The return of the skinny model to advertising can be seen as a combination of women’s increased role in the workplace and their continuing role in advertising as sexual beings. The biggest change from the 1920’s ads are a softer look and more suggestive, bedroom poses.
2018: The Future Maidenform “Apocalypse” Bra
As the feminist movement continues to equalize gender roles in modern society, we hope to see bras and bra advertisements feature women in strong roles. The future of the bra will support comfort and practical form for women. Soft, supportive fabrics and natural shapes will support real women, whether athletic or full-figured. Themes of sexuality in beauty may soon be replaced by themes of beauty in both strength and vulnerability.
Is Hollywood finally coming around to the idea of strong women as an aesthetic of beauty? If not, well, there is always the next apocalypse to look forward to. Either way, the advertising industry and bra construction have a long way to go in promoting bras for real women with real shapes. While there is a movement in the fashion industry to market products using “plus-sized” models , these models are barely over a size 8. The more appropriate term would be “average-sized” models.
Fashion and feminism aren’t yet reconciled, and hopefully it won’t take a zombie apocalypse for that to happen. But the history of the bra definitely traces the evolution of more equal gender roles in our society and less under-wire.
“The Kestos Brasierre: The First Of Its Kind.” DollhouseBettie. Partial Coverage, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
Klara, Robert. “Uplifting Bra Ads: A vintage spot is more provocative than one from sexy specialist Victoria’s Secret.” AdWeek. AdWeek Mag., 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
Stampler, Laura. “The 100-Year History of the Modern Bra Is Also the History of Taking Off Bras.” Time. TIME Mag., 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
Topi, Rudolf. “Jack Sparrow saved Elizabeth” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
ChippyChopper. “Shining Glory” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 22 Feb. 2009. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
Me My Dress and I. “Revolutionary Fashion: 100 Years Wearing A Bra!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 21 Jul. 2015. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.