Thursday, June 04, 2009


I have a huge drawer full to the brim with underwear that I have never worn and will never wear. I have been going through it recently and attempting to part with what I do not need because it is ridiculous to continue to rifle through an entire draw of clothing each morning just to find the few pairs of undies I will actually wear. Kind of weird though giving away underwear, even to the thrift store, I mean I don’t feel comfortable selling it, even if it’s new on Ebay for heaven’s sake. (Although, who knows, maybe there is a market for middle-aged women’s granny pants. Eeeww, too creepy to think about, forget I ever mentioned it!). Finding underwear that both fits and is comfortable, as all women know, remains a life’s quest. If you find a brand you like, stock up, because they won’t be available next month due to changing styles and materials. Even if the store allows it, trying them on there just isn’t something I want to do and when they end up being ill-fitting or uncomfortable, I end up with a drawer full of stuff I will never wear.

I used to be young and thin and was utterly unaware of my blessed state. I rarely thought at all about my body image and ate what I wanted. But with the onset of age and the removal of my thyroid for medical reasons, on came the weight. My body is a pretty equal opportunity kind of girl, the fat distributing itself fairly evenly on all body parts, so suddenly I have breasts for the first time in my life, something I thought that I wanted when I was a wee thing, oh foolish, foolish girl.

When I was young I didn’t really need to wear a bra, my breasts were fairly small and stayed where they were suppose to stay. I wore a bra or camisole solely for modesty’s sake. In fact, while I was in college the camisole wasn’t yet available (although a “teddy” was, remember those? Totally impractical!), so I went to the children’s department of J.C. Penny’s and bought girl’s undershirts and wore those. Wow, I used to be so tiny! And anemic. Now however, between the effects of gravity and weight gain, my going bra-less w
ould NOT be a pretty site! Walking down the street this way might cause folks to run screaming in the opposite direction with their hands over their eyes. What cruel twist has Mother Nature wrought that when slender and young I am barely an A cup, but in order to enjoy being busty I must also endure being fat. Not fair!

In my opinion, bras are hateful things, who the heck decided that breasts ought to be imprisoned in such an uncomfortable way? Under wires, over wires, side support wires, goodness, my breast aren’t wild animals that need to be confined for pete’s sake! Does steel actually need to be involved in a piece of underclothing? At least for the moment, my breasts still point forward and not down at the floor, so it isn’t like I need a cage built around each one in order for them to stay in the general area to which they originally grew. Something in a nice natural fabric like cotton would be nice, but most under things are made of synthetic fabrics for some reason. Why, oh why would I want to place hot, unbreathable, restrictive synthetics up against the most delicate parts of my anatomy? And I live in the south, where come August all fabric, including cotton ends up feeling like latex against one’s skin because of the combined heat and humidity. I might as well wrap myself in plastic wrap and be done with it, because that is about how comfortable the average bra is. So it got me to thinking about who, in all his vast wisdom, invented the bra and why.

Throughout the last two thousand years of history most women in the western parts of the world wore a chemise under their many layers of petticoats and dresses, this doubled as an under-garment as well as a sleeping gown. Linen and wool were the most commonly available materials for fabrics; both are rather uncomfortable in there own ways, even linen. And if you are thinking of the lovely silky smooth linen of today, think again, I’ve made linen from scratch (I really have, it was part of a job I once had at a museum I worked at many years ago) it is made from the flax plant which has a tough outer husk and when prepared by hand the process is not only tedious but imperfect; bits of husk invariably end up in the finished product causing skin irritation. A popular fabric of the day was called ‘linsey-woolsey’; it was a blend of both linen a
nd wool. So for the price of one skin torturing textile, you could get two competing elements for who will be the prickliest and drive you to go commando first. There was of course cotton, but it was expensive owing to the high cost of picking the pods and then plucking out all those cotton seeds, and much of cotton early on was imported from the East.

Up until the early 16th century, most breasts were free to be breasts in all their resplendent, dangling, perky or downward
s pointing glory. Then began the reign of the corset and suddenly breasts were made to contort themselves into shapes and places that didn’t come naturally. Some corsets pushed the bust up, some down, some pushed them in and some just squished them flat, and thus it went for several hundred painful, breath stealing years. And to add to the restrictions of the upper torso, women’s underwear also included hoop-skirts and fanny rolls and even bust padding. One of the more bizarre styles to have developed, in my opinion, was the idealized figure of ‘The Gibson Girl’ around the turn of the 20th century; a miniscule waist, a stuffed bust that ran from waist to neck and a padded back end, all of course fabricated with corsets, bone, metal and many ties. I’m having trouble breathing just thinking about it. (See the photo at right, is her posture the style of the day or is her nose seeking out much needed oxygen? It appears even her hands are beginning to curl up from lack of the life sustaining stuff!)

The invention of the cotton gin and the spinning jenny in the second half of the 18th century made cotton more available and affordable and this allowed for the making of mass-produced underwear in factories. Suddenly undergarments were available in stores instead of having to make them at home.

In the late 19th century the union suit was invented in Utica, New York, it was a one-piece front buttoned garment usually made of knitted material. It had long sleeves that extended to the wrist, legs that extended to the ankles and buttoned up to the neck. Oh those inventive repressed Victorians! Great in the winter I suppose, but a bit warm for some parts of the country. And though it had a buttoned flap in the back to make it easier to access body parts that needed regular attention, I can’t think that it was very convenient, especially for women who also had layers upon layers of skirts to deal with, and in a limited confining space such as in an out-house. Thus long johns, a two-piece version of the union suit, soon followed.

Finally, in 1913, a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob created the first brassiere using some ribbon and two handkerchiefs. Apparently, her original intention was to simply cover the whale bone sticking out of her corset, it being visible through her sheer dress. She then began making them for friends; the word spread and within a year Jacob had a patent for her design and began marketing it in the States. A woman invented the bra?! And here I just assumed that I had a man to thank for this torture device because I didn’t think that who ever invented the thing must have ever actually had to wear them. But then again when I think about the time in which the modern bra was invented and the original materials used, Mary’s idea could actually be considered liberating. (In actuality, bra-like clothing had been worn for thousands of years by women, just not regularly and no one until Jacob had thought to launch a marketing campaign). Couple the popularity of the new brassiere with women beginning to take an interest in athletic pursuits such as cycling and tennis, plus a metal shortage due to the First World War and soon the demise of the corset was assured. (Praise be.) Leave it to war to be the mother of invention!

In the 50’s and 60’s manufacturers began experimenting with synthetic fabrics (blast them!), as well as with color and style. What used to be simple white pieces of under clothing suddenly became colorful and stylish. The bust once again began to be emphasized and the ‘bullet bra’ inspired by Christian Dior’s designs hit the market. I remember my fifth grade teacher Miss Augustine favored these. Miss Augustine was a very, um, ‘healthy’ woman of perhaps forty. She had a flaming red bouffant, a big, very round behind and a breast shelf that you could balance a family of acrobats on. I remember watching her each morning as we pledged our allegiance to the flag as her hand came up to rest upon the vast expanse of her conical projections. I stood spellbound as only a nine year old girl could be, imagining the wonders still in store for me as I matured. Alas, the likes of which Miss Augustine displayed were never to appear upon my person, for which I am now quite grateful. Whew! dodged that bullet...bra.

Of course th
e 60’s also had that brief few years of young women declaring their desire to burn their bras, although I have always suspected that it may have been more the influence of the young men in the crowd encouraging that craze. Or perhaps women just felt a little left out with many combat aged men burning their draft cards during the Vietnam War, and searching quickly for a symbol of their oppression grabbed what was closest at hand; their brassieres.

And so, after this long history lesson on unmentionables, we arrive back at my personal dilemma; finding comfortable, natural fabric, inexpensive bras and undies. I had seen on Oprah that the “experts” suggest that women have
a bra fitting at least every few years and that she needed to have at least seven bras, one for each day of the week. I held this information in my head for quite awhile before one day while finding myself in a large department store with my eldest; age seven at the time, I decided it was time for a fitting. (For me, not my seven year old).

I explained to the “fitter”, who was a dead ringer for Miss Augustine, that I found bras to be quite hateful. She seemed to take offense but quickly shook it off and hustled me into a fitting room while pulling her tape measure from around her amble neck. When I striped to the waist in the presence of this stranger my young daughter gasped. “Mama! We are not supposed to show our privates to strangers!” she cried in horror. Before I could respond the fitter declared that she had seen “thousands, maybe millions of pairs of breasts, no big deal, dear.” I added my reassurance to my little one that it was okay; that this was the woman’s job. “It’s her job to look at breasts?!” she almost screamed, and I am sure that her high little outraged voice carried all the way to the store’s main floor. Oye. I told her that I would explain it later and to just sit there quietly please. Did you know that a blush extends all the way to one’s breasts? Well, it does, now you know.

After measuring me here, there and all around, a size judgment was made and dozens of bras were brought before me to try on. It was horrible, I hate trying on clothes as it is, but bras, ugh! We had to rule out all synthetics, lace and spaghetti straps, that left about three bras; at least the vast numbers were quickly diminished. I decided that there were two that were okay and then looked at the price tags. Now, if I had just looked at the prices to begin with I would never have put myself through this torturous process in the first place. $100.00 for a bra?! $55.00 for a single pair of underpants?! No way…. Seriously? I tried not to show my shock and picked the least expensive, which was $75.00 figuring after all this trouble I should at least give the thing a chance to change my figure…and it dog-gone better change my life in some positive way as well at that price! I took it home and figured its horrid under wires might be more comfortable after I washed it. I was wrong. I have never actually worn this particular bra for more than a few minutes; there is sits, sad and lonely with all the rest of the underwear rejects in the afore mentioned dresser drawer. I can get rid of the rest, but this one is brand new and too recently purchased; it will have to sit in that drawer a while longer before it finally meets the fate of all the rest of the castoffs. Silly, I know, but it’s my way. Fortunately for me I made a wonderful discover at Target last week, a soft, cotton, wire-free, lace-free reasonably priced ($16.00!) bra that fits and is comfortable. Thank you Gillian O’Malley (brand) for hearing my silent scream, er, plea. Once I had actually worn this version all day and had not been tempted to shred it from my body while at work since it is really quite comfortable, I went back and bought the requisite seven bras, one for each day of the week, just like the holy experts instructed. I have considered going back and loading up because I just know they won’t be there the next time I am ready to buy, but I will try to restrain myself. And that expensive one from the department store? I think I’ll burn it and symbolically liberate my breasts. I’m sure if they could they would dance for joy, or if not dance, they can at least dangle with delight.

©KKW 2009


Debby said...

I read recently that the Target Gillian O Malley brand is really a lower end Victoria Secrets. I LOVED hearing that, since sadly, after 2 kids drain my wallet, I don't even walk into a VS anymore.........

Sherry Mc said...

Oh the quest for the perfect bra. Why can we have the genes for the perfect bra instead. I enjoyed your history. Wanted to add that I worked in our church thrift store and while we weren't allowed to sell undies, we had a help-yourself bin at no charge and it was the first place people headed when they came into shop. Sherry Mc Va