When I was in my mid teens, my mother took me shopping for a dress to wear to a school dance. Never destined to be buxom, in those early days, I had the anatomy of a brick. Nonetheless, the sales woman at one shop was determined to find an outfit that would flatter my figure. She brought dress after dress into the changing room and finally, one caught my eye — a black velvet gown with a plunging neckline — much too old and sophisticated for me but just right for Lauren Bacall. At 16 I didn’t have dress sense, so I tossed the garment over my head and thought it fate when it melted over me like ice cream on a hot day.
The mirror told a different story. My mother and I blinked at a neckline that plunged past my belly button. My proportions were modest, as I’ve said, but even I felt too bare for comfort. The sales woman agreed. When she entered the dressing room, her hands flew to her lips. “My dear.” she laughed. “You have the gown on backwards. But in your case, who would know?”
Needless to say, shopping for a bra at that young age had its own horror stories. I hated bras then and I hate them now even though old age has given me enough sag to pass for volume. What a person who’s never worn a bra should know is that despite advertiser’s claims, the world has yet to invent a harness that couldn’t serve as an item of torture. Put the prisoner in a bra and he’ll tell you anything you want to know Which proves, by the way, that women are made of stern stuff.
If you think I exaggerate, history will bear witness. Bras have been a burden to women as far back as the ancient Egyptians, according to writer, Sallie Tisdale. (“Miracles And Wonders,” by Sallie Tisdale, Harper’s, November, 2015, pgs. Pgs. 50-56.) In modern times, designs are as varied as are women’s anatomy. A bra can prop breasts high enough to serve as a chin rest, or flatten them to match a boy’s body, as was required in the roaring twenties. The basic purpose of a bra, however, is to provide support. “Breasts have no muscles; they are collections of granular and fibrous connective tissues and fat, supported in part by skin.” (Ibid pg. 50)
At the risk of offending, I’m obliged to note, speaking scientifically, that among all mammals, the human female alone has tits that don’t disappear after pregnancy. Why? Some scholars posit their purpose is the help men recognize women. What that says about male acuity is something upon which I do not care to speculate. What I do know is breasts have a number of functions and come in an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes. They inspire artists, give suckle, help get a man’s reproductive juices flowing and provide a pillow when someone needs comforting.
Given the differences in women’s forms, no one should be surprised that bras come in great variety. Bras can be wired, plunged, banded to minimize, padded to enhance, made sturdy for sports, or lacy to adorn, disguise a mastectomy or aid a lactating mother. They can make a woman look pointed or rounded, depending upon the fashion of the times. Some open at the back or at the front or have no opening at all. They are constructed of cotton, nylon, rayon, Lycra or lace, among other materials. They give support to a strapless dress, a backless dress or a halter. They can be filled with air or cotton or nylon polymers and comprised of a few pieces or up to 50. They cost anywhere from $10 to $200 and are designed for the masses or are custom fitted.
I can only marvel at the ingenuity of the bra industry which every year rolls out new creations that promise to match a woman’s form and function. Now, if just one of those designers could invent a bra that is comfortable, I’d call that a real innovation.