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HOLLENBECK: An uplifting story: The history of the brassiere

October 13, 2011

There’s an urban legend that claims the brassiere was invented by a man named Otto Titzling, who reportedly lost a lawsuit with Phillip de Brassiere.
This reportedly originated with the 1971 book “Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra” and was propagated in a comedic song from the movie “Beaches.”
It’s not hard to figure out the reason to attribute the invention of the bra to a man. If I have to explain it, you probably don’t need to be reading this prattle.
I’m not certain that Otto and Phillip actually were the inventors of this feminine undergarment, but it makes for interesting conversation. I did some research, but couldn’t determine who actually is credited with the first sure-’nuf bra, because it’s hard to determine where the corset version ended and the modern bra began.
The bra, of course, evolved from the old-fashioned corset, which was considered both proper and sexy. The corset created the tiny waistline that was fashionable and accentuated a woman’s upper anatomy. There wasn’t much concern for the mishapened internal organs women experienced from wearing tight corsets, but then fashion designers rarely dwell on health and comfort.
During World War I, a ban on corsets was created because of the military’s need for steel. With the sales of corsets at a halt, accounts claim there was enough steel available to build two battleships.
Surely no female shed tears about giving up an undergarment that made it hard to move and breathe.
I grew up in the days of the classic merry widow that we wore with strapless formals and such. The goal was to whittle the waist to try to look like Scarlett O’Hara. I never knew anyone who had a 17-inch waist even with the tightest long-line bra in the world, but we tried..
Snopes.com reports that Clara P. Clark’s “improved corset” of 1874 may have taken the corset one step closer to the modern-day bra by adding individual breast pockets and shoulder straps that crisscrossed in back.
During the 1920s, a specially designed bra that laced on the sides was developed to cinch and flatten the chest for flapper fashions. A boyish figure was in style then.
If you’ve ever worn this style dress — and I have for theater productions — you experience comfort that I’d gladly embrace on a daily basis. This style was great for ease of movement, but I don’t know about the cinch-type contraption that went with the authentic flapper look. Doesn’t sound like an example of comfort to me.
In 1928, William Rosenthal and his wife Ida were designing undergarments, and developed the band/cup sizing system we still use today.
Bras have changed a lot based on the entertainment industry’s influence. In the 1950s, curvy women were considered sexy, with Marilyn Monroe being the classic example.
I heard someone say the other day that Marilyn would be considered a plus-size woman by modern standards. I don’t think she was quite at that status, but she certainly wasn’t a skinny-minnie.
I can certainly remember when little girls would get terribly excited about getting to wear a bra. It was seen as a rite of passage and symbolic of the girl coming of age.
There were even “training bras,” a concept that I found puzzling. (Training for what?)
The difficulty for bra manufacturers in past years was that they could not show a woman wearing this item in a newspaper or TV ad. When bras could be shown in ads, Maidenform became a household name with its “I dreamed I … in my Maidenform bra,”a promotion that showed women doing anything and everything they wanted to do while in total comfort.
It was called the “I Dreamed” campaign, and it was so successful that Maidenform used it for 20 years. Each ad featured a woman confessing she’d dreamt of wearing her Maidenform bra while doing something socially assertive — like going on safari, winning an election, climbing to the top of a building or shooting pool. By comparison, even the come-hither stare of the Victoria’s Secret model barely warrants a PG rating.
Nice department stores used to have “foundation departments” where women would buy their bras and usually a full-figured woman would be there to assist women in getting the right size. Most young women today would be clueless if you even used the term “foundation” to refer to underwear.
The bra has become a garment with erotic significance and a feminine symbol with political and cultural significance beyond its primary function. Some feminists consider the brassiere a symbol of the repression of women’s bodies.
Manufacturers produce an extremely wide variety of bras today that serve a variety of purposes. Bras can enhance the shape of a woman’s breasts, minimize or enlarge her perceived size, restrain breast movement during an activity, enhance her cleavage, overcome sagging, serve prosthetic purposes or facilitate nursing.
Regardless of its beginning, the bra is here to stay.
Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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