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O'TOOLE: A brief history of the bra

• Nov 6, 2018 at 3:00 PM

One evening in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacobs dressed for a debutante ball in Manhattan and gazed into her mirror, frustrated with what she saw. Her corset created bulge beneath her sleek, sheer gown and peeked above the neckline. She called for her maid to fetch two handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. They sewed together what looked like a modern bikini halter top.

When Jacobs tried on the garment, she found that it provided support and coverage, but it was smooth and sleek under her clothes. There was no peek-a-boo effect. The best part?  It was more comfortable than her corset and less restrictive. Wearing it “was delicious,” Jacobs wrote in her autobiography:  “I could move more freely, a nearly naked feeling, and in the glass I saw that I was flat and proper.”

She wore her “backless brassiere” to the ball. Friends remarked on her ability to dance. Jacobs revealed her invention and they each requested one. When strangers­­ offered her a dollar for one, she saw a business opportunity.

Her brassiere business went bust, though, and she sold her patent to Warner Corsetry for what would be $21,000 today. Warner made $15 million with the patent in the next few decades.

The bra’s popularity soared during World War I when the War Industries Board banned corset manufacturing. This saved 28,000 pounds of steel—enough to build two battleships! Further, women were taking over men’s jobs in factories. It was believed that bulky, restrictive corsets were a safety hazard to a woman in physically demanding industrial work. Certainly they restricted movement and caused discomfort, maybe even pain.

Jacobs’ brassiere was two handkerchiefs sewn together, tightened and tied by ribbon strings. Bras, as they came to be known, have evolved substantially in the 104 years since she was granted her patent in November 1914. Adjustable straps, a band with a hook closure and cup sizes were added. Frederick Mellinger of Frederick’s of Hollywood invented the front hook bra and the “Rising Star” or push-up bra.

The first sports bra, the Jogbra, appeared in 1977. It was originally made from two jockstraps. Whatever its origins, women could at last exercise and play sports without a jiggle festival going on under their shirts. That’s not comfortable for anyone.

Today, the choices in styles and colors is dizzying. There’s padded, unpadded, underwire, no wire, plunge, full coverage and medium coverage, to name a few styles. The bralette is currently very popular. It’s unlined and lacy, with less structure than a bra. Sports bras come in a variety of styles and colors, too. The right one will keep your girls from moving during the most strenuous physical activity. You could jump on a trampoline and get no jiggle. If you don’t need heavy-duty binding of your breasts, you can opt for a sports bra with lighter support.

I remember my first bra. It was a Playtex and it was as white as a fresh snowfall. It looked sterile. Utilitarian. I felt naked the first time I wore it to school. Surely everyone could see it through my T-shirt. They were all whispering about me and laughing at me, I just knew it.

I hated that a first bra was called a training bra. Who was being trained, and for what? Was I entering my chest in a marathon soon? The phrase sounded too much like training wheels, implying inexperience and incompetence. It felt unfair. A boy’s first jock strap was not called a training cup.

When I got my first bras, I don’t recall seeing a variety of styles and colors. Selection was very limited. Today, however, girls have lots of choices. They can choose from several styles and there are lots of pretty colors and fun patterns to choose from.

If your bra is the right size and style, it should be so comfortable you forget you have it on. It shouldn’t pinch. The straps shouldn’t fall down, and your cups shouldn’t overflow, if you know what I mean, nor should the bra move when you do. You should not have rib or back pain, nor should you have red marks or indentions on your body when you remove the bra. Any of these problems indicate your bra is either worn out or you’re wearing the wrong size. Go get a professional fitting.

I used to shop at Victoria’s Secret, but I will never shop there again. On two occasions I went in planning to get fitted and buy two or three bras. Probably some panties, too. But the associates completely ignored me and helped others or busied themselves with other store chores. The last time, I walked out, then turned around and told the associate that because she ignored me for 10 minutes, I wasn’t going to spend my money there.

Muriel’s in Holland is my new favorite lingerie shop. Muriel and her assistant measured me and had me try on several styles until I found the most comfortable one. She told me to raise my hands in the air, then bend over. She watched carefully to make sure that my bra wasn’t sliding around. She checked to make sure I had no spillage.  I now own the three most comfortable bras I’ve ever worn.

Bras are often symbols of the repression of women. Actually, bras give us freedom we wouldn’t have otherwise. Long live the bra!

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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