A Brief History
On June 4, 2010, attorney Brittney Horstman was prevented from meeting with a client while he was incarcerated at the Miami Federal Detention Center because her underwire bra had set off a metal detector. It was feared that the metal in the bras could be used as a tool to help prisoners hurt themselves or escape or even as a weapon against guards. Ms. Horstman removed her bra in a bathroom but was still barred from entering the Florida prison because she was now braless, a violation of the prison’s dress code. During an investigation of the incident, a memo was found allowing female lawyers wearing underwire bras to enter the prison; however, the guards on duty during Ms. Horstman’s visit were unaware of the modified policy. The incident was concluded to be “an aberration”, and it was promised that it would not happen again.
Despite women always having had breasts, the brassiere or “bra” as it is commonly known is practically a modern invention. Although early bras have been found in Austria dating back to between 1440 and 1485, variations of the modern bra were only first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The interim period had been dominated by the corset, a contraption made of cloth and metal or whalebone which gave the appearance of a small waist and raised the bust.
Though they are not generally known for their sense of fashion, Germans are known for their practicality and ingenuity in design and engineering. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the first modern bra was patented in 1889 by Christine Hardt, a German woman! And later in 1912 Sigmund Lindauer of Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Germany, developed the first brassiere for mass production and had it patented in 1913. These bras were of course still somewhat rudimentary in form, and the first design that would now be recognized as a modern bra was patented in 1914 in the United States by Mary Phelps Jacob. Then came World War I, and metal shortages brought upon the end of the corset. With its main competition out of the way, the bra’s time had come!
This year the bra celebrates its 100th anniversary. Though first created as a means of physical support for the bust, it has now become a cultural norm, a symbol of femininity and a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood. So much so, that even flat-chested women who do not need support are encouraged to wear padded bras. But how necessary is a bra really? And can women be forced to wear them? When the author of this article was 9 and began sprouting buds on her chest, she made her mother drive her to the department store to pick out her very first bra. For all intents and purposes, the author did not yet have enough breast volume to even fill an AAA-cup (smallest cup size), but she demanded a bra because she believed that wearing it would help her identify with her mother and as a woman. In other words, it sexualized the young child. From then on, the author continuously wore a bra for the next 24 years, until she sustained a painful lower rib injury which made wearing bras extremely agonizing. So instead of wearing bras, she resorted to wearing undershirts under her tops. To her great surprise, she did not miss her bras. In fact she realized she did not need the support and had only worn the bras because she knew no differently. It was almost as if it had been expected of her, and that she never really had a choice in the matter based off of her own experiences, preferences and needs. Apparently society had dictated those for her.
Now should a woman be forced to wear a bra just a man might be forced to take his hat off in a building? Rulings have been made that companies may enforce a dress code to ensure uniformity of appearance, and other proponents of bra-wearing believe the bras help prevent sagging and help cover the nipples whose appearance might be deemed inappropriate and indecent to some. Granted there are some incidences when a bra is truly warranted, such as in sports and in breastfeeding and with women who are large busted and need the support or else they might develop back pain, but how necessary are bras in cases where less support is needed? And is this any one else’s business other than the woman’s?
Nevertheless, many view bralessness as slovenly, disgusting, unrefined or uncultured. Bras do shape the bustier and give it a pleasant if not sexy form, which might be viewed as aesthetically pleasing. In many ways, a well-shaped bosom has become a standard of beauty. But why is the natural look offensive to some? Or at least offensive enough to block access to public buildings such as prisons? Many women who go braless are judged harshly and even considered trashy. It receives almost as much public disapproval as breast-feeding in public. The author, on the other hand, can attest that if the breasts are not too large and if one wears appropriate clothing, bralessness will not be noticed. Bralessness does not automatically equate to bouncing boobies. It is however important for women who do choose to go braless to try to maintain some degree of tact and class. But what is tackier? – Wearing a tank top with no bra underneath or actually seeing the bra straps or even the clasp sticking out the back of the tank top?! So, you see, it is a matter of how “it” is packaged.
But getting back to the prison that denied entry to Ms. Horstman, how did they ever intend to enforce their stipulation that women wear bras on their premises? They knew Ms. Horstman was not wearing a bra because she actively took it off to gain entry, but in the author’s case, without careful inspection, they would never have noticed that she was not wearing a bra, so did they also have a pat down policy to ensure adherence to code? They are just boobs, people! In fact, at many detention facilities women are not even allowed to wear bras.
There are also some medical advantages to going braless. Bras that are too tight can obstruct flow of the lymph nodes, which may increase the risk of breast cancer. This risk comes about because the lymphatic vessels are thin and extremely sensitive to pressure and are easily compressed, meaning that less oxygen and fewer nutrients are delivered to the cells, and waste products are not flushed away. And for those of you who say that this is a ridiculous and unfounded myth, breast cancer and the lymph nodes of the arm are closely interrelated. Many women who have had mastectomies need to see specialized masseuses to manually have the lymph drained from them because it is common practice to remove the lymph nodes which are located in their armpits as well, as these are body parts to which the cancer oftentimes first spreads. Furthermore, when going braless, the straps and hooks can no longer dig into the skin and cause friction rubbing and open sores and wounds. On an aesthetic level, it is nice to wear tops without the outline of the bra and its straps underneath, which allows for a softer and less constrained appearance.
Bras have also long been viewed as a symbol of feminine oppression and going braless as a symbol of feminine expression. The 1960s experienced the bra-burning movement (this occurred symbolically rather than physically). And presently the women’s rights group Femen often stages topless protests at political conventions and public events. Their reasons for going topless, however, are less political in themselves, but rather so that they will be seen (and hopefully then heard).
And contrary to many men believing there are either “butt-men” or “boob-men”, depending on preference, most men are actually in fact “butt-men”. The popularity of the bra, especially the Wonderbra lies in ability to create the semblance of a small butt on the chest. Go ahead and truly take a good look at a full rack that has been squeezed together into a nice-looking cleavage. It really looks like a butt! Men have been biologically programmed since their cavemen days to like butts, as it is generally believed that “doggy-style” was the first sexual position practiced by mankind. And after all that imagery, you’ll probably never look at cleavage the same way again…
At any rate, the author does not feel any less feminine for going braless. She made an informed decision based off her current needs and preferences; however, should she one day decide to wear a bra again, she is happy for this option. As for Brittney Horstman, she probably never thought that in her professional field, her 15 minutes of fame would come from going braless. This example goes to show just how powerful a fixture in modern society the bra has become and just how it defines a woman’s femininity, sexuality and others’ perception of her. And despite what society may want, a woman’s breasts are there for herself and her children and not for others!
Question for students (and subscribers): Should bra-less attorneys be barred from entering prisons? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information on the history of bras, please see…
Berry, Cheree. Hoorah for the Bra: A Perky Peek at the History of the Brassiere. Harry N. Abrams, 2006.
Fontanel, Beatrice. Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras. Harry N Abrams Inc, 1997.