A tale of uplift.
The bra is a keener pleasure for being optional. Thirty years ago, many items once necessary to female life--bras and girdles, hats and gloves, formal hairstyles and conventional makeup--were banished to the torture chamber of the patriarchy. One by one they have all come back, licensed frivolities rather than slavish concessions to the male beholder. Since they are subject to women's freedom of choice, many women never make use of them, and that, too, has its own excitement.
Of all the old appurtenances, the bra was the only one that never really disappeared, since some women can't do without it. In fact, developments in bra construction and embellishment speeded up when not wearing them became a natural right instead of a questionable perversion and wearing them became a sensual experience instead of a social duty. Now there are tough sports bras for active women, cleverly minimizing bras for the very abundant, and scores of confections with no function but to delight, whether on bodies or in pictures. The Wonderbra was a popular sensation a couple of years ago, and Madonna in her Gaultier monstrosities was a showbiz sensation four years before that. It's clear that breasts well emphasized by artfully designed bras are thrilling to all sexes and ages, and there's nothing wrong with that. The Victoria's Secret catalogue makes a fine successor to the one from Frederick's of Hollywood.
T his year we can also relish the flat-chested puberty look of what used to be called a "training bra" and is now being worn as part of the dress. Designers are enclosing nearly nonexistent breasts in the familiar bra-shape, then sliding a dress around it (attached with little rings), or over it (so it shows through), or below it (sewn on, sometimes in a different material). The more the bra seems like underwear, the sexier it is; when it's more like a bikini top, the effect is simple modishness. In any case, though, the idea is never to thrust actual breasts into actual prominence. It's a reference only, a delicate allusion to that deeply satisfying modern icon, the brassiere-clad bosom with its distinctively engineered shape.
The fetishism of female underwear dates, in its current incarnation, to the second half of the last century, before bras existed and when the prevailing excitement was all about underpants. For hundreds of years, women had worn only petticoats. The arrival of white, frilly panties caused a stir, especially since many were "open drawers"--that is, pants made as two separate knee-length legs, hung on a single drawstring around the waist but with no fore-and-aft crotch seam. The wicked Parisian cancan dates from this steamy epoch.
I n those days a great divide separated underwear from outerwear, so a glimpse of petticoat frill was a thrill. But even more so were the lines of the figure created by the invisible corset (think Seurat), along with the knowledge of invisible underpants caressing secret places with every rustling step.
The bra is an early 20th century invention, born of a new ideal for the female body newly engaged in sports and gainful employment. This ideal had two elements, one forthrightly celebrating female anatomy in all its strength and elasticity, the other more covertly emphasizing a woman's sensual pleasure in her physical self and in being touched by others. The corseted shapeliness of earlier decades had been a treat for the eye and the mind, but not for the hand. The new, flexible shape, covered by a few thin layers of fabric, was enjoyable to its owner and accessible to the male grasp. Fur coats came into vogue, the dance craze erupted, and the diaphragm was invented, all well before World War I.
Breasts, however, presented a problem. They don't have muscles that can govern their own movements, and if they're sizable, they swing and bounce with the slightest motion of the body. In the brisk new 20th century, it seemed a good idea for lightly clad but respectable women to cover up their breasts and make sure they were held still--without, of course, reverting to the lines of the old-fashioned corset. Some neat arrangement was required that would inhibit neither the tennis arm nor the Charleston.
The first bras simply flattened the bosom with a band, to help create a radically immature-looking female form. That adroitly solved the public breast problem, while new cylindrical girdles flattened the hips, tum, and bum. But when ripe feminine curves came back into fashion in the '30s, there appeared the double-breasted and cantilevered bra--the "uplift" bra. The Sweater Girl, exemplified by Lana Turner, appeared in 1937; you could see that under her sweater was her bra, lifting up, holding out, and separating and steadying her breasts with firm insistence. Before long, breasts in visible or invisible bras--torpedo-shaped, grapefruit-shaped, cone-shaped, headlight-shaped, all held impossibly high up on the chest--appeared in movies, in ads at every level, in comic strips, and in soft-core porn. It was the time of "I Dreamt I Ran for Congress in My Maidenform Bra."
Later the padded bra and the underwire bra added perfection to individual outlines, and still later, the molded, seamless bra produced a skinlike surface under tight clothes. From roughly 1930 to roughly 1970, the bra-shaped breast was the only one anybody saw in public outside an art museum, and the vision was indelibly imprinted on the collective mind. A rage for that shape persists; breast augmentation and reduction procedures are popular, and the bra business is bigger than ever.
But contemporary women can have it both ways. Women who never really need bras can ignore them or wear them at will. Modern feminism, modern habits, and modern fashion have familiarized the eye with mobile and visible breasts of different shapes and sizes, even with the harsh truths of breast cancer. Breasts have lost much of their mythological aura and acquired some needed reality. But the delicious look of breasts in bras, to say nothing of the delicious feel of them for the wearer, taps into a very ancient human joy. Emphasizing breasts is too great a pleasure to abandon.
Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.