Thursday, 17 October 2013

Brassière - Bra Vogue

Brassiere, Titzling
A woman in a bra. Perhaps the easiest caption I've ever written.
(photo by David Yu)


Noun. Also brassiere. Early 20th century.
[French = child's reins, camisole, etc.]

A woman's undergarment worn to support the breasts.

We all know who invented the bra, right? I know this because I got the question in Trivial Pursuit once and got it right: it's Otto Titzling, of course. Except being an underhanded type of fellow, he supposedly stole the idea from Phillip de Brassière who subsequently sued, won, and that's why a bra is called a brassière and not a titzling. Except I didn't get it right. And neither did Trivial Pursuit. Otto Titzling, being a fictional character from the 1972 book Bust Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling, didn't invent anything. Rather, his name is simply a crude pun (a two-tit sling) that has somehow captured the public imagination (as anything to do with boobs is wont to do). Even his more refined sounding counterpart, Phillip de Brassière, is nothing more than a transparent pun (fill up the brassière). Shame on all of us for being so gullible.

In actual fact, the concept of bras and breast support predates Titzling (who supposedly lived in the early 20th century) by several thousand years. Female athletes in ancient Greece and Rome are depicted as wearing tight bindings to secure their breasts during sport, and startlingly modern looking bras have been discovered in Austria and dated to the 15th century. This indicates that what to do with breasts - whether to hide them, flaunt them, flatten them, accentuate them, etc - has long been a preoccupation for women (and men), probably for as long as humans have been wearing clothes.

The Bikini Girls, Bra, Brassiere
Roman women playing sport - mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale
(photo by Kenton Greening)
The modern brassière began to develop at the end of the 19th century. In fact, WWI pushed its production and popularity as women were discouraged from buying corsets (which were already beginning to fall out of favour) due to the scarcity of metal. Some estimates say that 28,000 tonnes of steel was thus saved by the United States, enough to build an entire battleship. Initially, the health benefits of wearing bras was touted in advertising and it's not difficult to see why this was convincing to women that had grown up wearing suffocating and organ-displacing corsets. The comfort, flexibility and fashionability of bras ensured that they would grow into what is today a multibillion dollar industry.

So bras are good for women, right? They offer support, comfort and (crucially) prevent their breasts from sagging in later life (a condition that's properly called breast ptosis). Well, a body of research is rapidly growing that indicates no, bras are not good for women and no, they do not prevent breasts from sagging or drooping as one ages. Regarding health matters, badly fitted bras have been linked to all manner of health problems - from bad backs to migraines, skin abrasions and restricted breathing. "Ah!" you say, "but that's just women with badly fitted bras!" True, but as some estimates suggest that 80% of women have ill-fitting bras, it's certainly a considerable problem, and one that gets worse for women with larger breasts.

Bra, Brassiere
Permalift ad from 1951

What about ptosis, the problem of sagging breasts? Well, again, it would seems that our ideas about bras are misplaced. A 15-year French study concluded that no, bras do not prevent sagging, and in actual fact wearing a brassière might accelerate sagging as it weakens the connective structures that hold the breasts in place. Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon of Besançon University states: "Medically, physiologically, anatomically - breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity. On the contrary, they get saggier with a bra." While times are changing, the pressures of fashion and cultural norms still dictate that most Western women wear bras regardless of the health implications. As research gathers pace, however, perhaps the days of the brassière are numbered, as essential items at least. If they are, as Professor Rouillon states, "a false necessity," maybe one day we'll look back on bras and their era with the same curiosity with which we regard corsets: "Women strapped themselves into those? How odd. And yet aesthetically pleasing." Now wouldn't that be something?

Do you see the bra as an essential component of one's wardrobe, or purely a fashion item?

Were you expecting more puns in this piece?

Don't you find it odd that the etymology of brassière is 'a child's reins'?

Do please leave your most uplif ... umm ... just leave your comments below.


  1. I call nonsense. Bras might not be perfect, far from it, to be honest, but to go bare chested isn't a solution either, especially not for women who are heavier on top. Gravity is still a thing, whether monsieur Rouillon likes it or not. And women like walking around without feeling their breasts are moving everywhere they shouldn't, too.

    1. In fairness, Prof. Rouillon didn't say gravity wouldn't work its wonders without a bra - but he believed that over the course of a lifetime breasts fare better without one, as does the health of the woman. Some of the quotes from the women that took part in his study were very interesting and (although one can't too put much faith in anecdotal evidence) they found the switch to going mostly braless very liberating, both from the daily discomfort and from some of the associated health problems (notably back pain). Women with large breasts encountered relief from back pain too.

    2. Does monsieur Rouillon also mention what happens with the braless ladies, when gravity eventually does catch up with them? Should they start wearing bras at age 40 or 50, after a life of mammary freedom? Or should we all just accept that we only have, say, fifteen years of nice-fitting t-shirts and dresses, and after that everything can just look shapeless and plain blah? Trust me, everyone wants their breasts to at least look like they're still perky, even if they're not anymore.

      Monsieur Rouillon might have a point - health wise -, I don't know, but these are not the times for his ideas. They are not. Besides, a good bra shouldn't hurt, no matter what size breasts you are.

    3. Prof. Rouillon does indeed say what happens when gravity catches up with these ladies - he said that, on average, their breasts will be in better shape than those that have relied on bras all of their life.

      You're right about what people want from bras - men and women - it is a look. However, that is one of the problems, as they're largely a fashion item that doesn't reflect the look of real breasts, but rather the cultural ideals of the time. The 1950s ad above is a good example - I think models of that era were called 'sweater girls'; the 'in' look was very tight sweaters over conical bras, which are hardly representative of any woman's body. The time may not be right, but for as long as women are pressured to conform their bodies to unrealistic standards at the expense of their health or comfort, there is a problem with society.

  2. I wouldn't be seen dead without a bra on, though being seen alive without one is a very different matter.

    I believe they are an essential component of one's wardrobe. If you have lots of things to carry, you can use your boobs as an extra pair of hands, but if you actually want to move three feet without dropping things, a bra is invaluable. Also, they provide you with an excellent excuse to go shopping. While "I need some new shoes" is an announcement that is never favourably received by my husband, he greets "I need a new bra" with considerably more enthusiasm. And if a couple of pairs of new shoes and maybe a new dress or two just happen to end up in my shopping bag, that's hardly my fault.

    Very sad about Otto Titzling, though. Next you'll be saying Thomas Crapper didn't invent the toilet.

    1. Why do I feel like I'm walking into a trap with this comment?

      An extra pair of hands? An excuse to go shopping??

      Umm ... OK ... well let's just hope ... umm ... these factors were taken into account when the research was conducted ...

      That's all I can say.

  3. Greece... The cradle of democracy and... bras? That's so cool, I didn't know about it. Also "ptosis" is the Greek noun for fall/dropping.

    In other news, I am annoyed when I see women (esp young ones) wearing ill-fitting bras. It's not that difficult to choose the right one I think. If your nipples are right next to your belly button, then you're doing something wrong lady!

    1. You've made me doubt myself now, Evi, as I know Greek athletes were famously nude when competing and I thought women weren't allowed to compete in Greek athletics. Hmm. I can't find the source I used for that information - I'm going to keep looking and will link it when I find it.

  4. There's nothing like going braless. Give me that freedom any day!
    I never did give a damn about fashion! :)

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