Object lesson No 44

12th January 2001 at 00:00
The next time your cleavage shrivels at the sight of a Wonderbra, spare a thought for Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1913, this New York deb, driven to rebel by rib-crunching corsets, grabbed two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon and came up with something a little more comfy. But Mary did not like business and eventually sold the world's first bra patent to Warner Brothers (of corsets, not cartoons) for $1,500. It earned the company $15 million over 30 years.

For centuries, women had been enduring more physical and psychological pain then even hot-pants and platform shoes were to inflict. They scaffolded their bodies in iron, steel, whalebone and wood, achieving waists as tiny as 10 inches. Rebellion was in the air as far back as the 17th century, but nothing happened. By the time Victoria was on the throne, corsetry was an art and tits were a sin. Victorian women, not content with wearing whalebone corsets, chemises, drawers and petticoats, decided to add a corset cover. (Clearly they would have Scotchguarded toilet roll if they had had the technology.) Then in the early 1900s something happened. A slim band of flesh appeared. The corset had split and slipped to become a girdle, while its cover or camisole evolve upwards into a bra.

No one knows for sure who, if anyone, invented the bra though French seamstress Hermione Cadolle is credited with using support from the shoulder, rather than bottom-up from the corset. What is certain is that the garment has subsequently revealed far more than just flesh. In the post-war era of Jayne Mansfield (pictured), Jane Russell and Christian Dior, bras were confident, extravagant - in Ms Russell's case, cantilevered. Twin peaks were in, as were names like Roman Follies and Bonfire. Some bras were even inflatable - though rumour had it they exploded on aeroplanes.

Then the Sixties came along and feminists cast off their supporting role - and chucked their bras on the fire. The floaty, floral Seventies dragged them back out of the ashes, the power-dressed Eighties padded out their role, while the Nineties opened with Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour and the conical breasts of the bullet bra.

As for me, well, I've always felt a bit of a boob. I don't understand cup sizes and I don't find bra shopping uplifting. Like countless other women I prefer to wear the wrong size than be measured. For me it will always be Marks and Spencer or bust.

Stephanie Northen


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