Breasts and bras, staring you in the face!

By Dorien Luyckx

The history of bras

Throughout human history specific clothing items played an important role in the emancipation of women. Till today specific clothing opens debates and keeps people alert for inequality.
During the First and Second World War women started to wear men’s overalls for the ‘men’s’ work they were needed to do. In the following decades women gained power over the male trousers and haven’t returned them since. Trousers became a symbol of emancipation of the modern women and nowadays the famous pamphlet still motivates women to fight for their rights. Another important clothing item regarding emancipation is the bra, which for centuries has played a significant role for the modern woman.

Although the bra was considered a late nineteenth century invention, some archaeologists have found in 2008 in an Austrian castle bra-shaped clothing from the fifteenth century, which probably belonged to a wealthy lady, considering the lacing details. Therefor the bra isn’t a new invention but a re-invention, which was reintroduced to replace the unbearable and torturing corset, which had been part of a woman’s garment for almost 4 centuries.



19th Century
At the end of the nineteenth century two pioneers rejected the corset and persuaded the modern women to throw away their corset chains and free themselves with the new bra. Herminie Cadolle (1845-1926) was a female pioneer in women’s lingerie. In 1889 Herminie Cadolle opened a lingerie boutique in Buenos Aires and soon she introduced on the international exposition of 1889 her new invention: she cut the classic corset in two new pieces and introduced the first soutien-gorge (French for bra). She had a successful business and employed over 200 seamstresses. She dressed many famous clients, one of which was the exotic dancer Mata Hari. Later on, during the First World War, she returned to France. WWI caused a metamorphosis in the fashion industry and Haute Couture (high Fashion) was born. Clothing, including bras, had to be beautiful and express the woman’s body.

Mata Hari

20th Century
At the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, Mary Phelps Jacob (1891-1970) bought a new garment, which was following the latest fashion, but showed the lines and pints of her corset underneath. Determined to wear this modern dress, she asked her maiden to attach two handkerchiefs and apply some straps for around her body and arms, a risqué choice, which soon was picked up by friends and others and in 1914 she patented the Backless Brassiere. Her bras didn’t give a lot of support, but were popularized during the Roaring Twenties.

Although the bra was considered as an element of emancipation when it replaced the restraining corset, in the 1960s and 1970s it became a symbol of female oppression. Progressive women started to burn their bras as a sign to the patriarchal system that they no longer accepted their given role in society. Others stopped wearing bras. It showed their independence and their fight for a new society, in which men and women were considered as equals and got the same freedom of choice and life.



Women’s rights
Nowadays breasts and bras still are a way to open the dialogue concerning women’s rights. The female body has become the new battleground for equality between men and women. Only recently the group “No more page three”, which targets the third page of The Sun, on which women pose topless, has reached 200.000 signatures against this objectification of the female body.

ANP PHOTO (1972), copyright:

Moreover, last year the feminist group Femen were a significant part of newsfeeds because of their topless protest campaigns against prostitution and macho culture. Femen’s main cause is to give new meaning to the nude female, as a political tool instead of a sex object. Moreover the nudity was also a way to ironically get the attention of the media, but only as long as the message is put first. And they’re not the only ones. The slut walks, that target the blaming-the-victim attitude regarding rape incidents, are a strong voice against the objectifying and oppressing image of female breasts today.


A weapon
Breasts have become not only a symbol against objectification, but also a weapon in the denotation of exposed breasts. “Matters like the taboo of the nipple in the 21st century, public breastfeeding, slut shaming, fat shaming, breast cancer awareness, body positivity, gender inequality, and censorship have found their way into mainstream discussion,” wrote Scout Willis on XO Jane. It follows a recent event at the beginning of June, when Scout Willis decided to go topless on the streets of New York.

Scout Willis (Bruce Willis’ daughter)

#Free the nipple
Instagram had kicked her out of the Instagram community because of “instances of abuse”. These instances were “in reality amounted to a photo of myself in a sheer top and a post of a jacket I made featuring a picture of two close friends top-less”, as she explained at Xojane. She has started the hash tag #freethenipple, that has been supported by many others.

A woman’s breasts still are considered an element of sexual seduction which ‘drives men crazy and full of lust’, that should be concealed to avoid unwanted attention. This message enters the brains of many people and defines how the world sees women: an object, there for a man’s entertainment. In bra commercials for example we can see that the focus mainly lies on sexiness and the man’s pleasure, rather than on the woman’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Luckily the debate hasn’t stopped yet and all over the world strong women are still fighting against this tendency.

Support men’s breasts
Finally nowadays the topic ‘breasts’ doesn’t only concern women, but many men who ‘suffer’ from moobs (man breasts) are pushed towards the muscular ideal the world wants them to be. Breasts are considered a female characteristic and therefor mocked and hidden, when a man has a pair. When bras would lose their sexual and female meaning it could be possible this can be used to support men’s breasts as well as women’s.

Important role
We can conclude that throughout the centuries bras and the bosom have played an important role in the female emancipation, but the job isn’t finished and people still are overrun by sexist images and visions on the female and male body. We still have a long way to go, but hopefully as we lay the focus on equality and self-esteem, bras and breasts could become a gender-neutral element.


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