The bra — invented by an early 20th-century fashionista — started off as a symbol of liberation, freeing women from the constraints of the corset. Fifty years later the bra had gained notoriety as a symbol of female oppression, and the phrase "bra-burning," which stereotyped the feminist movement, entered the lexicon as a symbol of freedom and power.
Give the bra another 50 years and ... who knows? The brassiere — whether padded, push-up, wired, strapless, lacy or athletic — still supports wardrobes for the vast majority of American women. Anyone who chafes against her modern-day bra need only consider its century of history to find a measure of comfort.
A 1905 edition of Vogue magazine put the word "brassiere" into print, using the French term for an arm guard or upper-body harness with arm straps. But the idea of bust support without a corset's full-torso confinement had been gaining popularity for at least two decades.
According to Life magazine, Herminie Cadolle invented the first modern bra in 1889 France by bisecting the traditional corset and shoring up its top half with shoulder straps. A few years later, the United States granted Marie Tucek a patent for her "breast supporter" by means of a metal plate that resembles the modern underwire bra. Historians, however, view those early attempts as late forms of corsetry, which literally defined the 19th century.
It took New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob to free women from 500 years of the corset's restrictive reign. Exasperated by rigid whalebones marring the smooth silhouette of her silken evening gown, 19-year-old Jacob fashioned a breast-containment system from two handkerchiefs and some ribbon in preparation for a 1910 debutante ball.
In 1914, Jacob obtained a U.S. patent for the "backless brassiere" and later sold the rights for $1,500 to Warner Brothers Corset Co., of Bridgeport, Conn. The company would realize more than $15 million from Jacob's ingenuity.
No doubt nearly every woman reading this article has invested in Jacobs' invention — likely from the time she hit puberty. And if she hasn't been wearing a bra, woe to her breast tissue, her back, her neck and her shoulders, says Gail Ropel, owner of Comfort Zone Boutique in Medford.
"It really is a medical necessity to have one," says Ropel, who stocks thousands of bras in hundreds of styles and in sizes from 32AA to 54G. "It improves posture, relieves headaches, neck aches and upper back aches. And reduces the chance of getting yeast infections on the surface and in the folds of the breast tissues, which is a warm, damp area, especially come summertime."
It's not just a woman's health that benefits from wearing a properly fitted bra; it's also her appearance.
"Our modern clothing is designed to actually have bras," says Ropel. "The sheer fabrics, more fitted styles — they all look better when you have the right shape underneath it."
The corset was the first undergarment in recent history that supported breast tissue, says Ropel, even though it was primarily designed to nip in the waist. However, because of the unique role that breast tissue plays, it deserves specific attention.
"It's basically gland tissue with some connective tissue and fat," says Ropel. "It changes with pregnancy and when you nurse."
Breast tissue also is affected by changes in weight and age, as well as cosmetic surgeries.
"We've had a lot of women come in who have had augmentation," says Ropel. "The plastic surgeon told them they didn't need to wear bras, and that's not true — gravity still works on post-surgery breasts, and they can end up being a pretty weird shape."
Most women have a love-hate relationship with their bras — they like the comfort, freedom and visible boost they receive but on some level wish they didn't have to wear one. And almost nobody likes to shop for a bra.
That's where professionals like Ropel come in. A certified mastectomy fitter through the American Board of Certification in Orthotics & Prosthetics, she welcomes women of all shapes, sizes and comfort levels to receive a complimentary fitting from her stock of more than 2,000 bras.
"Not many people feel comfortable standing half-naked with a total stranger," concedes Ropel. "Because of our culture and media, a lot of women have a preconceived notion of what breast tissue should look like, and that's not how women look at all. It's OK — you're not going to be that model, and it's OK if there's a size variation or if you have really big breast tissue or hardly any breast tissue at all."
The vibe at Comfort Zone Boutique is "Come as you are, let's deal with life as it is, deal with nature as it is, and let's make the best of it."
The experience might even be a revelation. Ropel has witnessed breast-cancer patients who have had lumpectomies, reconstruction and mastectomies make connections while shopping.
"A woman might tap another on the shoulder and say, 'I've been there, and this is what's going to happen,' " says Ropel. "They exchange numbers and sometimes strike up a friendship."
The experience may even inspire some women to strike up a friendship with their bras.