Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Boob Cage

Luman L. Chapman's design, 1863

When the words left her mouth - it was epiphanic!  "Boob Cage."  That's what Rissa called it. "Boob Cage." What a revelation!  'Cause that's exactly what a bra is.  A cage for your boobs.  It is the perfect description.  It completely brings to mind the sensation at the end of the day when the underwire is digging into that place between ribcage and armpit and the strap's dermatographia is indenting your skin with patterns that will take hours to disappear.  In my mind's eye I can hear the nearly-orgasmic sounds that fall from my mouth when my cage comes off.  "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...."  And for those who don't worry about giving themselves a black eye, the shaking of the girls when they are finally free range, the way a shampoo model shakes out her hair.

It got me to thinking about women's undergarments and wondering when the shift from corset to brassiere actually happened.  From the 16th century up until the late 19th, the corset reigned supreme.  That was the go-to for support - at least for the upper classes.  Working class women knew better than to invalidate themselves with something that would stop full breaths, possibly damage ribs and/or internal organs and gave you bowel disorders.  Yes, they might be poor, but they didn't swoon and could poop properly.

Just imagine the noises that you'd be making if you were taking one of these babies off at the end of the day:

In case you can't tell from Mr. Lesher's 1959 patent -
this is basically like wearing armour.
The bits that look like metal... ARE.

Feminine garments such as the above are the reason why Elizabeth Stuart Phelps cried for women to "Burn your corsets" - in 1874!  Although there wasn't much to burn in these early support garments - melt down might be more appropriate.

Olivia Flynt - a Massachusetts seamstress of 25 years, and also a proponent of the Clothing Reform Movement,  created the Flynt Waist in 1876.  In the patent for her Improvement for Bust Supporters she writes:  

"This garment fits the person closely; there are no objectionable seams; it does not need whalebones or steels to keep it in place; the body is allowed to move with perfect freedom; the garment is a most comfortable and pleasant one, and by reason of its cut, as described, the shape of the garment is always preserved, and is not liable to be distorted or strained."

In 1882's The Manual of Hygienic Modes of Underdressing for Women and Children Flynt states:

"While the Waist permits natural circulation, perfect respiration,and freedom for every muscle, it imparts an artistic contour and elegance of motion, that all corsets utterly destroy."


In 1889, Herminie Cadolle, a famed Parisian corsetière, designed the first "bien-être," a "well-being" for your boobs.  A garment in two parts, the lower, a corset for the waist and the upper, a support for the breasts.  The top soon was called the "soutiene gorge" - which is what your modern woman in France still dubs the "bra."   (Though the direct translation is throat support - which begs the question, how high up are French women's boobs?)   But even Cadolle's first kick at uplift still bore closer resemblance to corset than of the modern day brassiere, so full of stays and ribs was its construction.

Marie Tucek turned the world on its caboose when she patented this breast supporter in 1893:

This is NOT porn, it's a patent.
It took everything in me NOT to colour her nipples pink.

Tucek's patent involved a metal supporting plate, not unlike the underwire support from the "up and outers" that every lingerie company in the world now shills.  Just think of the posture that you'd have to have to maintain to ensure that the metal supporting plate didn't literally cut you in half, thereby offering you the starring role as the unsuspecting victim in a magic trick gone wrong. No slouching at a keyboard for women wearing this breast supporter. When I showed David this illustration, he was terrified - he thought that the cup support was also metal and had serrated teeth.

And then Mary Phelps Jacobs changed everything.  In 1910, Mary purchased a daring evening gown, under which, her regular corset was visible.  What to do?? She and her maid fashioned an undergarment from two silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon.  Et Voilà!  The brassiere was truly born.

She patented it in 1914 and sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company soon thereafter.  A lot can be inferred about Mary Jacobs and her silk handkerchief brassiere - of this you can pretty much be certain - she was a B cup or less - there is no way that anything C or above could be adequately supported by two silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon.

Tomorrow's research shall be on the athletic supporter.

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