The idea of molding the female body into different silhouettes is not new. It traces its origins to the Minoan civilization of the Bronze Age, in which metal plates were worn by women to minimize the waist and emphasize the chest (Corsets). This primitive form of a foundation garment eventually evolved into the corset: a stiff, torso-enveloping garment that squeezed woman into unnatural cone and funnel shapes. Though corsets are a passé fashion fad today, other body shaping garments, namely the bra, have become ubiquitous in women’s lives. Though the technologies employed to achieve different body shapes have changed dramatically throughout the ages, the underlying belief that women’s bodies must be shaped to look better has gone unchanged.
Before the bra was invented, the corset dominated the foundation garment industry. A multi-functional garment, the corset was designed to alter the shape of not just the breasts, but also the waist and stomach. Corsets also were purported to correct a slouching form, and were marketed to children for this purpose. Fabrics used in corset construction included linen and canvas (Carter 27). Corsets were lined with wood, reeds, straw, or baleen from baleen whales, a fibrous substance used by the animal to filter krill and other protozoa from the water during feeding. Baleen was strong yet bendable, and could be cut into strips to line the fabric of the corset (Lynn 143). The modern bra by comparison is often composed of a blend of man-made and organic materials such as rayon, cotton, and nylon (Bra).
The corset industry used fear and threats to maintain profits, while the bra industry catered to women’s needs to encourage loyal patronage. In Jill Fields’ “‘Fighting The Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930,” Fields reveals that:
Corset manufacturers’ coordinated response to women’s new widespread defiance of older fashion standards, which enlisted corset saleswomen to deploy their merchandising campaign against the ‘corsetless evil,’ emphasized youthful standards of beauty, developed scientific discourse that viewed the female body as inherently flawed, and connected ideologies of racial purity, national security, and heterosexual privilege to corset use. (Fields)
Throughout the use of these advertisements, the corset industry established the corset not simply as a fashion garment, but as a symbol of beauty, womanhood, patriotism, racial superiority, and heterosexuality. The corset both literally and figuratively constricted a woman’s choice in foundation garments. The bra industry by comparison has prided itself on providing comfortable garments for women, as evidenced by the creation of the bra itself.
The first patented bra was designed by 19-year-old Mary Phelps Jacobs, who was frustrated with the way the bulkiness of her corsets awkwardly showed underneath her delicate, sheer gowns. She created a garment made of two triangular pieces of fabric to cover the breasts, and ribbon to function as straps. Jacobs celebrated how her invention “is characterized by extreme simplicity by freedom from bones… and which when worn is both comfortable and cool and so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise such as tennis… (Garber)” and also how it “does not confine the person anywhere except where it is needed (Garber).” The shift of power from manufacturer to consumer was attributed to the invention of the bra. Jacobs established the bra as a garment that truly understands a woman’s needs, one that gives women freedom of movement as well as the freedom to voice to the manufacturer what she needs in a foundation garment. In its era, the bra was a radical feminist invention that rejected the notion of the corset industry that a woman’s body must be completely confined.