Expanding our ideas, social expectations, and norms. Let’s create more options.
We rarely see the actual shape of breasts.
What we see is the shape of bras. We see the shape that bras impose on breasts. We see curated breasts. We see a narrow range of bodies with breasts. Very narrow. We see photoshopped breasts.
If you wear a bra, have you ever asked yourself why?
Many people find bras uncomfortable. Taking a bra off is often the first thing people do when they come home from work. We are constantly searching for a more comfortable bra, but it is less common for people with breasts to choose not to wear a bra (despite decades of questioning).
When people complain about their bra being uncomfortable, a frequent response is that “you must be wearing the wrong size of bra.” This response is so frequent that I’ve come to wonder how it can possibly be true. We can send humans to the moon but we can’t reliably find a bra that fits? (It is also essentially blaming the victim… if you’re uncomfortable, it must be because you chose the wrong bra!)
Actual vs. Idealized Shapes
These thoughts led me to an art project that explored the shape of bodies with and without bras. Through simplified silhouettes, I explored the diverse shapes of bodies with breasts and the shapes idealized through bra advertising.
I made silhouettes of idealized bra shapes through different eras, starting with the emergence of bras in the early 1900s. Through this process, it became clear that cultural expectations change over time. Every fashion era has its own idealized feminine silhouette. These iconic era silhouettes are made from ink, using text from the era’s bra advertisements.
In my research on advertising I found many common refrains. “Bras are more comfortable than corsets,” for example, marked a shift from corsets to bras. As a side note, the shift from corsets to bras was, in part, a war time response to prioritizing metal used in corsets for the war ships and the need for women to have more mobility when working in factories. Put another way, the move to bras wasn’t due to comfort for women but rather a response to a war time necessity.
One of the most horrifying things I found was advertising selling corsets to women (and children!) on the basis of health. Ads claimed that corsets promoted better posture, reduced cancer, and more. Later we these soundbites have often been used in ads for bras. Corsets and bras, worn regularly, would “prevent your breasts from sagging.” The fucked up underlying message here is that breasts have a best shape.
Over and over ads claim they provide “uplift and separation.” Why is this our goal for breasts? And why does it continue to be the goal for many, even today?
Well, according to ads, women should always want to look young and attractive, and one way to do that is through your breasts!
“Our special design gives you a fuller, alluring bustline instantly … suitably understated yet high, young and proud”excerpt from a 1940s bra advertisement
The second part of the project was silhouettes based on real people, unshaped by bras. I interviewed a number of people and asked them to pose without a bra. (Thank you to my amazing friends who were willing to do this!) I took photos in profile, using the photos to paint the silhouettes.
The variety of shapes speaks for itself.
The frequency of the word support in both advertisements and my interviews has made me curious about this word.
“Brassiere supports will make you look younger and feel better than ever. They will lift abdomen and breasts to healthful position. This will cause bulges to disappear. Supports give you slimmer more youthful lines and make clothes fit so much better.”excerpt from a 1940s bra advertisement
I think “youthful lines” is code for breasts being higher up on someone’s chest. Why do we want this?
If you look long enough, the meaning of “support” might become fuzzy for you. It’s become very fuzzy for me. I don’t understand what it means any more. What exactly is being supported? And why?
Caught up in all of this is a social expectation that breasts shouldn’t sag, shouldn’t swing, shouldn’t move. The ideal feminine body is contained. Controlled. Small. Sexy. But not too sexy. And obviously, nipples should never be visible. But why?
To be super super duper clear: if someone finds they get comfort and less pain and more joy from wearing a bra, then I’m stoked for them. For myself, I sometimes find it hard to separate the different elements of comfort.
Sometimes comfort comes from conforming to social expectations—passing unnoticed and therefore un-judged. We often don’t even know what the boundaries are until we rub up against them. Social expectations are often invisible to us until we break them (such as this absurd example of a non-existent dress code being used to punish a high school student for not wearing a bra).
Sewing is revolutionary because we can sew for the shape we are, not try to fit our bodies into the shape of our clothes. A lot of us in the sewing community (and beyond!) are trying to unpack and challenge body image expectations. I’m excited for this unpacking to reach into the terrain of breasts! If all bodies are good bodies, then all breast shapes are good shapes.
I want us to expand our social expectations and normalize not wearing a bra, even (or especially!) for people who have larger breasts. I want more options for all of us.
Rebecca has been sewing for about five years and has a mostly me-made wardrobe. She co-hosts a monthly Curvy Sewcial at her local fabric store. She also draws, paints, knits, makes jam, collects fabric, and seems to feel compelled to learn a new craft every so often. Find Rebecca on Instagram @makingculture.