The Bra Strap

I remember the day distinctly, it was the mid sixties and I was standing in the girls locker room with my shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal (to anyone who might want to notice) that I was wearing my first training bra.  The gleeful shouts of my classmates echoed amongst the metallic clanking of the locker doors, and Kit Spaulding jostled me to get at her locker beneath mine.  The training bra was little more than a glorified undershirt, whose only bralike feature was the clasp in the back.  It was also unclear what I was in training for, since there was clearly nothing to “lift and separate” as advertised by Maidenform.  Perhaps the advertising geniuses wanted to take a page out the cigarette industry and get pubescents hooked on their trainers early on and create a life long devotion to the Maidenform brand.  Personally, the only thing that I was in training for was a slowly emerging pubescence that seemed to lag behind the other boy-crazy girls in my class, like Debbie Brown or Gail Chandler. 

I remember looking down and noticing that the bra was adorned with a demur pink ribbon and feeling very conflicted.  On the one hand, I certainly wanted to join my peer group and announce my anticipated puberty, but I wanted to do it quietly and discreetly without someone coming up from behind and snapping the strap and yelling, “snap, snap you are a turtle now!”  I tried to figure out how I could somehow simultaneously whip off my school shirt and slip into my gym uniform, and then of course I would have to repeat the performance at the end of the day.  I stood there quietly as the voices died down and my classmates skipped off to field hockey practice oblivious to my tense rite of passage.  When no one was left in my locker row, I achieved my goal of anonymity, but then was disappointed that nobody had noticed.

I certainly did not realize that I was also entering into the confusing roles of the bra as function, fashion and sexuality.  The word bra did not even come into existence until the early 1900s, when some one came up with the clever idea to support the breast from above (i.e. the “over the shoulder boulder holder”), rather than a corset that pushed up the breasts from below.  Until the 1940s when the “life and separate” era began, breasts were generally not considered individually, but rather were referred to collectively as the bosom.  The late 1940s also saw the introduction of the bikini, and the blurring of the distinction between outerwear and underwear began. 

My concept at the time was that bra was most definitely underwear, but even so the rules were very confusing.  The standard school outfit was a white cotton shirt, and the back of the bra was clearly visible beneath the shirt, particularly if you bent over or extended your arms.   This was perfectly acceptable, and in fact this was one way of advertising that you were wearing a bra if your diminutive breasts were not apparent from the front or sides.  Sometimes you could get a glimpse of the front of the bra – this was not optimal, but within the realm of acceptability.  However, if you were wearing a sleeveless shirt and the bra strap wandered off your shoulder and was directly visible – well that was borderline trampy.  Acquaintances might titter or feel sorry for you, but true friends would take you aside and would say with whispered urgency, “Your bra strap is showing!”  The only thing that could be more embarrassing was pubic hair peeking out of a bathing suit.  Panicked reparations would then ensue, which sometimes involved pinning the strap to the shirt.   But then of course you could not let the pin show or pucker the shirt.  Therefore you had to carefully fix the strap to the shoulder seam.  There were certain recalcitrant bra straps that always slipped down the shoulder, and it was just safer to just throw them away.   (In fact I do the same thing for underwear that habitually wedges or socks that fall into my shoes.)

The other acknowledged function of the bra was to address the visible nipple.  Lightweight bras could certainly be very comfortable, but might not be up to the task if the weather turned nippy.  In the 1970s Farrah Fawcett rose to fame based on a poster showcasing her tousled hair and gleaming smile.  But I think that the unspoken appeal was the novelty of one very visible nipple beneath a clinging red bathing suit.  I am still startled to see the sturdy nipples of both of the Williams sisters as they hustle around the tennis court. I just want to reach into the TV set, tap them on the shoulder and save them from embarrassment in front of millions, “Girls, your nipples are showing.”

Then of course there were rules governing bikinis, which were only considered outerwear when worn near water.  I remember the movie Lolita where the young minx was lounging in the back yard in a tease of a white bikini top.  However, the sprinkler was on and so what looked like a bra became acceptable outerwear.  While bathing suits can be worn with impunity near the pool, sea or streamside, getting to and from the water requires a transitional outfit – the beach cover up, which is strictly limited to short errands such as pumping gas or returning a movie, particularly if the cover up is see through.  For example, I have never seen anyone in a gossamer cover up in the public library or at a waitressed restaurant.   We had a back yard swimming pool, and my mother would spend most of the summer in a bathing suit, which was far from a bikini, but more like a one piece romper.  However, every time that she needed to go on an errand, she would dutifully change into a top and shorts (which were not that different from her romper), and then change back when she returned. 

As confusing as this situation was, there was further upheaval a mere five years later when bras became the symbol of sexual repression and plumes of acrid smoke from burning rubber became the stuff of the nightly news.  At this point I was in the college, and by the time the sexual revolution filtered down to my apolitical level, the only message that I got were that bras were now optional.  Sounded good to me from a purely practical point of view – less clothes to buy and less laundry to wash.  I did not have big breasts sloshing around that needed support and therefore bras seemed totally unnecessary.  The visible nipple was still an issue, but that was solved by wearing thicker cotton shirts.  Those Mexican wedding shirts were quite ideal – my favorite one was an otherwise light weight see-through cotton shirt but with two columns of embroidery positioned directly over the nipples. 

After college I went to medical school and then onto motherhood, so I was completely distracted and unaware of the changing cultural mores.  When I finally came up for air, I was appalled to notice teenagers walking around with visible bra straps – where were their friends to give them the heads up?  But with careful scrutiny, I discovered that the bra strap taboo was over – in fact visible bra straps were everywhere, underneath camisoles, or criss cross straps beneath a tank top, where the visible straps could only have been intentional.  But mentally I was still stuck in front of my grade school locker thinking, “Hey, your underwear is showing!”  I interviewed a teenager who educated me on the different classifications of bras.  Your underwear drawer now included bras with “cute” straps that were intentionally visible and color coordinated with the camisole or tee shirt.  However, these were distinct from your everyday bras – ratty cotton bras with white elastic straps and yellowed out armpits were still worn, but only when there was no possibility that they would be seen.  It reminded me of the old adage to always wear clean underpants to bed in case your house burned down and you were forced to flee into the streets with nothing but your underwear on.  

Then there was the emergence of the bra as fashionable and sexy lingerie – seems our culture was finally catching up to the French here.  While past Sears’ catalogs featured disembodied photographs of sedate bras with a dash of frill, Victoria’s Secret created a buzz by featuring full frontal photos of models wearing nothing but elaborate come-hither underwear and high heels.  Now when I get dressed, the shoes are the last thing that I put on, and the first thing that I take off at the end of the day, so the combination of underwear and heels made no sense.  Furthermore, instead of being a second tier tawdry underwear model, the top Victoria’s Secret model was touted with the same breathless admiration and celebrity as a swimsuit model.  There was an episode of Seinfeld that captured this dilemma of bra as outwear vs. underwear.  Elaine had a big-breasted childhood friend named Ellen Mishki who irked her by always going braless.  Elaine decided to give her a white bra for her birthday, which Ellen then preceded to wear as outwear beneath an unbuttoned blazer.  As she nonchalantly walked down the street, Elaine was even more peeved to realize that she got more stares and whistles than when she jiggled braless down the street.    

Into this confusing mix came the sports bra, which by its very name suggested its ambivalence as under vs. outer wear.  Ostensibly the sports bra was not designed to be sexy but engineered to tamp down the heavage of the cleavage, although Serena Williams seems to outheave even the best efforts of the Nike engineers.  The convention seems to be that the sports bra can be worn as outerwear while jogging, extending its range beyond water limits of a swimsuit, but similarly, a sports bra is considered underwear in other venues.  Recall the performance of Brandi Chastain, the US soccer player who scored the winning goal in the dramatic gold medal game against China in the 1999 world cup.  She ran halfway across the field then took her shirt off and waved it over her head, revealing her black sports bra.  Cultural anthropologists could probably create a thesis focusing on the demographics of those who regarded this performance as a strip tease versus a simple celebration.  I was in the startled strip tease camp, while my daughter said, “Its no biggie, it’s just a sports bra, mom.”  While it may have been a sports bra, the key fact seemed to be that she had taken off her shirt to reveal it, and that was stripping, regardless of what lay beneath. 

 Forty five years have passed since my first steps into the world of bradom, and like many other fashion trends, I have chosen to be a bystander.  To me the everyday bra is still resolutely underwear, and an exposed bra strap still makes me anxious.  I’m an old dog averse to new tricks and I like of the comfort of the bra as nothing more than a functional piece of clothing.  It’s simpler that way.

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. post, stop, spot) and the number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing word using the context of the poem.  Scroll down for the answers. 

Thoughts on Bras

 1.  Puberty is a complicated transition with many different —–

 But a simple training bra is one common way it starts.

 2.  A visible bra —– used to make you want to cringe and die,

 But what was underwear is now outerwear seen by every naked eye.

 3.  When a large breasted athlete has a problem with her cleavage

She wears a sports bra that  —– her breasts to diminish any heavage.







Answers;  parts, strap, traps

Posted in

Leave a Comment