Sally Hall: Our liberation from the corset a result of the First World War

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It would be remiss to look back on 2014 without acknowledging the year’s many iconic anniversaries.

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 100 years since the invention of the bra.

That calls for a lot of balloons.

Inadvertently, I marked the latter momentous occasion with a couple of uncontrolled balloons of my own.

Before reading about the bra’s 100th birthday over breakfast, I’d endured a trying experience while getting dressed.

My favourite undergarment – a black number with turquoise embroidery (for which I even possess a pair of functioning matching knickers) – sheared off at the strap, suddenly pinging across the room like Barbara Windsor’s disappearing-act brassiere in Carry on Camping.

It was, frankly, a shock. I take my bras for granted, but this unexpected ping-off made me realise how reliant I am on the under-shoulder boulder holder for comfort and support.

I always thought it was short-sighted, as a symbol of the first wave of feminism, to burn the bra. How can you run for a bus if your lady lumps are doing the hokey-cokey fit to give you a black eye?

There’s nothing liberating about cultivating breasts so pendulous you could never hope to (a) slide down a fire station pole, (b) safely bang a judge’s gavel or (c ) fight your way to the keyboard of your computer to compose a rousing polemic, haunting poem or Pulitzer prize-winning piece of journalism.

Reviewing the history of the bra, however, the cultural context for the political gesture of bra-burning becomes clearer.

Over the years, this iconic garment has both facilitated and emblematised particular political and ideological ideas regarding the female body.

The first ever bra, created in 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacob, was actually an attempt to liberate women from the tyranny of the corset.

Until Phelps Jacob stitched together two pink silk handkerchiefs with a length of ribbon, she spent her days (like most women) trussed up in a tortuous garment fashioned out of whalebone and metal.

Her invention moulded much more naturally to her body and enabled greater freedom of movement.

Although the ‘Caresse Crosby’ was well received, it wasn’t until the US Government formally requested the women of America to eschew corsets (in order to preserve the metal for First World War munitions) that the bra really took off.

In the Twenties and Thirties the freedom heralded by this new invention was compromised when the fashionable female silhouette became lithe and boyish.

Once again, curves were sculpted and cruelly squashed to fulfil a cultural ideal.

But two dressmakers, Ida Rosenthal and Enid Bisset, bucked the trend, creating a bra with two stitched pockets.

Since then we’ve had the cone-shaped eye-pokers of the Forties and Fifties – made infamous by Jane Rusell in 1943’s The Outlaw, whose assets were eyed up so pointedly by movie mogul Howard Hughes that he set out to create a new kind of boob-engineering especially for them, declaring he intended to win an Oscar for ‘best supported performance’.

Then there were the ‘barely there’ styles of the Seventies, where protruding nipples were de rigeur and the materials highly flammable.

Coming of age in the Wonderbra era, my own assets enjoyed a particularly flattering phase of enhancement at precisely the life stage when they most lived up to the job.

These days, though, a rather more rigorous system of girdering may be required, as my ping-off experience ruefully reminded me. Now, where did I leave those whalebones?

Sarah Champion MP

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