Garment of earthly delight

Word association? Men: `breasts, bosoms, black, just another thing to get in the way, prostitute.' Women: `pink and pointy, expensive, uncomfortab le.' The bra is as much fantasy as a piece of clothing.

In Italy, la roba intima is kept behind the counter, appropriately enough in drawers. There will be a few examples on display to tempt you: the fine woollen undergarments of la nonna and some pretty bra and pantie combinations. It was in such a shop in southern Italy that I stood two years ago, my aim to buy a La Perla bra. The shop assistant took out tissue- lined box after box, inserting her hand into the cup to show me the bra's gossamer fineness. But all the samples offered were white, cream, or in a new colour called champagne.

"Do you have it in black?" I asked. The woman scuttled off into the back, whispering heavily to assistants and her husband. "Lo vuole in nero," she said, clasping her fingers together and hunching her shoulders to her ears. Then, hiding their embarrassment, they continued to serve me in the overly expansive fashion usually reserved for people who have just told you they are homosexual.

The black bras (plus suspenders, which I had not asked for) were brought out, while the rest of the shop gathered round to look. Silly me. In parts of Italy, a black bra means you are either recently widowed or the sort of woman that pasta sauces are named after.

The bra. Like a film screen, a thousand fantasies are projected on to it. Whether in its incarnation as a plunge, balcony, sports, peep-hole or everyday bra, it is no longer just a garment. Although it seems for ever that we have been subjected to bras on every media street corner, it is only during this decade that the bra has come out of the comfortable, private place it used to occupy in women's magazines where it was advertised discreetly, like sanitary towels.

Wonderbra were the first to take the bra to where everyone saw it: on billboards, just four years ago. Like a lucky and eager understudy, the bra did not miss its moment.

Once in the limelight, once it had tasted fame, the previously humble bra threw off its shy colours of ivory or Germolene pink and started making appearances on every magazine cover and going out on its own. As it did so, the bra made its mark in the wet cement of popular culture and began to mean different things to different people - hence its versatility, appeal and saleability.

The bra may enhance its wearer, support her, protect her, plump up her breasts or play them down; it may even cheat for her, but let us not forget that it also sells everything from cars to posh-wank magazines such as Loaded. No other garment is this hard-working or powerful. The bra should run for president.

So what does the bra mean to people? What has it come to represent? Market research is phooey and a waste of time. You just need to play good, old- fashioned word association to see the varying reactions it gets. "If I say the word `bra' to you, what immediately comes to mind?" I asked a selection of people. Embarrassment, delight, groans, half-smiles and thousand- yard stares preceded answers.

There was a clear divide between the sexes. Men (after a dreamy smile had left their lips): "Breasts, tits, more bras, bosoms, black, just another thing to get in the way, heaving breasts barely contained by a lacy bra and... prostitute." Women: "Pink and pointy Forties bras, lacy, breasts, underwear drawer, expensive, M&S, Rigby and Peller, support, uncomfortable and Bentley Rhythm Ace."

Social commentator and management consultant Peter York (word association reply: "Last year's news") agrees that the bra is no longer a functional object. "It was a functional garment that has had value added to it by its makers. They made it visible, pretty, and a cultural object." Dominic Mills, editorial director of Campaign (word association reply: "Wonderbra") thinks the bra today symbolises "women's growing sense of ease with themselves. The bra has gone from a dull but necessary purchase to an exciting and personally enhancing one that women can use to express their personality and their mood."

Oh yes. If hemlines are indicative of the nation's economy, a woman's cleavage is the barometer of her state of mind. Kim Rawlings, editor of the trade magazine Contours (word association: "Madonna") is more practical: "The bra today means freedom-giving. Women used to see it as something that oppressed them, mostly because bras, especially before elastic, were uncomfortable. Today, properly fitted, it is like a second skin."

British Vogue's editor, Alex Shulman ("Colour"), does not think it means very much more than its native definition: "I'm a woman, so the bra is just something to make my bosom look better. Bra advertising may have become a sociological thing, but the bra, per se, doesn't mean anything other than it's a bra."

Those responsible for the image that bras project are, naturally, more effusive. The bra, it seems, is imbued with positive messages. Victor Crawford, marketing manager for Playtex and Wonderbra ("Wonderbra") thinks that today the bra represents "an item that allows a woman to express herself. In our `Hello Boys' campaign, Eva Herzigova was saying, `I need me. I don't need you.' "

"You" presumably being the boys who no doubt interpreted the message somewhat differently. Photographer Valerie Phillips ("Oranges") who has just shot Triumph's latest campaign, due out this autumn, thinks this is a really difficult question: "God. It means so many things to different people. People go out with them on show if they want to, or not...."

But let us stop a minute, because to begin to understand the bra a little better we need to look at its past form. The idea of something to cover the breasts was invented by the spoilsport Greeks in the fourth century AD; it was spookily similar to the bandeau tops that are so fashionable today, even though they give you a silhouette like a sausage. But the bra as we know it now - two separate containers, one for each breast - was invented in 1913 by Mary Phelps Jacob (who later gave herself the rather fancier name of Caresse Crosby). Mary's bra was fashioned rather crudely out of two handkerchiefs.

Some 30 years before this, however, the seeds for the bra were already being sown. Then, a camisole would be worn under the corset to cover the breasts. By the middle of the 18th century, these camisoles, grandmothers to the bra and obviously where the cheeky gene came from, started getting special and became known as bust bodices. They became boned and adorned with adjustable tapes so that the woman could, with a pull here and a knot there, choose the dimensions of her breast. These must have been joyous times.

For the flatter-chested woman, there was also a forerunner to the Wonderbra: bust bodices would have pockets into which the woman could slip a little helping pad, or she could pin a spill of lace frills to the front of her bust bodice. One woman of the time, when asked what size her bust was going to be for a dance, was reported as saying: "That would depend on who my partner was." A foxy chick, and an early hint that here was a garment that women could use to give them confidence and employ to their advantage.

Then, as now, this was closely followed by controversy. In the 1840s, The Handbook of the Toilet lamented the use of "lemon bosoms and many other means of creating fictitious charms and improving the work of nature". Tsk. Some gentlemen were being duped. Bad bra!

The early Twenties were all about flattening the bust, but by the decade's end, the fashion for a boyish shape - thank God - was starting to give way to women's curves and the bra started to become sexy. They were still curious little things, though (remember, synthetic, stretchy fibres had not made an appearance yet), made of cotton or silk and with no give at all. But what fun women were having with them!

Again, this jolliness was closely followed by consternation and the bra was associated with the delicious wantonness that 70 years on would sell so much. In a 1929 issue of the glamourously entitled Tailor and Cutter, an article yacks on that the "sights that are thrust upon the sons of men are enough to stifle young love and drive romance away". The bra was making a name for itself.

The bra made a run for freedom in the Forties and Fifties - decades that gave us the sweater girl, pointy conical bras (created by circular stitching and made famous again in the Eighties by Madonna), the padded bra and the under-wired bra.

A few words here about the under-wired bra. There have been reports on under-wired bras just recently that they give you back problems, restrict your diaphragm by several centimetres, and hence your breathing. This is not the fault of the under-wired bra - a marvellous garment that can round up a woman's breasts and sculpt them to almost unimaginable proportions while still supporting her - but of women who wear bras in the wrong size, which most women do. Hence the appearance of strange women on the streets with what seem like four breasts.

Even more ridiculously, the bra came under attack again three years ago in a book that said wearing a bra could kill you by restricting the effective drainage of the lymphatic system and thereby giving you breast cancer. The lengths some men will go to to see an unfettered breast under an angora sweater! Then, as now, I checked this out with Dr Trevor Powles, head of the Breast Unit at the Royal Marsden, and it is just not true.

"Microwaves and the M1 are much more dangerous than under-wired bras but people still use them," laughs Aliza Reger, chief executive (and daughter) of Janet Reger ("Drawerful"). "The only time an under-wired bra is bad for you is when it's not fitted properly," says Jill Kenton ("Support"), daughter of the famous June and manageress of Rigby & Peller in London's Knightsbridge. "And wearing one regularly when you're pregnant, because your breasts are constantly changing and the bra won't fit properly."

Now where were we? The Sixties. Young women wanted their bras to look different from their mother's, which were still in white or cream. So bras became navy, red, spotty, different. This was also the time that Triumph, today famous for their "Bra for the way you are" catch-phrase, had some hilarious ads running that showed a woman standing next to a fireman - "Undies to be caught in", and with a doctor - "Undies to be examined in". Fantastically non-PC.

But it was in the Eighties and Nineties that the bra really went for it. Madonna showed hers off and women started wearing bras to show, and not just to support, in an ugly little fashion called "wearing your bra - and just your bra - under your power suit." "Before this," says Reger, "the bra was tucked away. God forbid you showed a bra-strap, or a bit of lace from your bra peeked out."

And we are back to the beginning with Wonderbra and their big posters, a campaign that on the one hand we have to thank because it gave bras a starring role and with this came more awareness of properly fitting bras and a better range of sizes. But on the other hand we have this campaign to blame because the bra will not now go away. If it is not careful, it will have no mystery or allure left and its very name will come to mean nothing more than "overkill". Like Gary Oldman, it will have turned up one too many times. "The word `bra-strap'," says York, "should have the same excitement that it used to have when you were a teenage boy. But it doesn't." Although Shulman thinks older men are still "really intrigued by seeing a bra-strap".

I must leave the final word to a female reader of a newspaper who wrote in to express her opinions during the great bra ad debate of a few years ago ("These ads are degrading to women, they exploit them, etc"). Her word association sounded an early warning bell for the bra: "There is nothing wrong with a woman in a bra with a catchy slogan. There are other adverts that are more tacky, like the Pot Noodle ones." Bra = Pot Noodle. There can be no greater shame.

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