We may come from different backgrounds, class, religions and regions. We may agree to disagree on everything from veganism to sexuality. But there is one thing I believe unites all women, from all around the world and the words are probably on your lips even before I can say it. That is the incredible feeling of unhooking your bra, sliding it off your skin and into the laundry bin after a long, long day of work, play or leisure.
Bras may not be everyone’s friend, but since I’m more prone to a ‘to each their own’ philosophy, for me, they aren’t so bad. Of course, this is not negating nor downplaying any movements of the past, be it burning the bra or freeing the nipple - I just like the secure feeling of a bra in public.
Whatever flack wearing a bra may get, there is a certain feeling of self-confidence and satisfaction you get from a pretty, well-fitted bra. Or maybe that’s just me.
But when it comes to delving into the history of an item of under-clothing as undeniably significant and scrutinised as the bra...well, that’s another kind of challenge. It’s a well-known fact that the first bra, as we know it today, was a chance creation by a young Mary Phelps Jacob in the 19th century. The 19-year-old at the time was quite simply done with the gut-wrenching, back-breaking corsets that the ladies of the age adorned, while they struggled to take a full breath in the wound-up, whalebone creation that would push up their breasts high enough to create a table for their cereal bowl (let’s not pretend I’m the only one guilty of doing this).
She called for her maid to bring two handkerchiefs, some cord and pink ribbon. Stringing them all together - we can imagine what went where - she created for herself the first, simple bra. Non-restricting and smooth, she caught the attention of other women at the ball, soon people began asking for more, offering her money, and she knew she had stumbled upon a creation that could possibly transform the women’s undergarment scene. She patented her product in 1914, but society wasn’t much for changing at that moment, and her high came to a low, making her sell her patent for the ‘backless brassiere’ to the Warner Bros. Corset Company - little did she know the multi-billion dollar industry she had just bequeathed.
Trudging through the historical timeline of bra evolution has been a task taking into consideration that all over the world, some form of bra support seems to have existed at simultaneous, overlapping point of times, so it’s difficult to trace single points. Of course, wikipedia is hardly a go-to source of trustworthy information but quora offers something that many other online portals don’t—a multiplicity of perspectives—which is why I was pleased to chance upon so many points of view on the subject ranging from amateurs, enthusiastic autodidacts like myself, to trained professionals in a lot of cases, depending on which forum and subject you’re interested in.
While I read historians and history students point of view on this subject, how exactly the bra evolved and made its way to the Indian subcontinent in closest resemblance to what we strap on today is more than a bit muddled, so I’m going to do my best to create the clearest image that I can in the Indian context.
Back in India, we’ve seen sculptures and artistic renditions of bras in the form of strapless bandeaus and metal breastplates since time immemorial, even while many ancient visualisations show women as free-hanging and topless.
It’s noted that the first garment we had that would be closest to a bra was the choli, a little piece of cloth wound tightly around, popular during the Chola Kingdom, which itself evolved differently in different parts of the country. The kanchuka, a tight-fitted bodice, of sorts, made several appearances in the literature of the Vijayanagara empire of the 1300s - there were even special tailors called chippiga who specialised in bras and blouses. Saying this, I also read of the very first reference to bras in India in literature. “Of course, ancient Indians were no strangers to bras by the 1300s. The very first reference to bras in Indian literature dates back to the rule of King Harshavardhana in the 7th century AD—more than a thousand years earlier!” stated Breakout Bras.
At the other end of the country, covering your breasts seems to be closely linked to one’s caste. The Travancore of the 19th century holds within itself fragments of Nangeli’s sacrifice in the battle against the casteist ‘breast tax’ or mulakkaram, that’s lost in our history books. Unlike the upper caste women of Travancore, Avarna women, colloquially understood as Dalit, were not allowed to cover their bosom in public unless they paid taxes. This could be seen as an extension of untouchability and rigid caste reinforcement, ensuring that the dignity of women belonging to the backward classes was taken away, leaving them little control over their own bodies. What is even more mortifying is that the said tax differed according to the size of the women’s breasts.
It was during this time that Nangeli, living in Cherthala belonging to the Ezhava community decided to deny the pravathiyar, the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. She was determined to cover herself and venture outside. Once the news of her defiance spread around the village of Cherthala, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli followed rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home, drenched in her own blood having cut her breasts which she summarily placed in front of the officer much to his horror.
She lost her life in a matter of minutes, but her sacrifice for all, cannot be forgotten. The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation, and women from lower backgrounds were now allowed to cover their breasts.
The Channar revolt, or Channar Lahala as it is also known, called Maru Marakkal Samaram in the local language, is seen by many as a historical feminist agitation of Nadar women, dated 1813 to 1859, in Travancore. It was considered a punishable offence for women of the lower caste to cover their bosom, more so in front of members of the upper class, while the same law didn’t apply to high-class women.
It’s believed that many of these subjugated women turned to Christianity when the missionaries came along and sought to fight for their right to cover up.
Some blame the colonisers for instilling the notion of sexuality and bare-breasts as the ‘vulgar’ behaviour of ‘uncivilised heathens’ that has for so long only grow graver and deeper into our society, seeing sex and sexuality as taboo. Many believe that it is the Victorian era that brought in blouses to the Indian women’s attire, as in many parts of the country women continued to wear just sarees, without any covering needed.
Others say that Tipu Sultan too played a role in the women’s fight to cover up, although refuted by some, it’s interesting to see how the conversation around bras has evolved - women fighting for the right to cover up, to now, women fighting for the right to go bra-less. Neither is better nor worse, the point remains, it’s a personal choice. The Britishers are blamed for instilled a fear of the nude, where earlier, nakedness or exposed breasts weren’t sexualised as such, but as their influence strengthened over every aspect of Indian lives, so did their dress code. Adopting British design has brought us to where we are today, and it’s interesting to consider how things would have gone if we’d walked down a different historical trajectory.
From choli, to kanchuka, bodice to blouses and bras - tracking a linear consistent timeline across the country isn’t coming to be easy as in a land as assorted in its practices, beliefs, lifestyles and attire - the trajectory, stories, and facts are as diverse as our countrymen, making an attempt to streamline all the more difficult.
So, we’ve travelled from being topless, fought for our right to cover up in some parts of India; gone through bandeaus, bodices and blouses to strappy risky numbers to backless, strapless, deep cut, padded and pretty much anything we could want with the advent and progress of technology, capitalism and globalisation.
It’s important to remember the women who fought to get us the freedoms we have today when it comes to our own bodies though. If you want to wear a bra, burn a bra, wear three bras, or a strappy camisole to feel sexy for yourself or anyone else - you have the right to make that choice, as more and more women come together to discuss female sexuality and break the taboos that surround it. “I think the bra has so many connotations today, it’s upon the wearer to decide what it symbolizes for them,” said Bandana Tewari, fashion features director at Vogue, speaking to Mihika Mirchandani for The Swaddle. “Today, we women ourselves are custodians of how we want the bra to
Click here to read the complete article by Mihika Mirchandani, for The Swaddle.
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