The world’s most famous bra remains, without a doubt, the cantilevered construction eccentric billionaire and movie mogul Howard Hughes designed to showcase actress Jane Russell’s ample bosom.
Maximum effect alright! The deep cleavage she displayed in 1947’s The Outlaw seems unremarkable by today’s standards, but it outraged the censors of the day and made Ms Russell the era’s reigning sex symbol until Marilyn Monroe came along to usurp the throne.
Heaven only knows what furor Hughes might generated had he turned his mind to the old-fashioned corset, which a Sydney academic’s new book defends as comfortable, practical and, above all, greatly misunderstood.
The historical stereotype of oppressed women strapped into suffocating corsets is being challenged by Dr Sarah Bendall, author of Shaping Femininity: Foundation Garments, the Body and Women in Early Modern England.
The Australian Catholic University researcher says corsets were far less restrictive than people think and their main advantage was in providing breast support before bras were invented.
A 17th century corset on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: V&A
For some women at least, she says they were probably more comfy than today’s brassieres with their straps and underwiring.
“They supported the whole torso, so they didn’t cut into the back,” Dr Bendall says. “For big-breasted women, that is probably more comfortable than a modern bra.”
Dr Bendall concedes it’s not possible to directly compare contemporary notions of comfort with those experienced by women of yesteryear.
Women’s bodies were different with large numbers of pregnancies and extended breast-feeding.
Today’s clothing designers also have access to stretch fabrics and techniques like princess seams, that provide both shape and comfort, and weren’t available to previous generations.
However historical women were not mere fashion victims or slaves to male ideas of the body, Dr Bendall says.
“Corsets weren’t silly garments worn by silly women. They were not always boned or tightly laced and they were not just instruments of oppression.
“The foundation garments women wore in this period tell a story of female agency and shape Western perceptions of the female body to this day.”
To get some sense of what it was like to wear 17th century corsets and undergarments like farthingales, busks and bum rolls, Dr Bendall made her own based on patterns created from those which have survived the period.
She wore them or gave them to models who fitted the designs and then interviewed the wearers.
The male gaze
“Women’s embodied experience is largely absent from the literature, so historians have relied on men’s voices,” the material culture historian said.
“These men were often ridiculing women’s fashion or using it to make a moral point about these silly women who wear these ridiculous garments.
“Even the second wave feminists of the 1970s who focused on women’s experience and saw these garments as an example of male oppression were relying on what men had written for their sources.”
From a modern perspective, corsets are probably not the most comfortable thing to wear, Dr Bendall says.
“But they were no more restrictive than high heels.”