Politics of the Bra: Between Baleen Whales, Battleships, Exploited Labor and Normative Nude Color



Inextricably associated with the evolution of fashion and the changing views of female bodies, the bra has augmented, diminished, pulled, and pushed the shape of women’s bodies, but it has also served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions and fulfilled other social, sanitary and economical functions. The history of this garment has generally belonged to the private and bodily related sphere; it is therefore undoubtedly linked to body politics and feminism and has been understood by these movements as a revolutionary tool in their protests.

However, the evolution that the bra has endured is a much more complex subject. This underwear apparel has also taken place at the center of a broader history that links it with the history of natural resources, manufacture products and mechanization. The structural function that the bra provides relates it to other technologies fundamental in the construction of the female body. This makes possible to conceive its history on a more relationally complex mode of production.

In our contribution to this issue about Clothing Politics, we want to recontextualize the bra. Having studied the context of this undergarment in its most widely accepted meaning, we think that it might be helpful to highlight other historical moments. These may activate connections between the bra and its collateral roles in the politics of diverse arenas, such as animal exploitation or the politics of war, among others.

The Baleen Whale: Animal Abuse in the Production of Corsets ///

Nowadays the harvesting of baleen whales is strictly regulated and limited to, for example, Native populations living in ancestral traditions such as Eskimos. Fortunately for whales and women, the days of wildly whaling are long gone as the normative constrictions of corsets. The foundation material made of baleen — also known as whalebone — used in the predecessor of bra, links this underwear apparel with a new set of connotations such as speciesism and animal abuse, so that the history of the bra operates in a radically different way.

In the 16th century, the age of exploration and voyages of discovery, new whale fisheries across the Atlantic were found. Whalebone started to be used as boning material for bodices, replacing the paste used to stiffen these tightly laced garments. In the following century, the boned bodice became an understructure separated from the outer garment, called “stays” (later know as corset).

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Whalebone does not refer to skeleton bone, but instead to the keratinous plates around the upper jaw of baleen whales. The use of this newly found material had a notable impact on the female body, shaping it as a rigid conical torso, while also endangering the baleen whale species. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these marine mammals were hunted down to the very edge of extinction, mainly for their oil, used as lamp fuel and lubricant, but also for whalebone, used as foundation for skirt hoops and corsets.

The most exploited species of baleen whale were those located near the main whaling ports, but when these were depleted, new species were targeted in the South Pacific, the rorquals, which the whaling organizations could not hunt till the harpoon cannon was invented in the 1860s. By the end of the 19th century the baleen was more expensive and difficult to acquire. The increasing demand dramatically influenced the cost of whalebone, raising the price from £500 per ton in 1870 to £3,000 in 1902, and the production of corsets would reach its peak in 1905. The baleen market for corsets collapsed along the rise of the modern steel industry and its new manufacturing processes, which began in the late 1850s. It was at the beginning of the 20th century when whalebone was finally replaced by spiral steels as the new boning material for corsets.

However, it was not until 1982 that whaling started to be controlled to protect the species. The International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium setting catch limits. Although limited, today it is still possible to harvest baleen whales for scientific purposes, like in Japan, or even for commercial use, like in Norway and Iceland.

Change of Paradigm during WWI: Steel Shortage and Objects of Resistance ///

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Corsets were one of the first products to be manufactured at a mass-
produced scale, and they played their part in immobilizing women for a longer period than any other article of underwear. It was not until 1917 that women started to use bras, and it was not because the corsets were causing damage to their vital organs, but rather to reduce the consumption of metal.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the steel industry was crucial due to the demand for battleships, railways, shells, submarines, planes, guns and ammunition. The steel that was required for the war took priority over civilian products in Europe and the U.S.. The general pattern was similar everywhere and led to the creation of new administrations in charge of taking inventory and distributing the available goods to the industries identified as having priority. With these protocols they started a process of displacement that deprived objects made of metal of their connotations, current functions and meanings in order to re-charge them with new operative functions. In some cases this produced a total rupture. It was the end of the mass-production of corsets, forcing lingerie industries to move towards another type of feminine underwear: the bra.

By 1917, the shortage was so bleak that the war industries around the world were asking women to show their support and to do their patriotic duty by stopping buying corsets. Due to the fact that the corset’s structure was made of metal, the war industries promoted the end of the production of corsets to deal with the drive for iron and steel. In the U.S. alone they saved 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships.

The same politics were practiced during World War II through the active appropriation of industrialized consumer objects. In this process the steel was again strictly controlled for war purposes, slowing down the production of foundation wear. Pushed by the requisition of material by the government, some factories started to assist the war industry in order to survive. They would manufacture different military equipment, such as tents or parachutes. In the U.S., the brassiere company Maidenform started to manufacture a very peculiar product, the pigeon bra. It was designed for paratroopers to strap carrier pigeons — also called homing pigeons — to their chest with a vest made of bra materials. Once they landed in a war zone, they would release the pigeon to carry messages in a capsule attached to their leg.

Apart from agreeing to make 28,500 pigeons vests for the U.S. government, Maidenform filed a Declaration of Essentiality. In that declaration they stated that there was a need for women in the workforce to use a “brassiere scientifically constructed to give her bosom proper support and protection.” They even enlisted medical professionals to support their request for securing material.

These tactics of control of manufactured products that the politics of World War I and World War II brought gave birth to new mechanisms of self-production. The first bra patent was made by sewing two pocket handkerchiefs together. It was created by Caresse Crosby in 1914. There is a silent clip, shot in the Pathé studio, dated around 1921 featuring a woman cutting and sewing two handkerchiefs together, an early version of the contemporary do-it-yourself video tutorial for binding.

This bra was made through what we call a tactic of bricolage. In subculture studies the term bricolage is used to describe the process by which people acquire objects, across the wide range of manufactured products, to create a new cultural identity. In this practice, objects that apparently possess no meaning in the mainstream culture are given a subversive one.

This approach has been present along the history of the bra, showing an opportunity to build new prototypes that are not tied to tradition, but instead are purely elective and guided by the consumer experience. Take as an example duct tape; apparently a meaningless mass-produced object without symbolic content, and at the same time used as a tool to build a masculine chest in the Drag King subculture, giving duct tape a subversive meaning and making it an object of resistance against gender roles.

Exploited Labor: From Chinese Factories to U.S. Prisons ///

In 2005, an economic conflict occurred between the European Union and China — the E.U. introduced new quotas on textile imports after the Multi Fibre Arrangement expired. The Chinese textile shipments to Europe exceeded the restrictions of the quota for that year, and the remaining clothes — an estimated 4 million bras, together with pullovers and trousers — were not allowed to enter and were held in European ports. This dispute was known as the “bra war.” Due to the increasing textile exports of China, following its economic liberalization, a sort of protectionist campaign and sense of nationalism arose in France at the time. The local industry, which was considered the master of corsetry and lingerie for a long time, felt threatened by the boom of Chinese manufacturers. Numerous advertising messages appeared calling for the defense of their national product. During the campaign, consumers were asked if they would accept an imitation, as if it was a question of honor more than ethics: “French lingerie is chic, luxurious and of quality. Do you accept imitations?”

Many Asian manufacturing hubs have become the main providers for the underwear multinationals. The lingerie industry grew fast during the last decades, but this rapid development is also vulnerable to the shifting demand. In China, since the Implementation of the Labor Law in 2001, manufacturer’s wages are increasing and therefore the costs of factories are rising. Costumers are not willing to pay more and the production started to move elsewhere, leaving behind a trail of exploited and polluted hubs. The targets are countries with lower taxes and cheaper labor like Vietnam or Thailand, where famous brands like La Senza manufactures its bras.

During the 1990s, a contract garment maker called Third Generation hired 35 female inmates of the Leath Correctional Facility in Greenwood to sew lingerie and leisure wear. Firms such as J.C. Penney or Victoria’s Secret purchased those garments, profiting from prison labor. The final cost of these garments was far lower than the price you can see in their lingerie catalogues. According to a study by the U.S. National Institute of Justice, Third Generation “produced more than $1.5 million worth of garments” during 1994.

The acceleration of the cycle of production and consumption of objects has affected the ways in which the labor force operates. Unethical clothing is the norm. Manufacturing processes in which exploitation and pollution are out of the equation are not included in the mainstream fashion agenda.

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The Nude Color: Mass Production, Normativity and Racism ///

In the late 1950s, improvements in dyeing techniques brought affordable commercial use of stable colors in fabrics. Coinciding with the teen revolution of the postwar era, these colors were applied in playful patterns, but also started to be standardized in black, white and nude.

The industry standardization of the decade is also visible in the color reference card used by Kodak to perform skin color balance in still photographic printing. They were called Shirley Cards and depicted a white woman dressed in brightly colored clothes. With that card Kodak showed how light skin tones served as the recognizable skin ideal standard. Non-white people were not taken into consideration by the industry of colored photography. It was not until 1996 that Kodak released the Multiracial Shirley Cards. Another example of the same decade is the band-aids that were advertised in 1955 by Johnson and Johnson. The TV advert showed the hand of a white woman and a voice-over saying “Neat, flesh-colored, almost invisible.”

The same kind of logic seems to be manifested in the colors in which bras were manufactured. Bras have generally been produced in nude color, but the very idea of such a color is a highly normative one. Black women have been disregarded by the mass production of bras since the 1950s, the decade in which the colors of bras started to be on the fashion agenda. Black women in the 1950s and 1960s were often forced to buy nude colored lingerie and dye it brown with tea bags or kit dye just to have a bra they could wear under white T-shirts.

This racial exclusion of the consumer culture of brassieres persists nowadays, when white skin is still taken-for-granted in the dyeing of bras. In 2012 a Facebook campaign called “What’s Your Nude?” tried to broaden the range in which nude bras are manufactured, bringing to debate why the nude color only refers to white skin tones. As a way of mobilizing women against this lack of diversity in bra manufacturing, the campaign encouraged women to upload pictures of lingerie stores showing the absence of brown bras.

Far from seeking a consensus of how the mass production of bras is done, this movement is dedicated to cultivate a singular production of existence by modifying and reclaiming inclusive forms of manufacture and production.

The production of the bra and its collateral participation in politics that are at first glance distant from the history of the garment, place it not only in the intimate and private sphere but also in the public realm. It is not possible to think about the bra without taking into account the entire background in which it has been developed. A broader history of its conception, from material resources to manufacturing processes, helps us to understand the bra as a political element that has taken part in diverse arenas. Through speciesism, the politics of war, exploited labor and non-inclusive mode of production we want to expose a set of connotations toward the bra, so it clearly operates in the public and political context.