[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published February 12, 2024] ©2024
As much as I enjoy the late-19th century show The Gilded Age, I can’t help but be preoccupied by what had to be the sheer discomfort of those corset- and bustle-afflicted dresses. Taking a deep breath seems like it would be problematical, using a restroom even more so. In fact, when you think of bathroom stalls now, you’d need two to even get the whole dress in there, never mind actually, er, perform.
It was probably not too surprising, then, that in 1913 when 19-year-old Mary Phelps Jacob patented the first modern bra (short for brassière) composed of two handkerchiefs and some ribbon, the idea was an instant success.
Well, not quite instant. After attempting to manufacture her design in what amounted to a two-woman sweatshop in Boston, she sold her patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company who were already manufacturing “comfort corsets” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Dr. Lucien Warner, the physician-founder of the company, had been concerned about the ill effects on a woman’s health of having her internal organs essentially relocated to parts of her body where they were not intended.
Warner Brothers Corset Company apparently made $12.8 million off Mary Phelps Jacob’s patent. (Why is there not a commemorative coin with Mary’s picture on it?). During the flapper movement and Jazz Age in the 1920’s, however, women largely lost interest in both corsets and their partner-in-undergarments, pantaloons.
But ways to sartorially torture women were simply morphing. The corset was replaced by the panty girdle, a garment I remember way too well from my teenage years. Girdles often had garters on which to attach one’s nylon stockings in the pre-pantyhose era. Panty hose were one of the greatest inventions ever, in my view, in times when going bare-legged in a dress or skirt was simply not done. Once there were pantyhose, it was also a great excuse to jettison the girdle too. And best yet, being bare legged in a dress is now perfectly acceptable, unless you’re in the British Royal Family. The late Queen apparently had a strict rule against it.
Of course, there are plenty of “shape wear” brands still out there, often alleging to be “comfortable” (ha!) while re-distributing one’s unwanted adipose into a more flattering configuration. I remember shopping for a mother-of-the-groom outfit for my younger son’s wedding and the sales lady opining, “Of course, you’ll want shape wear with this.” And I looked at her and said, “Hell no! I plan to enjoy this event in full comfort!”
Right as I was starting college, the other biggest boon to my life besides pantyhose was just making its debut. We’re talking hot rollers. I had spent my entire teenage life being crucified nightly on brush rollers, hair curlers with brush spikes (like a bottle brush) that you rolled up your entire head of hair in so that it would become curly while you theoretically slept but actually didn’t because you were in too much pain.
My voluminous quantities of hair, alas, if left un-abused by brush rollers, looked like I had a mattress on my head.
With hot rollers, you could actually get a good night’s sleep and then wake up, plug in the set, roll up your hair, wait ten minutes, and voilà! Seriously, it revolutionized my college life. And decades thereafter.
I should mention that there are still salons somewhere out there who do what is called a “wet set” where they roll your wet hair up with curlers, and fry you under a bonnet hair dryer for an hour after which your coif is combed out and lacquered into what is called “helmet hair.” Move your head and your hair moves in a single unit with it.
Now, of course, there’s an even better option avoiding rollers altogether, the “blow out.” I hope to have seen my last hot (or even cold) hair roller.
While bras were intended to be a much more comfortable option to corsets, fashion dictates that that whatever item of apparel is designed for women has to have a version that is pure pain. We’re talking push-up bras, stiletto heels, skin-tight jeans, false eye lashes, and new versions of “shape wear” that probably aren’t any more comfortable than girdles or corsets.
I don’t know what it is about aging, but bras just keep getting more and more uncomfortable as you get older. I was telling a friend that the first thing I do when I get home is take off my bra. She said she usually takes hers off in the car.
Back when I was in college, I didn’t mind being tortured by apparel. At this point in my life, I just want to be comfortable. I feel like I’ve done my time.
Advice columnists in women’s magazines will implore their older readers not to “let yourself go.” Sorry, advice lady, but I’m already gone.