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bra history

India’s Bra History: From Cholis to Nipple Tassels

Kavita was 14 when her older sister took her shopping for her first bra. A saleswoman asked her to raise her arms and measured her brusquely. Then, Kavita watched as the woman fetched a cotton, conical garment that she only realized was too tight and ill-fitting when she got home and tried it on for the first time.

She didn’t take it back. That’s just how it was back in the 70s, recalls Kavita, now 52.

“I never understood that style statement,” she says. “The human body isn’t conical so you have a whole lot of extra space in there.”

It was only in the 90s – after 30-some years of searching for a bra she didn’t dislike – that Kavita finally found a good fit.

The bra wasn’t always part of the Indian wardrobe. In fact, ancient Indian paintings and sculptures depict women as topless. The first endemic breast-wrangling garment, the choli, dates to the reign of the eponymous Chola Kingdom, when women wrapped unstitched cloth tightly around their breasts to flatten them and keep them small. During the Vijayanagara Empire that followed, the kanchuka – a tightly fitted bodice – was popular, and throughout the 1300s, there were tailors who specialized in these tight fitting garments.

At the same time, in Kerala, the covering of breasts was closely tied to caste, and lower caste women were forbidden from covering their breasts, until the Channar Revolt which granted them the right to do so, while women in Bengal regularly wore sarees without blouses. It was only with the arrival of the British that the traditional saree blouse as we know it today became a staple in women’s wardrobes.

“I think the idea of nudity being sinful came with the Abrahamic religions,” says Bandana Tewari, fashion features director at Vogue. “Not just in India, but if you look at pre-Abrahamic cultures anywhere in the world, like the Mayan civilization and the Egyptian civilization, bras didn’t exist because the breasts were not seen as objects of titillation. That’s a relatively new phenomenon.”

While Indian women were hanging free, in the West, women’s undergarments were dominated by the corset, which pushes the breasts upward and is seen by many as a symbol of female subjugation.

“The history of objectified breasts begins with corsets,” Tewari says. “Women were called the weaker sex because the corsets were so tight that it led to them being sick, and constantly fainting.”

In the 19th century, designers began to experiment with the form of the corset, splitting it into two parts and trying other patterns. But it wasn’t until 1913 that the first bra made an appearance. In New York, 19-year-old debutante Mary Phelps Jacob was frustrated with her bulky corset, which kept peeking out from under her sheer evening gown. So with the help of her maid, she fashioned herself an alternative undergarment, made from two silk handkerchiefs and a length of pink ribbon.

Her comfortable garment saw her through the evening and also garnered attention from other women, leading her to file a patent on her design the following year.

How this piece of lingerie made its journey eastward is ill-documented, however. Around the same time as Jacob’s invention, Indian women had adopted the Victorian blouse brought by British colonisers, or were wearing traditional cholis and bodices. Historians presume Indian women began wearing the garment sometime in the late 40s, and the first advertisement for a bra appeared in 1954.

But the experience of being introduced to a bra was very different back then.

“My mom came home one day and handed a bra to me and said I should start wearing it,” says Chandra, 66. She was 13 at the time. “I think she simply picked up the smallest size available in the shop. I remember it not being comfortable, the cup was slightly loose.”

The bra served a very different function for Indian women when they first began wearing it, says Anu Ananthakrishnan, CEO of Aria + Leya, an Indian lingerie brand.

“I remember my grandmother’s blouses being very tight on her, so it was the blouse that provided the support,” Ananthakrishnan says. “The fit of the bra was almost irrelevant. But as we have moved from Indian wear to western wear, it’s become more important to wear a well-fitting bra.”

Decades later, women are still struggling to find a good fit. And it isn’t just Indian women; a 2011 study by British retailer Debenhams found that 85% of British women aren’t wearing the right size. But maybe they don’t have to – now scientists in France are saying it isn’t necessary for women to wear a bra at all.

It’s doubtful women will cast aside their undergarments just yet. The bra has made itself at home here, even if, as Ananthakrishnan says, Indian women have a very different relationship with their bras than Western women do. It is viewed as a more functional garment, she says, than one to enjoy or to celebrate oneself.

“They haven’t yet befriended the bra,” she says of her countrywomen.

Tewari paints a different picture, however. She says e-commerce data proves how far Indians have come from the Victorian import, and the bra as a statement of sexiness is gaining popularity even in smaller towns of India.

“These reports say that Baroda women love nipple tassels; Tamilian men like role playing and uniforms,” she says. “It’s interesting to see that the way Indian women look at the bra has moved away from Victorian traditions. The idea that provocative lingerie is only the domain of the rich, famous and urbanized is untrue. The demand for such lingerie has percolated through different rungs of our economy.”

Just as the bra liberated women from the corset a century ago, Tewari sees this trend as the next liberating development in lingerie.

“I think the bra has so many connotations today, it’s upon the wearer to decide what it symbolizes for them,” she says. “Today we women ourselves are custodians of how we want the bra to be an instrument of sexuality.”

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