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21 JULY 2012


As news emerged this week that our medieval sisters wore underwear just like our own, we asked four women – and one man – to discuss their intimate experiences with bras.


One thinks of the bra as a modern invention. In fact it has been around since at least the 15th century, as a discovery from a vault in a castle in East Tyrol, Austria taught us this week. Pants, not so much. It was only men who were supposed to wear them in those days, but "breast bags" or "tuttensecks" as they were then called … well, look at this picture. Not entirely unlike what you might have lurking in your second drawer down, having been through one too many non-delicates spin cycles. Honestly, you should see the one I have on now, held together with one rusty hook and literally in elasticated shreds with overuse. But then doesn't one always tend to have an old favourite? Isn't it a bit like a security blanket, the sort of thing you like to sleep with when you are alone?


Should we be surprised that they've existed this long? I don't see why. If, like me, you've not exactly got cherry pips, you'll want to know why cave women didn't wear them too. There's the "Hello, Boys" idea that we wear them – and that they are sold to us – to make us objects of male gratification, yes, yes, blah blah blah … but isn't a bra's basic, over-riding function to strap the things down and stop them flapping all over the place, as opposed to putting them on display?


Growing up in the 70s in Islington, I remember my mum having plenty of lefty friends who never wore bras. It went along with the whole Jesus sandal/bring your pet goat/mi casa su casa atmosphere she assiduously cultivated when my sister and I were growing up. Perhaps that is why I'm at my most comfortable being trussed up within an inch of my life. On a very primal level, going without a bra makes me feel nervous. Get them out in context, by all means, but on the tube, in broad daylight, with young people around? Friends can laugh away, and they do, but there's nothing that empowers me more, sets me up for my day than one of my nice "polo neck" sports bras. And, nothing, but nothing, in my book, looks worse than an ageing cleavage.


There is evidence of even earlier bra-wearing. According to Beatrix Nutz, an archaeological researcher at the University of Innsbruck, women in early 14th-century France would put two bags into their dresses to go over each bosom, and then bind them down in place, hence the term "breast bag". To simulate the experience, you could always try doing the same with Baco Press'n'Seal sandwich bags.


I suppose there will always be a market for push-up bras. Personally, I'm just waiting for that lady from Spanx to do a modern take on the Graeco-Roman breast band – a strip of fabric or leather wound round and round, bandage-style, to flatten rather than enhance. Maybe what I'm talking about is a wetsuit, though.

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