Uplift: The Bra in America
Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau
Over the years the bra has been stereotyped as an object of seduction, glamour, and even oppression. In Uplift: A History of the Bra in America Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau use this item of clothing to gauge the social history of women and to understand the business history of fashion. Viewing fashion as a means to entertainment, self-creation, and everyday art, the authors illuminate the effect the brassiere has had on women’s lives—their style, health, and economic opportunity.
Rich in examples from advertising, movies, and other areas of popular culture, Uplift moves beyond feather, bones and fiberfill to provide a sense of the dynamic relationship of the bra to wider issues in society.
This was quite possibly one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. I learned so much about the history of bras, but it was like pulling teeth. I could not concentrate on what I was reading, and I felt like so much of the book was lost on me. A lot of the other reviews of this book mention that it’s a light-hearted and amusing look at the history of the bra in America, but I guess their humor was another thing that was lost on me.
Very quickly it was obvious that the authors did not have a target audience in mind when they wrote the book. I kept trying to put on different hats as I read it, but none of them made sense. For example, was this book written for bra enthusiasts (such as myself)? No, because much of the book required the reader to already know quite a bit about the history of fashion in America. Was this book written as a textbook, purely to impart knowledge upon the reader? No, because there weren’t nearly enough figures and tables to make sure the reader understood what was being explained. Was this book written to be more like a novel for a casual reader? No, because it wasn’t engaging until about 2/3 the way through.
This book is organized chronologically (more or less), with each chapter representing roughly a decade. I’m glad the authors decided to organize their thoughts that way; it was fascinating to see the bra develop and adapt with the circumstances of the era. What I didn’t like, though, was how they would jump back or forwards a decade for a paragraph many times throughout the book. Example (from the chapter on the 1930s):
Until the 1920s, the South had not produced a national brand name in brassieres. This changed when the Atlanta-based Garson Company started in business, at first making was dresses that it sold door to door. Its customers asked for undergarments, so in 1926 Garson produced a brassiere called “The Flapperette.” By 1928, Garson was specializing in the manufacture of brassieres for sale to retailers under the brand name Beauti-Form.
The authors, in my opinion, had very little experience with technical documents, because there was an absolute dearth of figures, tables, and charts. Now, that wouldn’t have been a bad thing if they’d declined to include statistics about jobs, wages, etc. But they wrote all of their data in sentence form, which gets mind-numbing. Example:
In 1880, 2,647,157 women, 14.69 percent of females over ten years of age, were gainfully employed. By 1890, that number had grown to 4,005,532, or 17.40 percent of the same population.
In the early twentieth century, an even larger portion of women participated in the labor force. According to the 1910 census, 8,075,772, or 18.1 percent, engaged in gainful employment; by the 1920 census, that figure was 8,549,511, which was an absolute increase but a relative decrease to 16.5 percent of the total.
The authors decided not to create their own figures for this book, which disappointed me. Given how relevant the popular fashions were to bra construction (as they so often emphasize in the book), I was surprised they didn’t include a side-by-side comparison of a common outfit from each decade. Also, they would describe so many things that I just couldn’t picture in my head. Some of them were things that someone who majored in historical fashion would know, but the layman (laywoman?) wouldn’t. Example:
Dresses and shirtwaist-skirt ensembles of the 1900s featured front blousing that exaggerated the full, low bosom; sleeves ending in soft fullness at the wrist; a narrow waistline; and a flared skirt that trailed the floor in the back.
It was fun to learn about all the different types and styles of bras that were bizarre or fantastical that never caught on. There were some vintage advertisements that were included in the book (the Mon-E-Bra, so you always have your money when you need it!) and quite a few patents, but there still weren’t enough pictures for me. I hope the reason the authors didn’t include all of the brassieres that they described was that images were not available, rather than choosing not to include them.
There were a few straight-up errors, though not too many. In keeping with the Jumping All Over complaint, there is a point near the end of Chapter 4 where they introduce the word Nylon, with “Chapter 6” in parenthesis behind it. When I read it, I assumed that I would learn more about nylon in Chapter 6, so I flipped over there and skimmed the chapter, but I didn’t find any references to nylon. I went to the Index at the end of the book to see when exactly nylon was referenced, and it all ended up being in Chapter 5. If they’re going to go into more detail about it in the very next chapter, does it really need to be announced?
I didn’t feel engaged with the book until Chapter 5, which covered the decade of World War II. My best guess is that I didn’t have enough background knowledge of historical fashion and events before 1940 to really understand what they were talking about. I suddenly had no trouble reading the book and actually managed to read the entire chapter in one sitting (a feat which did not occur at any other point in the book).
The last sentence of the book is “The American woman is still waiting for her ideal bra.” As this book was written in 2002, I can’t really argue with it, but it’s still an incredibly depressing statement. I’m glad things have gotten better since then.
Overall, this was a very, very informative book with lots of information (both aggregated from other sources and from interviews the authors did). I just found it a very difficult read and I really had to push myself to finish it.
The information given in Uplift was stellar, and despite all my problems with the book, they were all stylistic complaints. Unfortunately, the stylistic problems interfere with the ability to parse the information.