Brainiac On Banjo 078: Self-Image For Fun & Profit

Thank heaven for little girls / For little girls get / Bigger every day / Thank heaven for little girls / They grow up in / The most delightful way • Thank Heaven For Little Girls, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe for the musical Gigi, 1958.

I was a wee child, a kitchen table conversation happened that, I gather, was not meant to include me. My sister, seven years my senior, was talking about some sort of a problem with body tenderness. My mother suggested perhaps she should use a training bra.

I was confused. I knew what a bra was, but I failed to understand the “training” part. As far as I could tell, breasts kinda grew all on their own and there was no need for coaching. I probably asked a lot of dumb questions, because, well, that’s what I do. I got a lot of blank stares. Hey, it was the mid-1950s; adults didn’t even admit to having bowel movements back then.

As I grew into my role as a hyper-involved pop culture historian, I came across various articles and resources that explained to me that “training bras” were sold to girls so that they might grow into the self-image of womanhood while they were awaiting the more physical image of womanhood. Like it or not, they were gonna become consumers and that was what the “training” part was all about.

According to JSTOR Daily, the period between 1921 and 1930 (when the middle class had a few bucks) clothing manufacturers started pushing age-and-gender specific clothing. In order to sell their phony-baloney products, they had to convince the customers that they really needed to buy that which they never knew they needed. That’s capitalism for you: we’ll talk you into overpaying for something you don’t need, and then sell you something else when you figure out you’ve been had.

Historian Jill Fields has said, “Manufacturers still maintained concerns that younger women in the 1920s might never wear corsets if they did not undergo the initiation into corset wearing that women had in previous generations. They looked closely at the circumstances of a young girl’s first corset fitting in order to find ways of luring young women to a corsetiere.” Brassieres were hardly commonplace back then, so there was a spillover effect when it came down to selling their wares to women young and old alike.

Shortly after the first Civil War, Warner Brothers – no, not Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert; more like Manny, Moe and Jack – was a big-time corset manufacturer located in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They were smart enough to know that women were causing themselves real pain and injury squeezing themselves into traditional hourglass corsets, so, they came up with more flexible material and thus made the objectification of women more comfortable. The Brothers palled around with the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, that era’s “cool kids.” In 1914, they bought the brassiere patent from its inventor Mary Phelps Jacob. Within three years, they started selling a model called “The Growing Girl.”

Offering a product is quite different than selling it. You’ve got to tell people why they’ve always wanted it. Developing nipples needed “extra protection.” Young muscles need to be prepared to handle their oncoming loads. Flat-chested “sub-debs” sixteen and younger have a psychological need for such shielding, at least according to the training bra racket. More recently, Victoria’s Secret sold these items as a mother-daughter bonding experience.

I’m not completely certain most “sub-debs” would have this issue if the advertising sharks didn’t tell them they should. There’s no point raising a girl-child if you can’t get her all anxious and upset before her first period. That’s when the real money begins to rain.

New times bring new euphemisms. Now, seven to 13-year-olds need “bralettes” and their like for self-empowerment.

So, are training bras a necessary part of a girl’s existence? There are some who probably do need them, but I am not speaking from personal experience; at least, not yet. But, many decades after my first encounter, I still think the “training” part largely is a scam, and a psychological scam at that.

As for whether people need bras at all, well, that’s been a matter of discussion for at least a half-century, when feminists first discovered that bra-burning ain’t as easy as it sounds. Beyond that… well, that’s above my pay grade.

However, they still make Underoos.