It is hard to open any site today and not find pictures of women in coloured bras smiling back at you. Indian innerwear makers seem to be funding the digital revolution these days. Zivame, Clovia, La Senza and Amante, thank you.
Indians have had a complicated relationship with the brassiere. While it may seem like we’ve only discovered the bra lately — going by the incessant advertising — there are historical records of bras during king Harshavardhan’s rule in the first century. Going by any of our statues, Indian womenfolk were rather liberated before Germaine Greer and her gal pals burnt their bras in protest.
Modern history says the bra is not part of Indian costume. We wore fabric draped around the breasts and over one shoulder. This would become the sari. Later on, we tailored blouses with triangular darts to hold us in place. It is the British, our beloved colonisers, who we need to thank for introducing the brassiere to us and force modesty upon us.
Among all things related to clothing and culture, the bra seems to be the most accurate chronicler of the status of women in the country.
The Indian woman is earning more today, is more outgoing and more emancipated socially than she has ever been. Her financial and social independence allows her to be confident and bold in her lingerie choices too. Hence, our several bra ads, urging us to experiment with lace, polka dots, push-ups, and cross-backs. The world is in the Indian woman’s B-cup.
India’s lingerie market is estimated between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 crore. The Indian woman may spend Rs 600 on a shirt. But her bra must cost Rs 2,000 or above. This, if studies are accurate, makes her bra her biggest fashion expense. Lingerie brands are obviously forced to keep up with her. Zivame.com’s advert shows women urged to openly state what they want from their lingerie. Amante ads spoke of bras as boyfriends with their ‘Break Up With The Wrong Bra’ campaign. This was among the first in advertising to discuss domestic violence and abuse with brilliant headlines such as ‘Suffocation is the worst kind of abuse’, ‘It all begins with nicks and cuts’, ‘Every woman deserves to be held right’, ‘How much longer will you adjust’. They offered statistics that eight out of 10 women wore the wrong size. The double entendre was intended and effective.
Saudi Arabia in 2012 allowed women to sell bras to other women. This was a landmark victory for women’s rights in that country, famous for not allowing women to drive unless accompanied by an adult male family member. Likewise, until three summers ago, women here were not allowed to buy lingerie unless accompanied by a male relative. The sales staff was all male too, so imagine their plight. Women in lingerie retail obviously generates employment for them and hopefully opens up more avenues for social change.
I am currently poring over Greer’s The Madwoman’s Underclothes, a collection of essays where the feminist icon discusses abortion, cosmetic surgery, vaginal deodorants, John F Kennedy, rape and other issues concerning women. In an article published in The Sunday Times of 1971, she writes about going without wearing undies, leave alone bras, and sums it up best.
She writes, “In any case, clothes do not actually influence availability. If all that stands between a male chauvinist and the accomplishment of his desires is a knicker, then you’ve had it. On the other hand, if you know karate, it doesn’t matter whether you are wearing pants (underpants) or not. Clothes as protection haven’t worked since knights discovered their armor hampered them so much that they could be hacked down by the meanest foot soldier. Ideally, women should not be judged by their clothes more than men. As long as women are judged easy or provocative based on their chosen mode of dress, they are being judged as beings with significance only in relation with others. The older generation is often puzzled that women who fling their clothes at rock concerts are not raped; they do not understand the connection is not with provocation but with freedom.”
Your underwear is an expression of your politics.