Scottie: What’s this doohickey?
Midge: It’s a brassiere! You know about those things, you’re a big boy now.
Scottie: I’ve never run across one like that.
Midge: It’s brand new. Revolutionary up-lift. No shoulder straps, no back straps, but it does everything a brassiere should do: works on the principle of the cantilevered bridge.
Scottie: It does?
Midge: An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it! He worked it out in his spare time!
The dialogue between the characters Scottie and Midge in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958) is an appraisal of the structural revolution of the bra. Such representation of the brassiere of the future exceeds today’s underwear in its precocious ability to support.
Although it is only a fictional device in the plot of a romantic mystery, this bra and its ability to provide the wearer with ‘revolutionary uplift’ should be considered as a significant blurring between the disciplines of architecture and fashion. A far cry from the primitive strips of fabric Roman women wore in the third century, this advanced undergarment excels in its structural performance. Working on principles of engineering in the way that a cantilevered bridge operates, the enhanced figuration of the brassiere allows for the removal of fabric and fastenings, permitting breasts to soar free from traditional brassiere structure.
In keeping with the modernist doctrine less is more, such contemporary clothing can be likened to the principle of modern architecture – aesthetics based on function. As our bodies are always the structure on which garments are draped, the bra is a special kind of garment as it is worn at a place where the body is not merely a passive receptor: mass (breasts) and structure (bra) are actively engaged. As movement increases with mass, keeping the buxom chest in place requires a bigger structural force. The more robust chest may need the support of straps to limit fluctuation, just as the wobbly Millennium Bridge required additional dampers.
The disciplines can blur as both are based on structure, shape and ‘aestheticising’ basic necessities. They are temptresses, skilled in the art of seduction. (Hi-tech houses go beyond sheltering just as Wonderbras are not simply about support.) Like architecture, fashion encloses yet displays the human body in its physical, cultural and psychological facets: the fully clad Victorian woman in chemise, drawers, corset and petticoat represents the favoured style of the period compared to today’s ubiquitous push-up bra and pants.
When architecture adopts the transient nature of dressing and undressing and fashion pushes the boundaries of structure and materiality, a greater freedom exists in creating visually exciting design. These colliding disciplines mean drapes of fabric can act as walls and women can wear ‘bridges’.
But what happens when the bra comes off ? Is the illusion broken? The perfect image shattered as the structure collapses and everything is left to sag? Evoking the sensuous imagery of body as landscape and breasts as large as the Golden Gate Bridge, this masterful cantilevered undergarment is ideal design in terms of satisfying the full brief. (Pun intended.)
And given the chance to wear a Wonderbra or a bridge, I’d pick the bridge every time.