Although big breasts are celebrated in the media as sexy and desirable, the truth is that they can be troublesome and not entirely glamorous. On the other hand, the humble underwear can become a journey of reconnaissance and identity. In reaction to the prohibition of drawingin the V&A exhibition “Undressed” , I decided to transform my anger into something creative and thus I want to investigate my own relationship with underwear. I started by taking all my undergarments of my chest of drawers (pun unintended) and spread it around, so I could examine how I feel with each of those humble yet key garments in my life. I realised that my worst nightmare would be to leave the house without my underwear… it don’t care about clothes but underwear… that’s my thing.
In fact, my life would not be possible without bras, literally. My parents met when both were working at Leonisa, the successful underwear factory in Medellin (Colombia), in the earlier 1960s. My mother had moved from the country side, a very beautiful and educated girl, having to make her way as a worker in the big city. Just weeks after she was in the shop floor, she was promoted to factory coordinator: in charge of the production of undergarments for the country. My dad, on the other hand, had been touring the west of the country as a “tinker”, honing the selling and negotiating skills which later would saved his life, and in his perambulation he got to Medellin. This was the second most important city in Colombia and one of the motors of the textile industry. My dad, then a young man in his 20s, rented a room in a family house, who took a shine on the lad who was home-trained and good with the kids. The hosting family happened to be related to the owners of Leonisa and they found my dad a small admin job. The story, as told by my parents, is that my dad had of course noticed the beautiful factory coordinator, but he took a bit of time to gather some courage (and save money) to ask my mum out, to what she said she would asked her mother first. My grandma, albeit kind and open minded for her time, had only one question: “Is he a liberal?”. This was crucial for giving the permission, because conservatives, in her view, were the “enemy”. Conservative against liberals was the struggle at the heart of the longest civil war that engulfed the country, and it was said that Church priests encouraged the violence by saying that murdering liberals was not a sin. This conflict pushed both my parents away of their families’ lands to try their luck in the cities. So, yes, the thing that bonded them was their work in the bra factory and their political views.
I had a good look on my underwear and I found that The bras, specially, are high quality garments. I try to buy my bras in conjunction with the knickers, and I am terribly fussy about them. I had moved from the Leonisa traditional pairs, to the reliable M&S undergarments, with some incursions to other brands such as Bravissimo and Triumph. These are the ones that have my size… Having been gifted (or cursed) with a generous rack, bras are part of my identity -my daily armour-, the way in which I face the world frontally! Which makes me think of my troublesome relationship with my boobs, and how bras are part of the story. It began when I was 12 or 13 and got my first period, and soon my childish barren chest, began to grow, and grow, and grow and grow… and grow. The first t-shirt bras (called “acostumbradores” in Spanish or “getting used”), were replaced with more sophisticated garments, and the cups began to go through the alphabet… A to B, to C to D… to… etc. At school this evolution did not pass unnoticed, and soon I began to be the attention of unwanted gazes: my breast became an object of desire for the boys, intrigue for the girls, and also an excuse for laughter and bullying. I was called names, banned from certain sports (my love for gymnastic was drastically finished, and I showed no interest for “bouncing” activities like basketball, volleyball or simple running!), and in general I was thrown into a sea of confusion, hormones and insecurity. It did not help that the epitome of beauty was the twiggy figure; it was years before the Kardashian’s fever for big breasts and generous bodies. But the bras have been always there giving me support… Of course, the ones I wanted were those flimsy, delicately laced bras, which came only in small sizes… so I had to go to the “ladies” section to get the ones that were suitable for me… it is just until the last 10 years that brands have noticed the growing demand for bigger and sexier bras, a welcome evolution!
I have now some favorite bras, those that are comfortable, protective yet alluring. In my exploration of I discovered faithful bras in traditional colours (black, white, nude), but also sexy underwear in red, lace and lovely design… But definitively it is the support that draws me in. I have tried underwired bras for a while, but they are not my favorites, too uncomfortable; I have also experimented with the so called “reductive” bras; with sporty ones (not recommended as they make of breast a single amorphous mass), and I have never needed wonder bras or padded ones. Bras are a big part of my story, and I could tell it through bras and underwear. When I finally separated from my first husband, my first shopping trip was to get new bras and underwear. I remember buying some interesting underwear which was immortalized by the camera of the photographer Nereo, a way of re-connecting with my own (battered) self-esteem and my new found sensuality.
Which takes me to the knickers (or lack-of…) well, the knickers exploration does not compare with the bras.. here the collection is more diverse and varied. From nice designer knickers, to reliable M&S satin ones, to cotton colourful ones from H&M. Downstairs things are a bit different as I find evidence of greater experimentation: from high leg, low leg, minis, briefs, tangas, and dental floss panties (!) to an increasing collection of Bridget Jones’ granny knickers, definitively the best for daily life. I also found some “spandex”, a beige structure that goes from the diaphragm to the mid tights. The design is really interesting as it is constraining and shaping. The true is that I only wear them with summer dresses, to avoid the uncomfortable chaffing but also because summer is less forgiving with the old muffin…
The beautiful thing about this whole experience/art project has been to discover my own underwear story, to explore through the materiality of those garments, my own memories: made of insecurity, fear, but also pride and identity. It is true that having a big rack has advantages: I am popular with babies (of all ages!), and it sometimes can be used as storage (unintended pieces of food are lost in the bras), but most importantly I have healthy breasts. The twist of the story with bras and boobs is that five years ago my mum got breast cancer, and that changed my relationship with my breast. My mum got a malign one and she had to be operated almost within days of the diagnosis. The tumor was extracted and her left boob was reduced. She had to go through radio-therapy to curb the risk of spreading. Now, thanks God and the excellent Surgeon who operated her -La Doctora Sandra- she is well and without further problems. But I also know that this operation marked the beginning of an increasing ageing process. Of course, this has increased my awareness of the condition, and I keep examining my breasts and getting regular mammograms. My mum, who worked in the bra industry is as fussy as me when getting the right underwear, and she is smitten by M&S brands, so every time I visit her I must bring some of those trusted garments.
So, in a way, the prohibition of drawing, liberated my breasts and opened stories that I had well buried under my exterior. This is the power of art, the power of protest and the way in which my annoyance at the Undressed prohibition has prompted me to an interesting personal journey, a bare view at my story, a naked view to my body and the possibility of transforming frustration into art: drawing, photography and story telling.