The Politics of Underwear: Chasing the moving nipple

Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash

Following my work in the POP project on patented underwear via our regular Skype meetings, my mother called me the other day: “I found an article on bras!” She was full of excitement. The Hungarian article referred to bras as ‘the great losers’ of the pandemic: women in the last couple of months went bra-free. She could wholeheartedly sympathize. Coming from a family of small-breasted women, we still take pains to shop for clothes that allow our breasts to move freely, which basically means a good cover for the nipple but without the straps, underwire, pins and needles.

I also found twitter feeds with similarly exhilarated statements, comments, announcements and the ultimate question: “Are we all quitting bras forever now?” This question by @yumichild on 27 March alone received 2.3K likes and 182 retweets and comments. She followed up her original tweet with two more questions: “Like, this ends, our tits have been free for 18 months of whatever … and we all resume strapping in? Like it’s not a major drag?” 

Bras – ‘the great losers’ of the pandemic

In this post I want to think about bras, the female (gendered) sexed and regulated/strapped body, and sexual and embodied citizenship. More specifically, the pivotal body part that seems to be moving in and out of the patented bras in the 200 years of the POP project: the nipple.

Covered and uncovered I want to ask our archive what the nipple, or better, the ways in which the nipple has been problematized by the inventors of the patents can tell us about intimacy, private spheres, women’s bodies and their sexual oppression and expression.

The traditional citizenship model is disembodied, or at best male bodied. It centres on the public sphere and on an “abstracted, contractual, self-possessive and autonomous” male citizen with privileges and political, social and civic rights and responsibilities as Donette Francis writes in her book Fictions of Feminine Citizenship (2010: 3).  

Covered and uncovered I want to ask our archive what the nipple, or better, the ways in which the nipple has been problematized by the inventors of the patents can tell us about intimacy, private spheres, women’s bodies and their sexual oppression and expression

The nipple is closely related to sexuality and procreation and as such resides in the “intimate domain” defined by Ann Stoler as the regulatory sphere of sex, domestics and childrearing (2002). By chasing the moving nipple, its jumping in an out of bras and brasseries, I am hoping to understand better how the female body can be brought into feminist discussions of citizenship, that has long engaged with public/private participation of women (Lister 1997, Yuval-Davis 1991).

When bodies are considered however, they mostly remain caught up in the ownership/control model (Beasley and Bacchi, 2000; Hildebrandt et al. 2019). Can a focus on the nipple as bodily materiality enable us to think of a more embodied concept of citizenship that resists the model of the female body in need of control and possession and thus of women as lesser citizens? How can we think with and expand the concept of sexual citizenship, first termed by David Evans to denote that “citizens have genders, sexualities, and bodies that matter in politics” (1993) through chasing the nipple globally, across 1000 patents and over 200 years? 

In order to extract from the archive some possible directions to answer these questions, first I need to clarify why I say I need to ‘chase’ and what do I mean by a ‘moving’ nipple? Studying the patents I was struck by an apparent double concern over the nipple: inventors seem to be equally bothered by ‘shielding’, ‘concealing’, ‘depressing’ the ‘protruding’ nipple, to ‘prevent [its] visibility’, as with making it more visible, “to simulate or mimic the visual effect of the erect nipple under clothes” (Pat. ES 201830407). The nipple is thus moving in and out of bras and various covers.

By following it and mapping its movements in the diverse constructions the inventors patented throughout the years, my hope is that the nipple might bring us closer to lived, material, ‘fleshy’ citizen bodies equally recognized in both the public and private spheres. 

By following the nipple and mapping its movements in the diverse constructions the inventors patented throughout the years, my hope is that the nipple might bring us closer to lived, material, ‘fleshy’ citizen bodies equally recognized in both the public and private spheres. 

I first looked at the disguised nipple and the reasons given for covering it even in nightgowns (Pat. US 201414569686). These range from “prevent[ing] causing shame to the wearer” (Pat. KR 20040012562) to “causing no problem in terms of public morals” (Pat. JP 16777995) and “modesty purposes” (Pat. US 67094900). When it comes to shielding the nipple, it is not only bras and brasseries that inventors were thinking about. Nipples are covered by various ‘disks’, ‘bump-proof cups’, ‘replacement pads’, ‘nipple patches’ that are “sufficiently rigid to depress the nipples, which might otherwise protrude” (Pat. AU 2355184), and even a ‘moveable nipple heart’: 

“Movable nipple heart” (Pat. JP 2005010623) 

The above “moveable nipple heart” claims to “prevent tightening and peeling”, to provide a “bra that is light and airy”. Fascinating is the point P, a heart shaped cover “concealing only the nipple at the front of the shoulder strap, and this point P can be moved up and down.” (Pat. JP 2005010623) 

Covering female breasts might not come as surprising as the efforts to make the nipple visible. In the below Chinese patent the brasserie with attached nipple makes it “difficult to distinct whether the brasserie is worn or not” as the “left breast cover and the right breast cover are respectively provided with two convex dots, which are “similar to the nipple of the human body” (Pat. CN 00217228).  

“Brassiere with nipple (Pat. CN 00217228) 

Two more patents are worth highlighting here, another Chinese one titled “Bra with teat decoration” with self-adhered buttons that enable “to unfold the woman charm” “when a woman wears clothes” (Pat. CN 01267744).  

Bra with teat decoration (Pat. CN 01267744) 

The other innovation is a prosthetic nipple patented in the USA in 2013 that is “configured to resemble an erect human nipple”: 


 Prosthetic nipple undergarment device (Pat. US 201313943096) 

Visible or invisible, repressed or erect, the patents do more than just cover or reveal, they are made for those “who have relatively unattractive breasts” (Pat. CN 02236722) so that “the satisfied beauty and graceful effect can be achieved” (Pat. CN 87209435). The patents demonstrate a foremost concern with female beauty, aesthetics and attractiveness and with the physical appearance of the female body stepping outside in public spaces and its adherence to beauty ideals. The following Chinese abstract and drawing of a patent of 2015 called “Simulation brasserie” sums these up. It even denotes the areas of work where women can participate in the public sphere 

Women with no ideal breast shapes can wear the simulation breast bra and then wear fashionable dress, the utility model can show perfect contours of breasts and nipples outside the dress to show sexual feelings, beautiful appearances and aesthetic feelings of modern females. The utility model has the advantages of simple structure and convenient use, can satisfy the requirements of females pursuing careers of models and actresses (Pat. CN 200520001384). 

Simulation brasserie” (Pat. CN 200520001384) 

One direction that patents might point us is an understanding of the female body and the nipple as symbolic and discursive, collapsing the female citizen body into a foremost cultural sign of sexuality and procreation. We could think of the nipple and the breasts as being produced by particular meanings of femininity and motherhood and correspondingly aligned and ‘fixed’ by the patents.

In terms of citizenship and political subjectivity this argument would confirm that we have not moved away from the model of lesser/full citizenship informed by the mind/body dualism that presumes that women are in need of controlling their bodies – through a conscious choice of adjusting them with the help of the above patents. As a 2000 patent from South Korea put it: “breasts can be a proud symbol of motherhood or female sex” (Pat KR20000001592).  

But nipples are also of matter. They are ‘oppressed’, ‘inverted’, ‘deformed’, ‘darkened’, ‘drawn in’, their ‘blood circulation obstructed’, “blackened by long-time oppressing” (Pat. CN 00265738). I also found a number of patents that address the fleshy materiality of the nipple. A 1990 patent from China for example claims that “the invaginated nipple is corrected under the suction and the massage of the nipple corrector, and the utility model can stimulate the growth and the development of breasts” (Pat. CN 90218274).  

Two patents stand out for their formulation of the very physical pain that nipples are enduring.

A Swiss inventor explains: “With the device shown, it is possible to protect and let live the nipple of the breast, usually deformed or crushed in poorly designed or even well-designed bra, shrink from leaching, become deformed.” (Pat. CH 276123D)

“Device for improving the appearance of the chest” (Pat. CH 276123D) 

A Canadian “Breast shieldfrom 1991 enables the nipple to extend into the interior of the shell and thus “aids in reinverting a nipple that is inverted” (Pat. CA 2036249).  

 Breast shield” (Pat. CA 2036249) 

In the following two innovations from Switzerland and France, the nipple is left free. The Chinese patent from 1936 claims to “support the breast by lifting them without compressing them” (Pat. CH 198392D): 

 Bra (Pat. CH 198392D) 


The French patent is dated 1951. Its “principle” is “to provide a bra which, starting from a rigid base, supports each breast separately by firmly surrounding from below, but does not completely cover the chest. If the patent would convince of its concern with supporting the breast and letting the nipple off of pressure, it disappoints with a similar interest in female beauty as seen above with the other patents: “as a result, the natural form of this one is preserved, and keeps, thanks to the wearing of this bra, a youthful firmness and plenitude” (Pat. FR 1043638D). 

 “Bra straightening the breasts while allowing a very large neckline (Pat. FR 1043638D) 

Chasing the nipple across 200 years has brought up more questions in relation to citizenship and female bodies

Despite these inventions concerns with the ‘flesh’ of the nipple, the question still remains how far they reproduce an idealized female form and imply that female bodies are inscribed by operations of power – and not in their materiality productive of meaning. A kind of reconfiguration towards private materiality would consider female bodies – nipples – not in terms of fixing, of a disadvantage that consequently produces lesser citizens exclusively conceived in the private sphere, but a recognition that all bodies matter and that bodies differ.  

Chasing the nipple across 200 years has brought up more questions in relation to citizenship and female bodies and indeed more thorough analysis is needed to find possible answers. Yet, one key relationship emerged from the POP archive: between the nipple and regulatory, disciplinary power. A power oppressing female bodies leading to lessened claims for full citizenship, a power whose grip on their breasts women in the months of the pandemic might have been able to loosen.  


Beasley, C. and Bacchi, C. (2000). ”Citizen Bodies: embodying citizens – a feminist analysis”, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 2:3, 337 – 358. 

Evans, D.  (1993). Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. London: Routledge.  

Francis, D. (2010). Fictions of Feminine Citizenship. Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Hildebrandt, P., Kerstin Evert, K., Peters, S., Schaub, M., Wildner, K., Ziemer, G. (Eds.). (2019). Performing Citizenship: Bodies, Agencies, Limitations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Lister, R. (1997). “Citizenship: Towards a Feminist Synthesis” Feminist Review, 57 (1997): 28-48.  

Stoler, A. L. (2002). Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Yuval-Davis, N. (1991). “The Citizenship Debate: Women, Ethnic Processes and the State,” Feminist Review, 39 (1991): 58–68. 



Pat. ES 201830407. Lopez Dieguez, Cristina. Coruna, Spain. 24 March 2018. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. US 201414569686. Savard, Christine. Quebec, Canada. 16 June 2016. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. US 67094900. Wittes, James M. and Zuckermann, Anne. Princeton, USA. 16 July 2002. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. AU 2355184. Cole, Raymond. Australia. 22 November 1984. Accessed at the EP O   

Pat. JP 2005010623. Japan. 6 July 2006. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 00217228. Zhou Cairen. China. 30 May 2005.  Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 01267744. Guo Qingsen. China. 16 October 2002.  Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. US 201313943096. Sartell, Richard B. Waterford, USA. 11 March 2014. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 02236722. Wang Lianying. China. 21 May 2003.  Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 87209435. Fei Honglin. China. 11 May 1988. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 200520001384. Zi Jianhua. China. 1 March 2006. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. KR 20000001592. Gim Auk-Won. South Korea. 15 July 2000. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 00265738. Chen Chongquin. China. 17 October 2001. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CN 90218274. Xiwu Ma. China. 15 May 1991. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CH 276123D. Beck, Conrad. Neuallschwill, Switzerland. 18 July 1948.  Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CA 2036249. Larsson, Karl. Canada. 24 January 1995. Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. CH 198392D. Suzanne, Goddyn. Switzerland. 1 September 1938.  Accessed at the EPO   

Pat. FR 1043638D. Fritz, Lesche. France. 10 November 1953.  Accessed at the EPO   

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