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David Emery

The Exploding Brassiere

By June 27, 2008

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THIS MORNING while reading the paper and half-listening to NPR's Morning Edition, my attention was piqued by the sweet, quavering voice of a 94-year-old woman recounting an experience she had as a teenager involving an airplane flight over the Andes Mountains and a brand new inflatable bra.

"It turned out it was a non-pressurized plane," Betty Jenkins recalled in a segment taped for the program's StoryCorps feature, "and I felt very uncomfortable. Things were getting very tight. This bra had started to increase in size!"

According to the packaging, the brassiere was expandable to a size 48. "I thought, what will happen if it goes beyond 48?" Jenkins continued. "And I found out what happened -- it blew out."

It exploded with such a loud bang, in fact, that the co-pilot rushed into the passenger cabin with his gun drawn. "The men all pointed to me," Jenkins recalled. After an emergency landing and an embarrassing strip search, Jenkins was allowed to continue the flight. The airline later billed her for the unscheduled stop.

A tall tale 50 years old and counting

If this story sounds familiar -- and it should to a lot of folks -- that's because it's been making the rounds for a good 50 years or more. You can find variants of it in Jan Harold Brunvand's The Baby Train (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993) and Too Good to Be True (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999). And the following version, as told by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and reprinted in both Reader's Digest and Strange But True San Francisco by Lisa Montanarelli and Ann Harrison, dates from the 1950s:
The national sales manager for an inflatable bra -- created for the girls that nature had short-changed -- apparently was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco with his most popular model. She was, of course, loyally wearing one of the boss's products. It turned out that the plane had a nonpressurized cabin, and the higher they flew the more inflated the brassiere became. It was so nerve-racking for the other passengers that she finally had to retreat to the pilot's compartment. She finished the flight there, gradually deflating.
A different variant of 1970s vintage turned up again in February 2000 in Bill and Rich Sones' syndicated column "Strange But True":
The Associated Press reported about a flight where a sudden depressurization in the cabin caused a bosomy stewardess's inflatable bra to begin expanding to, oh, about size 46, and climbing.

Then a female passenger, seeing the stewardess's plight, handed her a hairpin that she used to stab herself repeatedly in the chest. A male passenger, mistaking the action for attempted hara-kiri, rushed forth and wrestled the stewardess to the floor.

It took a while to restore order on the plane.
Strange but not true seems a better way to describe it, but chivalry forbids calling Ms. Jenkins out on her embellishment of this well-known urban legend, especially since, as the StoryCorps website clearly states, its mission is to collect "the stories and legends of everyday America" (emphasis added).

Kudos to Betty Jenkins and StoryCorps for this marvelous rendition of "The Exploding Bra."

"The only gossip I'm interested in is in the Weekly World News -- 'Woman's
bra bursts, 11 injured.' That kind of thing."
-- Johnny Depp

Update:
NPR StoryCorps Producer Responds to 'Exploding Bra' Skeptics

Don't miss:
Otto Titzling, Inventor of the Brassiere
Dangers of Unwashed Underwear: Flesh-Eating Disease
Dangers of Unwashed Underwear: Larvae Infestation

Read more about it:
A Bra's Tale: Detour on a Daughter's Trip Abroad - NPR's StoryCorps
Strange But True - SignOn San Diego
Exploding Brassiere - Snopes.com

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