I think it was my grandmother who took me to buy my first bra, somewhere around the age of 16. I don’t remember it being a big thing, more a case of ‘Right, you’re at that age, let’s go to Marks and get you kitted out.’ Since then, barely a day has gone by without me wearing one. I would no more leave the house braless than without brushing my teeth. Quite apart from the fact that I would feel naked, exposed, it would also be extremely uncomfortable. I don’t have neat, well-behaved, self-supporting bosoms, I have large, unruly appendages that really cannot be relied on to behave themselves during the course of the day. Or night, for that matter: I’m a big fan of sleep bras too.
A good bra is a staple of every woman’s wardrobe, or so we’re always being led to believe. A good bra makes clothes fit better, it makes a person look slimmer, younger and – crucially – enhances the silhouette.
In larger women – women like me, with a D-cup and above (did you know it was in the 1920s that an American company decided to classify women’s breasts alphabetically according to size and ‘pendulousness’?) – it helps contain the unruly mammaries, stops them from swinging around all over the place, tripping you up when you least expect it.
Generation braless: Actress Florence Pugh at the Valentino haute couture show last month
It helps lift the cleavage, supports the weight (which can be very uncomfortable), keeps them from turning into an unsightly second stomach. If necessary it can even minimise. Pads, wires, side-panels, cushioned straps, back-fat smoothing – there’s no end to the ingenious engineering solutions on offer. But really, regardless of size, the fundamental function of a bra is to enhance and support the breasts – and that is why the vast majority of us wear them, day in, day out. It’s just what we do. What we have always done.
But not any more. A revolution is afoot, or rather abreast, and it seems to be gaining momentum. And it’s being led by the young girls and women of today, so called Gen Z. Far from viewing the bra as an essential garment, a life-enhancing addition to any woman’s wardrobe, they view it as superfluous to requirements. And they’re just not wearing them much any more.
I see this so much in my 19-year-old daughter and her friends. They quite happily trot down the street braless, seemingly undaunted at the prospect of their nipples catching the attention of unsuspecting passers-by. Admittedly they’re young, so gravity is still on their side, and they haven’t yet weathered the storm of pregnancy and breastfeeding; even so, it’s striking just how little they seem to care what anyone thinks.
To old prudes like myself, it smacks of attention-seeking youth. And there is definitely an element of that. But there’s something more too; it’s an act of rebellion, a rejection of the conventions that have always been imposed on the female body, an unapologetic desire to rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t deemed acceptable in a female.
IT’S AN ACT OF REBELLION AND THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF EQUALITY
Perhaps the most striking example of this was the actress Florence Pugh, 26, who wore a sheer, hot pink, nipple-baring gown to the Valentino haute couture show in Rome last month. She looked stunning (even if the dress itself did remind me of a Quality Street wrapper) but also rather surprising. I mean, there she was, her breasts on show in front of the entire world.
Inevitably, the look drew a lot of attention, not all of it complimentary. But she wasn’t having any of it. ‘So many of you wanted to aggressively let me know how disappointed you were by my “tiny t**s” or how I should be embarrassed by being so “flat-chested”,’ she wrote on Instagram. ‘I’ve lived in my body for a long time. I’m fully aware of my breast size and am not scared of it.’
She added: ‘It isn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last time a woman will hear what’s wrong with her body [from] a crowd of strangers. Thankfully, I’ve come to terms with the intricacies of my body that make me me. I’m happy with all of the “flaws” that I couldn’t bear to look at when I was 14.’
A shirt-free Chloe Kelly celebrating her winning goal with teammate Jill Scott at the Euro 2022 final
Now, of course, one could perfectly well argue that if she didn’t want a crowd of strangers to tell her what’s wrong with her body, she could have worn something a little less revealing. But for Pugh’s generation, that’s not the point. They don’t believe they should compromise for anyone. And that, as shocking a concept as it may seem for someone like me, is – when you stop to think about it – quite radical. This entire generation of young women believe the world should bend to their will, not the other way around. And that is astonishing. And also a first. It’s a genuine post-feminist stance, one that assumes certain freedoms as given, and takes the whole thing to the next level. Going braless is part of that, both an unashamed affirmation of femininity – and the ultimate expression of equality.
As today’s young women see it, breasts are not something that should be hidden away; they don’t care if their nipples are showing any more than they care whether their birth-control pills fall out of their bag at a party. They are simply not into apologising for their bodies in the same way we were. They don’t fear disapproval – not society’s, not fashion’s, not the media’s, not yours or mine. They are what they are, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.
You don’t need to look far to see evidence of this. Take 24-year-old footballer Chloe Kelly’s willingness to strip off her shirt in celebration of her winning goal in the European Championship at Wembley. Take the pop star Lizzo who is defying the rules of stardom with her unashamedly chunky frame and unfailing self-belief. Her Instagram feed is full of videos of her wearing items of clothing that, not to put too fine a point on it, are struggling to meet the brief. In particular she has large, pendulous breasts which very much do not stand up on their own – and she doesn’t give a stuff. She thinks she looks great, and that’s that. Her message is: take it or leave it, the choice is yours.
An older me might have thought this all very unedifying. But recently, talking to my daughter and her friends, I’ve begun to understand it better. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin, about not letting your appearance define you.
Generation Z are leading the way in the latest fashion trend – going braless. They quite happily trot down the street braless, seemingly undaunted by nipples
Part of me is still discombobulated by this attitude, not least because it’s deeply unfamiliar. Like so many women, I was conditioned from a young age to feel embarrassed and confused about my body. It wasn’t just that menstruation was shameful and dirty (when I started my periods, it was known as ‘getting the curse’), it was also that we were made to feel that our bodies were the enemy. Too tall, too fat, too skinny, too curvy, not curvy enough – nothing was ever right, ever good enough.
The film and fashion industries – run by men – kept us locked in a permanent cycle of self-loathing. And for those rare individuals who did meet their physical requirements – the Marilyn Monroes and Sharon Stones of this world – their sexuality, their beauty, was also a stick to beat them with. We were all Eve in the garden of Eden, punished for stirring the desires of men.
This generation is having none of it. They don’t accept the imposition of physical restraints on their bodies in order to save the blushes of others, or to protect themselves from unwanted attention. They expect – actually no, they demand – that others respect their boundaries without having to be told. Unlike my generation, who were told to dress down and avoid putting ourselves in danger, they demand more. That is what the Sarah Everard protests were about: an admirable – if ultimately, I fear, naive – concept of a better world for women. And this whole free the nipple, no bra-wearing thing is part of that.
AS YOUNG WOMEN SEE IT, BREASTS ARE NOT SOMEHTING TO BE HIDDEN AWAY
Because, while it has its practical uses, there’s no doubt that the bra has played its part. Like the corset – from which it ultimately derives – it has the curiously paradoxical role of both enhancing and restricting the female form, according to prevailing fashions. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, when bras began to replace corsets, it has literally shaped expectations of femininity. From the bandeau styles of the 20s, designed to suit fashion’s androgynous requirements, to the Jayne Mansfield-style torpedo-shaped enhancements of the 50s, to the eye-popping push-ups of the 90s (when looking like two melons on a stick was the height of chic), the bra has enabled women’s bodies to be shaped by prevailing culture.
It could be that that is about to end. Statistics certainly seem to show that the bra is dying a slow death. A 2021 YouGov poll found that a third of UK women stopped wearing bras during lockdown months, while researchers at the University of Portsmouth and St Mary’s University reported a 70 per cent slump in bra wearing during lockdown, with a quarter of women saying they had no intention of going back.
Perhaps women like me, who will always seek solace in a bit of underwiring and a cushioned strap, will come to be seen as old-fashioned throwbacks, scowling Queen Marys in a world of carefree Dianas. In truth, I suspect not. There will always be a practical side to wearing a bra, and once gravity and age start to take their toll on the defiant lovelies of today, I suspect they too will welcome a bit of support.
Until then, though, I can’t help but admire their spirit. Even if I don’t quite know where to look.
THE RISE AND PLUNGE OF THE BRA
From early innovations to a recent sag in sales, Maddy Fletcher charts the highs, lows, celebrities and controversies that have come to define the brassiere
1913 The first bra
Caresse Crosby landed on the idea while getting ready for a ball in 1913, aged 19. Her corset kept poking through her gown so she instructed her maid to make a bra out of handkerchiefs. At the party, other women marvelled at how freely Crosby danced and begged her to sew bras for them. By 1914 she had patented ‘the brassiere’, but after a few years of mediocre sales, she sold the patent for just $1,500 (£1,200). Thirty years later, the brassiere was worth $15 million (£12 million).
Caresse Crosby (pictured) landed on the idea while getting ready for a ball in 1913, aged 19. Her corset kept poking through her gown so she instructed her maid to make a bra out of handkerchiefs
1914 The end of the corset era
Bras really took off during the First World War when women found themselves working in factories and wearing uniforms. Corsets simply weren’t fit for purpose any more and bras flew off the shelves. The demise of corsets helped the war in other ways. In 1917, when the Americans joined the battle, the US War Industries Board requested that women stop buying corsets so that metal could be used for weapon production. It’s thought the movement saved enough metal to build two battleships.
1922 One size doesn’t fit all
Manhattan seamstress Ida Rosenthal clocked that all her customers wore the same-size bra – no matter their chest measurements. Along with her husband and boss, she invested $4,500 (£3,700) into developing bras for all body types and the cup size was born. Buxom Rosenthal also hated the flatter flapper-style look; rather than compressing the breasts, her bras accentuated them. By 1928, the company had sold half a million.
Manhattan seamstress Ida Rosenthal (pictured) clocked that all her customers wore the same-size bra – no matter their chest measurements
1968 Bra burning
By the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967, women in the hippie movement had started to go braless in what they saw as retaliation against restrictive female norms. On 7 September 1968, activists targeted the Miss America Pageant to highlight women’s rights. As part of the demonstrations, they set up Freedom Trash Cans into which they put symbols of female oppression, including hairspray, mops, copies of Playboy and bras. The bra was never set fire to, but it sparked the image of the ‘bra-burning’ feminist.
1977 Victoria’s Secret launches
Stanford business graduate Roy Raymond had an awkward experience while shopping for his wife. He decided to create a women’s underwear shop that men wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in – and so Victoria’s Secret and its mail-order catalogue was born. After the brand was purchased by Les Wexner for $1 million (£800,000) in 1982, the bras got racier – and customers loved it. By the early 90s, it was the largest lingerie brand in the US with sales of more than $1 billion (£800 million). In 1999, its famous runway show went online and attracted so many viewers that its website crashed.
1990 Material Girl
When Madonna called Jean Paul Gaultier’s team to ask if he would make a suit and cone-shaped bra for her Blonde Ambition tour, the designer was confused. ‘I thought my assistant was joking,’ he told The New York Times. Still, he obliged, and the bra is now seared into the cultural consciousness. ‘I love Madonna,’ says Gaultier. ‘She’s the only woman I ever asked to marry me. She said no, of course.’
When Madonna (pictured) called Jean Paul Gaultier’s team to ask if he would make a suit and cone-shaped bra for her Blonde Ambition tour, the designer was confused
2012 Free the nipple
The braless brigade has always had backers. Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t bother with one at the 2000 or 2002 Oscars. But things got more political in 2012 when it was revealed that Facebook and Instagram were censoring female nipples, but not male ones. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus piled in with their own topless pictures; there were braless marches and fashion brand Never Fully Dressed sold a ‘boob tee’ (as worn by Kendall Jenner) and raised £50,000 for charity.
2022 The Braless Generation
Social media censors be damned: on TikTok #NoBra has 399.4 million views and #NoBraClub a cool 102 million. And, frankly, lockdown has made many of us embrace the no-bra lifestyle. In October 2020, lingerie retailer Bravissimo reported a 30 per cent slump in revenue while in the US bra sales sagged by nine per cent the same year. The Crown’s Gillian Anderson, 54, agrees: ‘I don’t care if my breasts reach my belly button. I’m not wearing a bra – it’s just too f***ing uncomfortable.’
THE YEAR OF DARING TO GO BARE
Fashion editor Sophie Dearden reveals how the looks dominating the catwalks are making our bras redundant too
Fashion editor Sophie Dearden reveals how the looks dominating the catwalks are making our bras redundant too
The barely there trend ruled the runway for summer 2022, and with it the implicit demand to ditch the bra. Givenchy opted for completely sheer material that displays all assets, while Nensi Dojaka and Christian Siriano played with cutouts and straps and Saint Laurent and Valentino went for extreme low backs. Underwear’s usual supporting role was dismissed. This is all well and good if you are confident and comfortable letting your bosom do its own thing. However, many of us are not there yet.
Givenchy opted for completely sheer material that displays all assets, while Nensi Dojaka and Christian Siriano played with cutouts
This is where these odd-looking accoutrements come in handy. This tape lifts and holds – layer up as much as you want for a firmer grip. Nipple petals will cover anything you would rather cover up and last all night. If you are opting for a white or sheer dress, silicone nipple covers will create the illusion of a Barbie finish in even the silkiest of dresses. The greatest in breast sticker technology are these breast lifting and shaping stickers. Simply stick the bottom to the lower half of your breast, lift it and stick to your chest. Having tried and tested this myself recently – think lots of dancing in a heatwave – I can confirm your boobs are going nowhere.
The barely there trend ruled the runway for summer 2022, and with it the implicit demand to ditch the bra
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