Part II – The History of Women Beneath Their Clothes

This column is the second of a two-part retrospective, looking at the role of bras in the lives of American women.   Part I of the series covered the era from pre-World War I to the 1950s.

With the 1960s came a backlash against traditional gender roles.   Women fought for independence in all aspects of their lives, including their underwear.   Women demanded equality and the right to be unencumbered, which translated into a rejection of the curvier, 1950s feminine silhouette. Twiggy’s androgynous form epitomized the ideal female — breasts were out, legs were in.   The look was flat-chested and braless, and nude bras for those unable to “go without.”   The late 60s hippie idolized a bubbling cauldron of equality, freedom, and communing with nature — not a bra-friendly brew.

The most iconic symbol of the late 1960s anti-bra ethos is somewhat of a myth.   The protesters outside the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City did not spawn a wave of bra burning, in fact, they didn’t even burn their own bras.   Women threw “instruments of female torture,” including bras, mops, girdles, pots and pans, and Playboy magazines into a garbage can. The graphic image of a bonfire of bras was sparked only in the public’s imagination – not on the boardwalk that fateful day – and yet the phrase “bra-burners” continues to symbolize the angry feminist.

By the mid-1970s, the bras in stores were as riotous as the days of disco – vibrant colors and wild prints.   Women were in the work force and celebrating their financial independence.   That Girl‘s relative innocence became Charlie’s Angels’ jigglefest, with women navigating the duality of the working world and their newly found sexual liberation.   However, as the decade drew to a close, work overshadowed fun, and the 80s were all about women finding their power in the boardroom.

Women attempted to eliminate their sexuality in the workplace to create a more even playing field, and wardrobes changed to match.   Power suits ruled the day, and achieving that masculine look meant dressing the part under clothes, too.   Out went the colors and sexy styles of the 70s in favor of basic colors, minimizers and Calvin Klein underwear that were replicas of men’s styles.

Once women had established their place in the boardroom, they began to redefine their power in more feminine – yet sexy – ways.   Madonna wore her bra on the outside of her clothes in 1990, and the Wonderbra was introduced in 1994, raising breasts to new heights.   Victoria’s Secret exploded into seemingly every mall in America, and even Brandi Chastain epitomized girl power — whipping off her shirt and exposing her sports bra — to celebrate winning the Women’s World Cup.

In the last decade, a wider range of body types are being fêted for their beauty – from barely there Keira Knightly to curvaceous Sofia Vergara – and they both have companies designing bras expressly for their shapes, Lula Lu and The Little Bra Company on the petite side and Freya or Prima Donna for the full-busted.   That, in combination with Oprah Winfrey’s game-changing “Bra Intervention” in 2005, has shifted American thinking about what women wear beneath their clothes, and it is now possible to find gorgeous bras in sizes ranging from 28AA to 56N.

So what does that say about the role of women?   If past is precedent, and women’s underwear reflect their social standing, then perhaps the takeaway is that women are being more broadly valued for whatever they bring to the table – be it stay-at-home Mom, corporate executive or both.   In today’s America, women have the full spectrum of options and the independence to define themselves however they wish – and in comparison to previous eras, that’s real progress.

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