Fashion and feminism collided in one of the year's biggest trends, but it's not without controversy
Quoted below: It’s never okay to leer at a woman, says Liz Parker, a Toronto-based stylist for performers. “But if you’re going to invoke that inevitable response from men, you have to be prepared for backlash if you’re going to go braless, walk around, and jiggle,” she adds. “I’m never going to say she deserves it — no one deserves to be made uncomfortable — but you have to prepare for the backlash.”
In ancient Greece, women wrapped bands of linen across their chests. In the 1500s and beyond, restrictive corsets were commonplace among the higher classes of Western society. In 1914, American socialite Mary Phelps Jacob patented the first modern brassiere.
Since then, there have been bullet bras and WonderBras and sports bras and the “world’s sexiest bras,” as Victoria’s Secret claims, and all sorts of padded and plunging and push-up varieties.
But in summer 2016, many women decided to ditch them all.
Across the pond, the Evening Standard declared, “Free the Nipple” was this summer’s biggest fashion trend, though not always tied to the feminist equality movement of the same name. Celebrities like Kardashian-sister-turned-model Kendall Jenner have made headlines for going bra-free — in her case, following a blog post where she wrote, “I really don’t see what the big deal is with going braless.”
Plenty of Toronto women agree. Some cite fashion, others feminism, and many just basic comfort. Whatever the reason, it’s a clear rejection of the push-up bras and uniform silhouettes long peddled by lingerie retailers.
“The pendulum is swinging the other way,” says Catherine Hundleby, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Windsor. “Many women, mainly small-breasted women, are enjoying a freedom.”
That’s the case for Britt Caron, a child and youth worker in Toronto. A self-described small-chested woman, she wore padded bras when she was younger, but now, at 27, skips wearing a bra as often as possible for comfort reasons.
“I’m a feminist, and a big fem-activist, and I believe women can do whatever they want, and should do whatever they want,” Caron adds.
“I don’t believe women should feel pressure one way or the other.”
During conversations of bra-free comfort, feminism is sometimes the undercurrent. Hundleby says the trend is rejecting uniformity in the fashion world — that women should all dress the same way, and wear the same bras. “Men aren’t expected to hide their nipples, but women are expected to hide our nipples,” she adds. “This is a response to that, fashionwise.”
The shift has also led to a rise in interest in ‘bralettes,’ a padding- and underwire-free option found at retailers like Aerie, the American Eagle Outfitters-owned lingerie company known for its unretouched models. Google Trends shows interest in bralettes has been on the upswing since summer 2014, and peaked in July 2016.
After promoting cleavage-boosting bras for years, even Victoria’s Secret has dubbed bralettes as “sexy,” according to one of their 2016 ad campaigns. (The company is still the clear industry leader, controlling more than 60 per cent of the U.S. lingerie market, but its sales are down, as the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this year.)
This change in consumer demand is happening against the backdrop of France’s burkini ban and ongoing hurdles facing mothers trying to breastfeed in public. And it’s creating a striking contrast: While many women around the world are policed for their clothing choices, others have the comparative freedom to go bra-free and, in the case of celebrities like Kendall Jenner, flaunt nipple piercings publicly.
That’s raising eyebrows among some feminists. Jean Golden, a professor of sociology at Ryerson University, says the bra-free trend isn’t a substantive feminist issue, or a political movement.
“It is a personal choice, especially for young women, framed by the hyper-sexualized media portrayal of young women’s bodies, including their breasts and nipples,” she says. “It does not address systemic sexism. It could be argued it feeds into it.”
It’s also not necessarily an inclusive trend, some say, and well-protected celebrities have a certain privilege not available to average women when opting to go bra-free.
“When real women are dealing with strangers on their own, how one dresses is often treated as a licence to touch them or comment on them,” notes Hundleby.
It’s never okay to leer at a woman, says Liz Parker, a Toronto-based stylist for performers. “But if you’re going to invoke that inevitable response from men, you have to be prepared for backlash if you’re going to go braless, walk around, and jiggle,” she adds. “I’m never going to say she deserves it — no one deserves to be made uncomfortable — but you have to prepare for the backlash.”
Breast size also matters. Women with larger breasts often need the support of a bra, compared to small-chested women — although Amanda Johnson, an attorney from Seattle, Wash., experienced the opposite situation.
An “early adopter” of the bra-free trend, she ranges from a DD to an H cup, and says she endured terrible back pain and indentations on her shoulders from wearing a bra for years. Ditching a bra has lessened her back pain, Johnson says, and now she only wears one to court, or around her teenage nephews.
“I’m so glad this trend is happening,” says Johnson, 40. “My mother still says when shopping, ‘That would look so much better with a bra!’ But I don’t care. It feels better without.”
For many Toronto women, it’s hard to top the freedom of going bra-free. During the city’s hot summer, freelance writer Nekesa Mbadiwe, 21, decided to stop wearing a constricting bra, but says “it’s not a political thing or a feminist thing.”
The bottom line? It just feels good.
“Do what you want,” Mbadiwe says. “If you want to go without the bra, do it. It’ll change your life.”