Equality And The Underwire​

On September 7, 1968, close to four hundred women gathered on the Boardwalk outside of the Atlantic City Convention Center to protest the Miss America pageant. Organized by the New York Radical Women, those participating were protesting the unrealistic, man-made expectations of beauty. Attracting attention at the center of the grand event was the “Freedom Trash Can”, where women would toss the symbols of female repression: dish detergent, false eyelashes, wigs, copies of Ladies Home Journal and Playboy, high heels, girdles, and, most importantly, bras. Rumors abounded that these items were set on fire, however that never actually occurred. Nevertheless, reporters characterized the protestors as “bra burners”, creating a very intentional allusion to the anti-war symbol of burning draft cards and flags. Burning the draft card stood for standing against the corruption of the government and the violence young men were being forced into. Similarly, the symbolic burning of bras meant standing against the corruption of gender inequality and breaking free from oppression. Although no bras were burned at that time, the image of the “bra burners” has become one of the most iconic symbols of modern day feminism. This history of the bra and the history of feminism go hand in hand.

Atlantic City, 1968

Today, feminism seems to be synonymous with campaigns like “Free the Nipple” and “Go Topless”, which state that if men can go topless, women should be able to too. However, it has been a long road to get to this place, both in the history of lingerie and the journey of feminism. Over the last century, changes in undergarments have been great, and even greater have been the steps towards gender equality. The very first bra appeared in Roman times, when women would wear “breast bands”, also called Fascia, to prevent their breasts from sagging, creating a perfectly proportional body — the ideal epitomized by statues of Venus. In the middle ages, breasts were considered sinful, as they might cause lustful thoughts, so the trend was for nearly invisible boobs. This was achieved by very strict breast binding. In the 1500s, and for the next four centuries, the corset became the fashionable norm, which would bind the waist and push the bosom up and out. The original shape of the corset was very architectural, making a woman’s torso into a kind of cone. In the early 1800’s fashionable women temporarily gave up their corsets, since they were symbols of the aristocracy and the French Revolution had proved that that was terribly unfashionable. The new looser clothing paralleled the new ideals of freedom, however this short-lived freedom did not last and the corset returned within a few years. Nevertheless, the seed was planted; when society cried out for freedom, so did women’s bodies.

In the beginning of the 20th century, corsets were at their most extreme, and most confining. They forced the spine into an “s” shape, pushing the bosom far forward and the buttocks far back, to create the ideal “Gipson Girl” silhouette. From one extreme to another, the pendulum swung far to the other side and within a few years a new era began. In 1914, Caresse Crosby patented the first modern bra, which was essentially two handkerchiefs tied together, because she didn’t like how a corset looked under her sheer debutante gown. More than just for the sake of fashion and style, the introduction of the bra went hand in hand with a new trend in society. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, better known as the Suffragettes, in England and a similar group, the National Women’s party, formed in America in 1916 under the leadership of Alice Paul. These women stood on the platform of equality and emancipation, that women should have the same rights as men. In symbolic terms, the new bra allowed for a kind of personal emancipation. The brassiere allowed for freedom of movement — allowing women to do things like work in factories, play tennis, and dance the Charleston — without the constraints of a corset. The bra allowed for freedom of body but also freedom of thought, if a woman could move as she wished, she could think and do more, giving her a context to understand the possibilities of new found freedom.

Over the following century, a change in politics and society has seen a change in breast support and coverage. Bras are, in a way, a gauge for the status of women’s emancipation. During the Great Depression and then into World War II, women enjoyed a lot of freedom in the work force. This begot a freedom in how they dressed, since they needed more mobility. However, when the men came back, women were forced, gently, back into their homes. They were also forced back into constricting undergarments and hyper femininity, such as the New Look by Dior. Bras seemed to go back in time and were very reminiscent of the corsets of a hundred years earlier. Brands like the “Maiden form” bra create an extreme conical shape around the breasts and corselettes and girdles like those by Illa Knina and Berlei not only had to constrict and form the waist, but also were very intricately and elegantly decorated.

Not only were women, for the most part, back to their traditional roles, but they were also back in their traditional undergarments. These women soon began to give birth to the age of the baby boomers. The baby boomer girls saw the repression of their mothers, and as with most generations, needed to find ways to rebel. In order to fight against the stigma of the repressed housewife, the new generation began to wear much less. In 1964 Rudi Gernreich introduced the “no-bra” bra, which was a sheer, unstructured bra. The clothing that Gernreich created, like sheer unisex suits and the monokini, “represented Gernreich’s vision of the future of fashion, in which he believed nudity would be equated with freedom, rather than sexuality”. He believed in liberating women’s bodies — much as the new wave of feminists wished to liberate women in society.

This brings us to the 1968 “bra burning”. Women had had enough of being oppressed, both socially and physically. At the time, the concept of women going bare breasted was very scandalous and most certainly made a statement about feminism. Today, however, while in some places going braless is still scandalous, for the most part it barely draws a glance. Bare chests can be seen on any television or in any magazine. There is so much variety in bra types and women’s preferences that a sheer bra is just as common as a corselette. What, then, does this mean for feminism? If the evolution of the bra has seemingly come to a stand still, what does the emancipation gauge read? There are still plenty of women who are fighting for equality but the shock factor of taking of their shirts has seemingly worn off. A Ukrainian group of feminists called “Femen” has even received a lot of backlash from other feminist groups for protesting topless. Uzma Kosly, of The Atlantic, says “Femen may have stood up for one woman’s right to bare her body, but they denounce my right and choice to cover mine, however I see fit” and goes on to explain that taking off your shirt today is not doing anything for feminism, in fact it may even be “anti-feminist”. It is thought that by protesting topless, these so called feminists are merely trying to get attention — it could be that they are making a mockery of the feminist movement by sexualizing themselves. Whether or not this argument is valid, it does bring up a point that using the bra versus no bra argument has come to a stand still in the feminist discussion.

While campaigns like “Free the Nipple” make for great social media content, they do not have quite the impact they used to, or should, ideally, have. This does not mean that feminism and bras can no longer work together. Just because women, in the majority of the western world, no longer have to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression and tight corsets, does not mean that the undergarment industry is done fighting for equality. There is a new bra brand that is finding a new way to fight for women’s rights. Naja is a bra brand made by women for women. This is a new kind of feminism, women lifting each other up — equality for all. Naja wants to support women in more ways than just supporting their breasts. Based out of Colombia, the company’s “Underwear for Hope program” trains and hires at-risk mothers to make the lingerie bags that come with every bra purchase. All of the bras and panties are made in Colombia and portions of the profits are donated back to the community to help local women. The brand also believes firmly in “bras for all bodies”, by carrying sizes up to 2XL and 34DDD. Gina Rodriguez, co founder of the company, says “we want all women to feel beautiful regardless of what the media tells us is beautiful…we also want women to understand that outer beauty is not a measure of self worth; power comes from within” . This is exactly the message that the protestors of the Miss America pageant of 1968 wanted to share — that beauty cannot be standardized and women’s power is not to be repressed.

We could never have gotten to the point where there is an entire bra company devoted to helping women if the protestors of 1968 hadn’t thrown their bras into a garbage bin. Nor would we be at this place if Women’s suffrage hadn’t happened in the 1920s or if Caresse Crosby hadn’t been unhappy with the way her corset fit over a century ago. All of these events, every new bra shape and every woman throwing out her bra, have helped to get us where we are today. Although gender equality is not yet what it should be and there is still a strong need for feminism, we have come a long way from being confined in our clothing, and in our roles.

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