Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to the fantastic Helen Zaltzman for her new podcast about language called The Allusionist. As Helen was discussing the etymology of the word bra in the second episode, she wanted to speak to someone about the history of the garment and Amber Butchart very kindly pointed her in my direction. All was going well until Helen asked me about ‘bra burning’ and the vast majority of the facts I’d read on where that came from simply vanished from my head. But what’s a blog for if not to set the record straight, right?
In the podcast – which Helen has delightfully entitled Bosom Holder – I point out that, although a ‘no bra’ look was extremely fashionable in the 1970s, the vast majority of women did not actually ditch their bras. Instead, they wore sheer and lightweight bras of minimal construction that gave a ‘natural’ look and didn’t show under their clothes. That doesn’t explain where the phrase originated from though, so I went back to my favourite academic books on bras and underwear to remind myself of the facts. In the exceedingly detailed Uplift: The Bra in America, textiles and clothing experts Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau describe how this came about:
One of the central targets of committed feminists was the image of women as sex objects. The most ferocious activists tackled this problem head-on by rejecting conventional feminine appearance. No more shaved legs, makeup, elaborate coiffures, or form-fitting clothing, and definitely no more bras or girdles. News reporters publicized several incidents of women publicly discarding feminine trappings, giving rise to the misleading expression “bra burnings.” (p. 141)
Farrell-Beck and Gau’s research revealed that it was New York Post reporter Lindsy Van Gelder who used the phrase in describing a planned protest at the upcoming Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City on 7th September 1968. According to historian Jill Fields, in her book An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality:
The protesters threw bras, girdles, and other objects they found offensive into a “freedom trash can” but scrapped an earlier plan to burn the can’s contents due to fire regulations. (p. 272)
So it wasn’t just the symbolic actions of one group of protesters being blown out of all proportion and used to turn the public against those fighting for equality by a journalist in search of a good headline. No, it was a myth started by someone who wasn’t even there – Van Gelder’s piece was written before the protest even took place. Even Wikipedia knows the truth. Hopefully I won’t forget next time someone asks me!