People often mention ‘bra burning’ when they speak of second wave feminism, as if an allegedly oppressive undergarment was the most important thing that the feminist movement fought against in the late twentieth century. They also talk about it as if this were complete and utter truth, when it is more likely an urban myth. In their academic book on the history of the brassiere, entitled Uplift: The Bra in America, textiles and clothing experts Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau describe how this phrase first 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 also 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.
It is, however, true that fashion latched on to the ‘no bra’ look in the 1960s and 70s. This was perhaps due to the high profile of ‘Women’s Lib’, or it may simply have been a result of the influence of the fashions of the 1930s on the clothing of the 70s. The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was set in 1934 and sparked a trend towards thirties-inspired fashions in the years following its release. Brassieres in the 1930s had given women a soft gentle uplift, and this style of bra construction worked much better with the soft lines of the new fashions than the structured pointy styles of the late 50s and early 60s did. So the vast majority of women did not actually ditch their bras, let alone burn them. Instead, they wore fashionable sheer and lightweight bras of minimal construction.
Despite a move towards underwear with a softer less structured and supposedly ‘natural’ look from the mid-1960s onwards, it wasn’t down to nature and was actually advances in fibre and textile technology that made this look possible. Adjustable stretch straps became commonly available in the 60s and designers looked for new ways to use existing fibres like nylon and polyester. Avant garde fashion designer Rudi Gernreich used sheer nylon tricot fabric in his famous ‘no-bra’ for Exquisite Form in 1964, but the design still incorporated seams on the cups. The 1950s moulding technique known as pre-forming continued to be developed into the late 70s and early 80s as, when used in conjunction with these light knitted fabrics, seamfree cups made from a single piece of fabric could be produced to provide subtle support without showing through clothing. Gernreich’s 1972 version of the ‘no-bra’ was seamless.
Fashion design and technology may have, at first, appeared to be the enemy of the second wave feminist, but I believe that they actually gave women something vital in the struggle for gender equality: choice. The growing availability of different styles of bra in an increasing array of sizes provided women with more options, should they want to wear a bra, while the fashionable braless look might have helped more women to do without that would otherwise have dared. Whatever your opinion on the bra, it can be argued that developments in underwear design in the 1960s and 70s actually gave women the freedom spend their time campaigning for more important things, like equal pay!
This article was written for and first published on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Blog in 2015. Images of protesters at the Miss America pageant in 1968 (via Media Myth Alert) and of a 1970s Triumph bra advert (via Pinterest).