In the post-home era, if business casual becomes the norm for work, will underwired bras take precedence over ties, suits, and sky-high heels? Rather than being burned, will they be thrown into our collective waste heap for good?
Since 2019, sales of sports bras, mostly non-wired, have stretched more than 50%, according to NPD — even if the “sport” consisted of wandering from the bedroom to the fridge. Women embraced everything elastic. They loved the pajamas, with sales up 43%. For the first time in five years, non-wired soft cup bras are outselling underwired ones, with the latter accumulating as much rust.
“All I wore were sports bras for the past two years, like six bras, all for comfort,” says Susan Dowd, 69, who teaches citizenship classes and lives in North Andover, Mass.
Today, she opts for frames. We know this because Dowd conducts much of the interview shirtless while attending the Curve expo for lingerie shoppers; his daughter, Libby Basil, is one of hundreds in attendance. Right here on the living room floor, it’s not uncommon for women to pull down their shirt to present an undergarment or declare their bra size unprompted.
Underwired bras, the first patents dating back a century, raise several existential questions.
Why, in this moment celebrating body positivity and diversity, the natural richness of all figures, do women continue to wrap yarn around their breasts, lifting them inches above their innate resting position? Also, why so many frames bras protect nipples like they’re part of a witness protection program?
How is it that women are fascinated by leggings that reveal their true shapes, but expect their bras to perform miracles of engineering that defy gravity and form? Is the underwired bra a lasting vestige of outdated beauty standards dictated by the male gaze? Has the pandemic got us to a point where women view it as a wired trap?
“I want my boobs lifted to the gods,” says model Naimah Terry wearing a matching Elila ensemble in the chilly Javits Center. She jokes: “I want my boobs up to my neck.”
Coming out of the pandemic can be a transformative moment, according to intimates experts, a great opportunity to rethink what women (and non-binary people and some men) want their bras. It’s also a great time to reflect on our crisis crisis, which the pandemic has only exacerbated.
“80-90% of women have no idea what their size is,” says Frederika Zappe, National Fit Specialist for lingerie brands Eveden, a sentiment echoed by many experts. They are wearing the wrong band size (usually too big) and the wrong cup size (often much too small, producing a pronounced spillover).
Women can also have different breasts than they did before, especially after two years of snacking on cashews and cheese. “Our breasts are made up of fatty tissue and our bra size changes all the time,” says Kimmay Caldwell, an “underwear educator” who offers workshops online and frequently appears on talk shows.
“I see myself as a self-esteem coach,” says Caldwell. “I know I can change someone’s life with the right bra.”
Given that people haven’t shopped in person for months or even two years, many are wearing bras that are too old (“vintage” an unseemly concept in lingerie) and possibly dead (the elastic has stretched to the point to be futile). How long does a bra last? Six months or 100 uses.
Bra styles are constantly changing, as subject to the vagaries of fashion as shoes and denim. Styles favoring smaller, demure busts rose to popularity with the flapper of the 20s, the 60s feminist and today’s bralette bralette, while the bullet models rose in popularity after World War II – supporting the two Ja(y)nes, Mansfield and Russell – and with Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconic cone bra.
During this time, breasts have evolved and changed in size, even in preteens and ectomorphs. “They started to get bigger,” says Danny Koch, the fourth-generation owner of New York’s Town Shop, founded in 1888. (When her grandmother Selma died, her obituary noted, “She was 95 and a 34B.”)
“The point of this game is to keep your breasts closer to your chin than your navel,” says Koch, who employs a dozen fitters. “We try to defy gravity, and gravity is very difficult these days.”
For years, lingerie sizing has come to a head at DD. Breasts, however, did not. Maybe the fear was anything higher would seem inappropriate, as if the buyer was missing bra school. Now brands like Parfait and Elila follow the breast, producing sizes up to J or K, the latter the equivalent of a DDDDDDDD.
At the lingerie fair, there is a lot of talk about the complexity of bras, the fact that one can be made up of 25 or 30 components. They do hard work. A fuller chest – there is a concerted effort to move away from loaded language like Stacked Where apartment – can weigh four pounds.
“You’re part psychologist, part engineer,” says Ellen Jacobson, the third generation to run Elila lingerie, which specializes in styles for full-bodied, many of which are soft cups. “Women can suffer a lot. They may not know where it comes from. Getting the right bra is transformative.
Underwired bras, with a dizzying array of band and cup sizes, are particularly popular. challenge when shopping online. “From brand to brand, one size is going to fit completely differently,” says Jacci Fredenburg, a designer and stylist who teaches corsetry at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I think we are in an interesting moment. Underwired bras aren’t the most comfortable for everyone.
In addition to avoiding the body pain of wires, sports bras offer the simplicity of small, medium, or large, which means consumers can usually avoid the hassle of returns.
At the lingerie expo, there’s an abundance of soft cup options, including a whole sheer line from Slovenia promoted as Europe’s best pole dancing wear. Manufacturers have learned from the pandemic. They produce more cordless models. Even the French. This is what women want, say the representatives of the brand, so here they are.
“A good bra should feel like two hands are holding you — two hands you love,” says Zappe, a fitness class instructor. Also, “don’t be afraid to touch your boobies.” She often squeezes her breasts as if they were plums. She compares bras to friends.
“Here is Mathilda”, exalts Zappe. “She just always works.”
Then it happens, the moment of Dowd’s intimate epiphany. “I always wore the wrong size,” she says, locked in Mathilda. She has “bra burns”, a hitherto unknown concept, on her back. Is Dowd upset? No, she is delighted, enlightened. She always thought she was a 38DD. Always. There you go, it’s a 36G.
Master bra fitters saying this is the heart of the bra crisis – and underwire can be a friend if consumers buy the right size. Most stores do not have expert installers. While working at a specialty store, Lauren Preszler, Anita’s lingerie sales consultant, completed six months of fitting training. By the time she left, there were only six weeks left. Today, with a record number of retail employees resigning, there may be no more training or installers.
The right underwire bra is great, experts say — you hardly know it’s there. “If you get home and you’re uncomfortable and can’t wait to take it off right away, you have a bad fit,” says Perfect executive Mary Alice Kelly.
In this post-pandemic period, we may not be returning as much from elsewhere. In a January Pew Research poll, 60% of workers who could work from home did so. Just over a quarter of workers in America’s largest business districts had returned to the office, according to a Kastle Systems survey that month. and more than half of those working from home considered quitting if they were to return. Fashion experts note that many people return to the workplace with a pronounced fondness for more casual clothing. “That idea of comfort is here to stay,” says NPD’s Classi-Zummo – partly because our old work clothes may no longer fit us.
Few experiences are as disconcerting as attending a lingerie show in an old pre-pandemic underwire bra, needing something new and type. The fitters know. They see everything, especially between the navel and the neck. They are quite capable of offering sideways glances which are best summed up in “Oh dear.”
Rooms are filled with fresh colors and whimsical patterns in every size imaginable, a boudoir of endless choice. However, all of them are only available on order from the trade. It looks like Samuel Coleridge’s former boatman drowning at sea: bras, bras everywhere, and not a single one for sale.
Dowd then bought a new underwire bra elsewhere. It didn’t go well.
“Oh, I don’t think I can spend all day in this. I felt confined. Instead of two hands caressing each other, it was like daggers,” she says. “I felt it right under my armpit. There was so much going on under my arms.
She adds, “I felt like it lifted everything. I felt like it gave me an hourglass shape and made me look slimmer. But why do I need to wear sweaters and baggy clothes? I don’t don’t really need a curvy look.
Instead, before teaching her citizenship course, she opted for a bra bought before the pandemic, an old wireless favorite.