Bras, Bralettes, & Bustiers: A Discussion

 Above:  A fun look from Elle US March 2012.

Folks, it is time to talk about something very grave indeed. The Closet Feminist is a feminist website entirely focused on fashion, style, and clothing, yet we have not addressed the single article of clothing that has been tied to feminism for decades:

The bra.

Wait, feminists are a bunch of bra-burners. Oh yea, wait–that never actually happened. So let’s get that out of the way up front. To learn more about this historical inaccuracy, head over to the Gender Focus YouTube channel, and watch this video by the amazing Jarrah Hodge which sets the record straight.

Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get down to business.

 Above: Katherine McPhee looking sharp in Lucky Feb. 2013

We wanted to have a discussion about bras because let’s face it- they’re out there. Sheer tops and clothing are big right now, and are often paired with fun, colourful bras, bustiers, bralettes, etc. You’d be hard-pressed to find any magazine of any month in the last 12 that doesn’t have a look like the ones mentioned.

The last twelve months are nothing–women, bras, and fashion go waaaaaay back as you no doubt know. Jill Fields writes in her fascinating book from 2007, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality:

The brassiere is a twentieth-century garment [it] now fuels a $2.5 billion industry. It also played a critical part in the history of twentieth-century American women’s clothing, because the shaping of women’s breasts was an important element in changing the fashionable silhouette. Moreover, the growing cultural preoccupation with women’s breasts during the twentieth century itself contributed to the shaping of this silhouette and the meanings it produced. The brassiere was thus a critical site of gender differentiation, as well as a source of pleasure and power, in twentieth-century [North] American culture and continues to be so today.



We’re actually pretty excited about The Bra becoming an iconic fashion article not necessarily meant to be hidden under your clothes. It girl bloggers like Rumi have made bralettes a key piece to an outfit, and in other places, women are making money off of their flair for lingerie–and no, we’re not talking about Victoria’s Secret. Rather, we mean people like Hannah Metz, who’s vintage lingerie line The Loved One caught the eye of nearly every blogger when she announced that her business was starting. Maayan Zilberman, one of the designers behind The Lake and Stars has also gotten a lot of press time.

Above: Lauren Conrad in Lucky March 2013.

The creativity of designers, stylists, and bloggers, and the consideration of the bra as something other than a tool for support and figure construction is an interesting one indeed. It’s kind of neat to see something that is often considered secret, private, and purely for the viewing pleasure of men, as something fun and fashionable that you can wear with everything from a blazer to a cardigan and be on trend.

This is not to say that support and structure aren’t important-they are. It’s just that sometimes, in the name of support, structure, and maintaining an appealing feminine figure, women actually suffer and endure pain to make this figure happen.


One thing that stands out on this point is a particular scene from Mad Men Season Two in the episode ” A Night To Remember,” where Christina Hendricks is shown alone at home at the end of the day, and she winces as she slides one of her bra straps off to rub her shoulder, revealing painful red marks induced from her bra. It’s a brief but kind of heartbreaking scene.


Looking forward, it’s really, really exciting to see that in this past year the announcement of the first ever lingerie line made by and for transgender women, Chrysalis. The significance of this cannot be emphasized enough. Richard Vincente said it perfectly in “Lingerie, Gender and Identity,” on the blog Lingerie Briefs,

After all, lingerie, as most people in the industry will tell you, is all about your sense of personal identity — how women view themselves, how they want to be viewed, and how they can transform themselves. The Chrysalis team isn’t just selling undies, they’re inserting themselves into the fashion and media mainstream as a way of advocating for change, acceptance and empathy on behalf of people who have to fight for their chosen identity every day.

While bras are among the most controversial and thought-provoking garments, they have a myriad of meanings to as many people. We’re not necessarily arguing for or against bras, and turn once again to an excerpt from Fields’ work, who discusses the example of an exhibition book by Leslie Sharpe in 1989 entitled Bra vs. Bra sharing,

 In Bra vs. Bra, Sharpe imagines alternative brassiere designs that exaggerate and transform the conventional brassiere functions of uplifting and molding breasts to highlight the artificiality of the breast shapes that brassieres construct. Why not have a “Pulley Bra” that allows women to point breasts in opposite directions or out to the sides? How about acknowledging the cultural conception of women’s bodies and female sexuality as dangerous by wearing a “Spike Bra” that creates two large mounds on a woman’s chest covered in pointy spikes? This bra can also serve as a weapon of self-defence, thereby providing a commentary on the precarious status of women in public. Moreover, it slyly meditates women’s cultural obligation to construct themselves “to-be-looked-at” with the concomitant dangers of living amid the myriad representations of female bodies as objects of reified femininity. Yet Sharpe’s work does not argue against artificiality nor advocate a mythic return to the natural; instead, it calls for brassieres “directed to women’s pleasure and needs. Feathers….and satin could tickle our breasts…Artifice should be made obvious and pushed to exaggeration […] pointed bosoms should be frightening-they should really be weapons, either visually intimidating- or for women who need them, actual weapons.


A Slip of a Girl, a lingerie blog

R29: 6 Ways to Wear a Bustier Top

R29: 5 plus-size friendly lingerie lines

R29: 4 lingerie pieces to wear all the time

Fashionista: An Interview with Cy Lauz, the designer behind Chrysalis

The Peach: YES, I’m a feminist and YES, I love the Victoria’s Secret fashion show




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2 thoughts on “Bras, Bralettes, & Bustiers: A Discussion

  1. While I’m excited about the topic of bras in fashion, I have to respectfully disagree with your description as bras being intended “purely for the viewing pleasure of men”. I recently had a discussion with three of my female friends about bras and we all agreed that we love the bra. We came to the following conclusions:

    1. Bras allow us to function without having our breasts swinging around uncomfortably while we’re doing something active (or even, you know, walking). Of note is that all of us are of average or above-average cup size.
    2. A nice, well-fitted, good quality bra is wonderful. We all agreed it’s worth paying a bit more for a decent bra.

    Based on our conversation, it became apparent to me that I’m not the only woman who wears a bra for my own comfort and enjoyment. Furthermore, given that two of those pro-bra friends identify as lesbians, it’s unfair to assume that they would choose to wear bras only to show them off to men – in fact I’m pretty sure neither of them would ever do that.

    I understand that indeed bras are very much marketed in that context, but at least based on my conversation with my friends, it becomes apparent that on the list of reasons why women choose nice bras, sex appeal is a lesser priority (in fact it didn’t even come up in our conversation). Maybe this is a topic that you should explore: why are bras, an inherently feminine garment, frequently advertised using over-sexualized imagery which appeals to the hetero male?

  2. I agree with Ada. I’m as busty as Christina Hendricks, and couldn’t possibly go braless – it would kill my back, even working at home alone on my computer.

    There are so few comfy bras for cup sizes beyond dd or ddd. Absurdly, a lot of dd and up bras contain “lining” aka padding – last thing I need. Evidently to hide nipples. I don’t understand the current horror of nipples…

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