The Genteel
May 17, 2021


Bra tops on the runway. Source:

Silk, lace, satin, cotton, lycra, rayon, patent leather, spandex.

Adhesive, sports, bandeau, convertible, chansonette, strapless, training, balconette.

They come in all shapes and sizes and you probably own a combination, if not all, of the above.

Once upon a time, a bra engineered a deep affirmation in your identity and desires, regardless of your sex. The bra is a milestone for many: it can be a cliché signifier of your first step to womanhood, responsible for your first sexual curiosity and intrigue, or perhaps even a confirmation of your sincere disinterest. We have all worn or seen many bras - on billboards, in magazines, on TV, in cinema or in person. As part of society's sexual discourse, the bra illustrates our culture's taste and sexuality. 

Rihanna bra top Jeremy Scott
Rihanna in Jeremy Scott S/S 2012.

Writer Sarah Nicole Prickett underlines how the brassiere aligns with our cultural ideologies in B Insider's "Bare Essentials": "[the bra] tells of our ideals, desires, frustrations, oppressions, liberations, reclamations."

Brassieres have served the female gender loyally. In the third century, Ancient Roman female athletes wrapped bandages around their breasts for support. The 19th century embraced the organ-displacing corset. Women were eventually asked to forfeit the corset during World War I when the high demand for steel required such a sacrifice. Flat-chested flappers, the curvy Marilyn Monroe ideal, the bra-ditching hippies and finally the '90s bullet bra, have demonstrated the ways in which the bra has always been strapped to our social and political changes.

Now, with the advancement of technology and new standards of "beauty," one can choose to wear a water or gel cup bra. Or better yet, a "memory foam" bra, which, prior to a recent visit to a Victoria's Secret store, I thought was a term solely used to describe mattresses. Brassieres used to only serve the purpose of support; now their primary service is to seduce. Prickett comments, "I think the rise of the push-up bra coincided with sex-positive 'post-feminism,' but also with raunch culture..." The redefining of the bra's purpose correlates to society's progressions in taste and sexuality.

It is the erosion of the intimate that has left us desensitised to the erotic and sensual.... By accepting lingerie as outerwear, we are continuing to erase the marks between private and the public - pushing the latter into a category of meaninglessness.

For the S/S 2012 season, several designers played with the idea of a brassiere as a top. Proenza Schouler, Dolce & Gabbana, Donna Karan, Nina Ricci, No. 21, Emilio Pucci and Versace were the top seducers. Mostly paired with high-waisted somethings, bra tops headed down the runway with a retro air or "…fairly '90s street-Lolita," as Prickett states. She elaborates: "...the lingerie-as-outerwear thing we're seeing now is neither risky nor risqué. Stylists are doing bra tops with pencil skirts and trousers, or layering them over blouses, you know; it's all done very nicely. We're showing ribs, not midriffs. There's no flesh in it."

The recent crop of bra tops on the models generally do not look vulgar nor do they expose their wearer inappropriately. But how much skin is actually risky or risqué in today's society? There seems to be a lot of wiggle room in the answer. Society's measurement of the appropriate amount of exposed skin has eroded with the decades. Breast and butt cleavage, backs and midriffs in public are accepted and encouraged - by the media, and consequently by us. Easy examples include Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, who have worn lingerie as outerwear notoriously. Sex & The City's Carrie Bradshaw spent six seasons showing her undergarments with or without clothes. Of course, it's important to remember that these choices are affected by the media's need to create spectacle. Luckily, we have our female vocalists and celebrities to take care of this necessity.

Society is consistently presented with images of women - advertising, billboards, TV, films and magazines - who are being exposed privately, in public. Racy lingerie shots are no longer enough to evoke emotion - whether to shock or excite. As a society, we now require rawer and raunchier images to charge our emotions and thoughts. It is the erosion of the intimate that has left us desensitised to the erotic and sensual. Our sexually-obsessed culture has deeply muddied the divide between "private" and "public." By accepting lingerie as outerwear, we are continuing to erase the marks between private and the public - pushing the latter into a category of meaninglessness.  

Versace bra top SS 2012

Versace does studded leather 
bra top for S/S 2012.
Source: writer Amanda FitzSimons conducted a social experiment in a New York City bar that illustrates our numbing. "After about 15 minutes, the lack of attention ceased to be a relief and became an annoyance. What does a girl have to do to get noticed around here? Off came the cardigan. Still, nada. Eventually the bartender offered, "That's a neat shirt,'" she documents. FitzSimons's experience is a microscopic example of the macro picture.

Now, let's not forget that fashion, after all, is about imagination, beauty and fun. I appreciate the dreaming, the courage and the craftsmanship. The bra tops are beautiful and nostalgic. As Prickett puts it, "For designers, it's a good way to experiment with bad taste, and also to make a lot of money on not very much material."

The bra top is featured by a variety of designers, from Donna Karan to Versace, who create clothes for a range of women. Perhaps the bra top is throwing the oversexualisation of our society back at us, a sort of ridicule. Perhaps it is simply an acceptance of society's sexual saturation. Perhaps it is homage to the pin-up style, an era that popularised the mass production of images featuring "sex symbols."

Fashion and feminism are inseparable - both progressively and retrogressively. Fashion affords us to experiment with identity and beauty; there is no need to defeminise out of fear of objectivity. Yet society must recognise a warning sign that indicates the overuse of the body as a mechanism for spectacle and experimentation.

Reassurance comes from the fact that we live in a society that allows women the choice. Women have a choice to work and provide for themselves; they have a choice to purchase the bra top or not, and ultimately, to wear it, or not. 



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