All The Times In History Your Bra Was A Big Freaking Deal
If you think your bra drawer doesn't have much of an unseemly past, think again. There have been plenty of bra scandals through history, where the flash of a strap or the brush of a curve has sent people running to their pulpits, hoisting up their picket signs, and preaching the decline of the nation's moral fiber all thanks to women's boobs. Chests have been terrifying society for centuries on end, mainly because free boobs were usually linked with free women. Women are policed for a reason, and that's so a certain power structure stays in tact.
From straps lazily sliding off shoulders, to push-up bras cheating cleavage, to corsets ditched for comfort, any moment that a woman broke from proper underwear etiquette threw people into a panic. Mainly because it signaled a shift in balance. It didn't matter if it involved a dress that didn't require Victorian whale-boning, or if it revolved around a woman who decided to treat her sports bra as a shirt. Visible bras had a way of inducing mass-stress, no matter the era. Ahead are all the times bras have shocked in history — it will make you rethink the power of your old Fruit of the Loom bra.
1. Painted Bra Straps In The 1800s
The Victorian era experienced its biggest brassiere scandal not with an actual woman who stepped outside without her usual ecosystem of underthings, but with a painting. The gentry simultaneously clutched at their throats when John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" was received, a painting of a woman wearing a low-cut black dress with a single strap suggestively sliding off her shoulder. When it was unveiled in Paris in 1884, the shock over her state of undress was so disturbing that he was run out of the city permanently, with his reputation as an artist mangled. But before he caught the first train out of France, he was ordered to re-paint the straps firmly back onto the woman's shoulders.
It wasn't so much that Parisian society was shocked with her décolletage, but that a strap looping lazily off a shoulder said too much. She was painted as an aristocratic woman of good standing, but with the indifferent way her face was turned and the suggestive way her strap slinked, it implied something that people weren't ready for. "Madame X was a sort of creature who had not been seen before in art — a woman of loose morals who was not desperate to please her lover," Douglas Rees, author of The Janus Gate: An Encounter With John Singer Sargent, shared in his book. She showed an ownership over her sexuality, and it was disturbing.
2. Corset Fines In The Wild West
Since women were busy panning for gold and running their own ranches in the Wild West, their dresses took on a more relaxed style so they could move the way their jobs needed them to. But just because they were being practical didn't mean society was about to excuse women for not wearing their usual boning. Just take the law against Mother Hubbard dresses in the Last Frontier.
Mother Hubbards were high-neck house dresses that dragged to the floor but didn't have their built-in corsets. While they were fine to wear around the house and in the fields, it was seen as shockingly vulgar to wear outside because of how loose they were. In fact, if a woman decided to wear her dress into town, she could very well walk back home to the ranch with a heavy fine in hand. In both North Dakota and Oregon in the 1880s, town squares pasted bills onto buildings that warned women they would be ticketed if they wore the dress in public, since it would "scare the horses and ruin business." Even the horses sensed their impropriety.
3. Boob Censorship In The 1940s
In the 1940s, a woman's cleavage could grind Hollywood to a halt. That might seem surprising seeing how movies had been showing starlets suggestively arranged underneath bed sheets and wearing provocative necklines for decades. In fact, the mid-century was so obsessed with Sweater Girls and cone boobs that talent scouts were under strict orders not to bring girls to auditions unless their bra size was "a good thirty-eight." But directors had to make sure the camera didn't love that ample cleavage too much. Take Jane Russell's dilemma, who made her Tinsel Town debut in The Outlaw. The film wrapped in 1941, but the censorship office's worry over her cleavage stalled the release for a whopping five years, finally allowing it to hit theaters in '46.
That was a lesson for Hollywood: Curves are good, cleavage is bad. Because of that, directors scaled back on plunging necklines and instead encouraged their stars to make the most of padding.
"Because Hollywood's Production Code forbade exposing more than a few centimeters of visible cleavage, the major studios, in an effort to outdo each other, encouraged their starlets to use padded bras and to strive for sheer size," Elizabeth M. Matelski, author of Reducing Bodies: Mass Culture and the Female Figure in Postwar America, explained in her book. People couldn't abide seeing women's curves...but at the same time, they still wanted to see women's curves.
4. Bullet Bra Outrage In The 1950s
Thanks to this pad-mania started by directors and producers, regular girls in small towns and big cities started to buy cashmere sweaters and clingy cardigans to help accentuate their own bullet bra looks. But while movie-goers might have liked seeing torpedo bras on the big screen, that didn't necessarily mean they liked seeing that same look on their neighbors and daughters.
While many women saw it just as a new fashion and a fun way to subtly accent their figure, for many it signaled the expected moral decline of the newest generation. In a 1949 article entitled "Plunging Neckline, Falsies Get Blame for Rise in Sex Crimes," Police Superintendent Harvey J. Scott told the Brooklyn Eagle, "Women walk the streets, their curves accentuated by their dresses. But our real problem is with bobby soxers. They are the sweater girls — just kids showing off their curves and apparently liking it. What kind of mothers and wives are they going to be?" Put on a cardi, and get shamed back into place.
But what was even more interesting was that the Superintendent pointed out that women created a situation where "man no longer regards women as inviolate." Now that their sweater-sets clung, these bras no longer made women safe from harm — the Superintendent pointed out that men were now aware that they could harm them, whereas before they weren't allowed to. "We're headed for national chaos."
Dr. Edward E. Mayer, the supervising director of Pittsburgh's behavior clinic at that time, also chimed in, saying that any man could become a sex offender under the right circumstances. And pointy bras create those circumstances. "They tempt and entice the male drinker who can't control his inflamed passions and likely rape results," he shared. The bras were a problem.
5. Topless Picketing In The 1960s
Rudi Gernreich was a designer in the '60s who was well known for his love of the Space Age, the avant garde, and the shocking. He was the creator of the most scandalous looks of the era, like the monokini (a free-boobing one-piece swimsuit); the nipple bra (a brassiere with nipple points) and the no-bra bra (which was more sex than coverage.) The thing with Gernreich was that he didn't always create pieces to be functional, but to sometimes advance equality and political views forward. He wanted to help society get over its "sex hang up" and didn't think women could be emancipated until that was done. This was interesting because he was a man making headlines and comments on women's sexuality, at a time when women's own remarks over their bodies were silenced, laughed at, or villainized.
"To me, the only respect you can give to a woman is to make her a human being. A totally emancipated woman who is totally free," he was quoted as saying in Johannes Porsch's and Tanja Widdman's Rudi Gernreich: Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion.
"Every girl I knew was offended by the dirty-little-boy attitude of the American male toward the American bosom. I was aware that the great masses of the world would find the topless shocking and immoral. I couldn't help feel the implicit hypocrisy that made something in one culture immoral and in another perfectly acceptable," he told The Los Angeles Times. In his views, the scandal over boobs was completely man-made, and if one gender could show their chests without shock, then how did it make logical sense for the other not to?
When the monokini and barely-there-bras came out, women gathered around window displays and clutched at their pearls, side-eyeing those who didn't react as scandalized as they should be. Warnings were made from pulpits, and some even went as far as picketing the new trends. Dubbing Gernreich "an enemy of the church," Reverand Edward Wyatt led anti-topless pickets in Dallas in 1964, and lectured to Life Magazine, "We should not have let bathing suits come above the knees."
While there was a lot of backlash and teasing (Life cheekily called him the "Bolivar of the Bosom,") Gernreich stuck by his decision. "I'd do it again because I think the topless, by overstating and exaggerating a new freedom of the body, will make the moderate, right degree of freedom more acceptable," he shared with The New York Times. You have to shock them with something wild in order to make everyday pieces like mini skirts and bikinis seem a lot less brazen.
6. Bra Strap Stigma In The 1970s
Even though women were making strides towards equality and bodily autonomy in the 1970s, there were still strong social stigmas attached to flashing bra straps. "We have this really complicated social code about what is wholesome and appropriate, and not revealing anything that is too intimate," LaJean Lawson, Ph.D., Sports Bra Science and Marketing Consultant to Champion Athleticwear, shares with Bustle. "Because of that, anything that was personal was never to be revealed. If you did, it was almost like an invitation for promiscuity." You would most definitely be seen as a loose woman. "Having your bra strap show would be equal to people looking up your dress and showing your underpants," Lawson highlighted.
In order to avoid the embarrassing mishap, Lawson shared that women bought little devices that they could sew on or pin into the inside of their dresses that would allow them to safely secure their straps. While that might sound funny nearly 50 years later, it was hard to rebel against social codes that would have been part of your day-to-day for your whole life. That same stigma was also part of the reason why it took so long for pants to become mainstream for all women, and not just a few trailblazers or fashion lovers.
"For a lot of us who were in college in the '70s, it was the first time we were allowed to wear pants for the first time, whereas before we were only allowed to wear skirts," Lawson remembers. "The codes were really close to those of bras — if you put on pants you could see the outline of your butt, and that became a much more graphic view of your body." In that same aspect, a slip of a bra gave the person witnessing the faux pas a graphic image of what was underneath. And if someone did it purposely — then she was a very daring woman indeed.
7. Sports Bra Scandal In The 1990s
In the 1999 World Cup, Brandi Chastain walked up to the soccer ball to take what would be the winning penalty kick for the US. "The stadium was so incredibly quiet — it's amazing how 90,000 plus people could be silent — if I had to stop I could hear my heart beating," Chastain shared with BBC, remembering that historical moment.
But the next day, instead of headline after headline celebrating the fact she cinched the trophy, another topic entirely took up front page space: Her sports bra. After the ball hit the back of the net, she whipped off her shirt to swing it in the air and fell to her knees in pure joy, much the same way we see male soccer players celebrate. But one thing male soccer players don't have is a sports bra — and people lost their minds. While many applauded her moment, others felt like she took focus off the win and instead shifted it to her body, ruining the moment. But again, no one feels that way when male soccer players do the same.
"Chastain followed a custom of soccer players the world over, yet this seemingly simple celebratory gesture touched off a firestorm of debate," Susan K Cahn, author of Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women's Sport, explained. "Celebration turned to scandal as horrified or gleeful viewers debated the meaning of her act. Was she stripping? Baring her breasts? No, clad in a sports bra, Chastain's breasts did not even make an appearance." When Chastain tore off her jersey and some viewers chose to see her breasts — not her triumph, not her sports bra, not her abs — but actual boobs, it linked back to a long history of women's bodies being sexualized in sports. Even while being fully covered, people can't help but switch on their X-ray vision and point to what lies beneath.
But really, that's the gist of most of history's mayhem with bra straps. It's not so much the bra that people dislike or feel uncomfortable with; it's the body it holds.