Expanding our ideas, social expectations, and norms. Let’s create more options.
We rarely see the actual shape of breasts.
What we see is the shape of bras. We see the shape that bras impose on breasts. We see curated breasts. We see a narrow range of bodies with breasts. Very narrow. We see photoshopped breasts.
If you wear a bra, have you ever asked yourself why?
Many people find bras uncomfortable. Taking a bra off is often the first thing people do when they come home from work. We are constantly searching for a more comfortable bra, but it is less common for people with breasts to choose not to wear a bra (despite decades of questioning).
When people complain about their bra being uncomfortable, a frequent response is that “you must be wearing the wrong size of bra.” This response is so frequent that I’ve come to wonder how it can possibly be true. We can send humans to the moon but we can’t reliably find a bra that fits? (It is also essentially blaming the victim… if you’re uncomfortable, it must be because you chose the wrong bra!)
Actual vs. Idealized Shapes
These thoughts led me to an art project that explored the shape of bodies with and without bras. Through simplified silhouettes, I explored the diverse shapes of bodies with breasts and the shapes idealized through bra advertising.
I made silhouettes of idealized bra shapes through different eras, starting with the emergence of bras in the early 1900s. Through this process, it became clear that cultural expectations change over time. Every fashion era has its own idealized feminine silhouette. These iconic era silhouettes are made from ink, using text from the era’s bra advertisements.
In my research on advertising I found many common refrains. “Bras are more comfortable than corsets,” for example, marked a shift from corsets to bras. As a side note, the shift from corsets to bras was, in part, a war time response to prioritizing metal used in corsets for the war ships and the need for women to have more mobility when working in factories. Put another way, the move to bras wasn’t due to comfort for women but rather a response to a war time necessity.
One of the most horrifying things I found was advertising selling corsets to women (and children!) on the basis of health. Ads claimed that corsets promoted better posture, reduced cancer, and more. Later we these soundbites have often been used in ads for bras. Corsets and bras, worn regularly, would “prevent your breasts from sagging.” The fucked up underlying message here is that breasts have a best shape.
Over and over ads claim they provide “uplift and separation.” Why is this our goal for breasts? And why does it continue to be the goal for many, even today?
Well, according to ads, women should always want to look young and attractive, and one way to do that is through your breasts!
“Our special design gives you a fuller, alluring bustline instantly … suitably understated yet high, young and proud”excerpt from a 1940s bra advertisement
The second part of the project was silhouettes based on real people, unshaped by bras. I interviewed a number of people and asked them to pose without a bra. (Thank you to my amazing friends who were willing to do this!) I took photos in profile, using the photos to paint the silhouettes.
The variety of shapes speaks for itself.
The frequency of the word support in both advertisements and my interviews has made me curious about this word.
“Brassiere supports will make you look younger and feel better than ever. They will lift abdomen and breasts to healthful position. This will cause bulges to disappear. Supports give you slimmer more youthful lines and make clothes fit so much better.”excerpt from a 1940s bra advertisement
I think “youthful lines” is code for breasts being higher up on someone’s chest. Why do we want this?
If you look long enough, the meaning of “support” might become fuzzy for you. It’s become very fuzzy for me. I don’t understand what it means any more. What exactly is being supported? And why?
Caught up in all of this is a social expectation that breasts shouldn’t sag, shouldn’t swing, shouldn’t move. The ideal feminine body is contained. Controlled. Small. Sexy. But not too sexy. And obviously, nipples should never be visible. But why?
To be super super duper clear: if someone finds they get comfort and less pain and more joy from wearing a bra, then I’m stoked for them. For myself, I sometimes find it hard to separate the different elements of comfort.
Sometimes comfort comes from conforming to social expectations—passing unnoticed and therefore un-judged. We often don’t even know what the boundaries are until we rub up against them. Social expectations are often invisible to us until we break them (such as this absurd example of a non-existent dress code being used to punish a high school student for not wearing a bra).
Sewing is revolutionary because we can sew for the shape we are, not try to fit our bodies into the shape of our clothes. A lot of us in the sewing community (and beyond!) are trying to unpack and challenge body image expectations. I’m excited for this unpacking to reach into the terrain of breasts! If all bodies are good bodies, then all breast shapes are good shapes.
I want us to expand our social expectations and normalize not wearing a bra, even (or especially!) for people who have larger breasts. I want more options for all of us.
Rebecca has been sewing for about five years and has a mostly me-made wardrobe. She co-hosts a monthly Curvy Sewcial at her local fabric store. She also draws, paints, knits, makes jam, collects fabric, and seems to feel compelled to learn a new craft every so often. Find Rebecca on Instagram @makingculture.
Oh wow. Lots to think about here. What the heck was that school doing to that poor girl? Why are we (women) conforming to some social norm especially when we are not even sure what that is? Except we all know it is uncomfortable. No nipple show? No movement? Some cleavage but not too much? It’s so ridiculous.
So much this!
Agreed! So ridiculous!
Preach it! Personally I never wear a bra, and only wear binders when I want. Nipples are visible but most people have nipples what’s the problem? I’m glad to read I’m not the only one questioning the utility of bra-wearing for the population at large. Thanks for this post!
What is the problem with nipples!? I’m glad so many more of us are questioning bras! … Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I didn’t wear a bra until in my 30s, and now only do so for comfort. I wear wire free bras or pullover bralettes. I am excited to make my own now. Watching a Craftsy class! And I have 34F breasts. As I get older all my clothes are becoming about comfort and feeling happy eg colour. I love how sewing helps me embrace my unique shape and feel good on so many levels.
Yes! Comfort and happiness!!! Love this so much <3
Thank you so much for this! I have a disability that makes wearing a bra extremely uncomfortable, to the point of distraction, yet I’ve been doing it all my life after being told it was ‘necessary’ and forced into a ‘training bra’ (what a concept!) at the first sign of breasts on my body. Your work on the rationale behind commercial bra-paganda (and especially this idea of ‘support’) really made me think about the internalised messages that compel me to do this.
I’m so glad this was affirming for you! It’s been so lovely to hear from and connect with other folks who share these thoughts and feelings. We need each other to be able to see and challenge all of the ideas and values we’ve internalized – thanks for sharing your experience <3 (also, 'bra-paganda'!!! I love it!)
Great blogpost and pictures. Will recommend this article to other sewers.
I love sewing bras and braletts for myself and sometimes I help others to find good fitting bras as well as bra / bralette patterns. From my experience a lot of women, me included, have been wearing a wrong bra size. Normal (not specialized) bra shops (at least in Germany) only offer a small range of band and cup sizes and try to fit the customers into these bras. Which often has the result that the bras are uncomfortable ☹ and most of these bras create the same unnatural very round shape due to the padding, which is forcing the breast tissue into a certain shape.
It was a long learning experience for me to find out what a good fitting bra should be like and just recently after about 5 years of sewing bras I found that I was using the wrong kind of wires for my breast shape (normal wires instead of vertical wires). There is so much to learn around bra / bralette sewing.
I totally understand if somebody prefers to wear no bra at all. Which is the same as some like to wear skirts / dresses and others prefer trousers. We are all different and should only wear clothes that feel good/ don´t hurt.
When I started sewing bras I was afraid of bras without padding as I wanted to avoid that my nipples could be visible under my clothes. It took me about one year until I tried my first unpadded bra pattern and although it felt weird at the beginning I now prefer this style …. Even if sometimes somebody might could see that I´m a human with nipples 😊 .
And yes, although that I now have bras that fit very good, I change into a bralette once I come home 😊.
It’s fascinating how deep these ideas run, isn’t it? The idea of being afraid of wearing a bra without padding really speaks to how significant these social expectations are! And so amazing that you were courageous to try something different! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Very well written and observed, I’m definitely going to have think long and hard about this!
One problem I have is boobsweat and once, a fungal infection underneath one of my breasts (very common according to my doctor). I wear bras to counteract this problem, so if not bras, what?
Yes, the boobsweat is real!! I wish I knew of a better solution … Maybe cropped tank tops or very loose bralettes? Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Your mention of the school ruling takes me back to my school days (only the 90s, but it still feels like a different time)! In the 6th form at my school (the last two years of school, so that’s age 16-18) didn’t wear uniform, but one of the rules was “no visible bra straps” (strappy tops were ok provided you couldn’t see the bra straps). To this day I don’t understand why- and actually, I don’t think it’s appropriate for schools to make rules about teenage girls’ underwear choices (whether that’s to insist on or forbid any evidence of it).
In my workplace 15 years ago an extremely flat chested woman who had never customarily worn a bra was threatened with being sacked if she didn’t wear one at work. Due to her rebelling it was made a workplace requirement for women to wear a bra, along with shaving our armpits and having to wear shirts with sleeves. We were only cleaners in a camping ground. Men were allowed to wear singlets and not required to shave their armpits. In Australia where Summertime temps are frequently 45C or 113 fahrenheit doing physical labour like vacuuming and bedmaking was challenging work in cabins without air conditioning.
I think freeing the nipple and going bra-less is a lovely idea for small bosomed women in workplaces where women have privilege and power. But it seems a completely unrealistic challenge for working class women. I wouldn’t go anywhere in public with my 48E bust swinging free becos I would be too afraid of how men read that.