Around Memorial Day, 2011, I realized I had a bra problem. I was headed to London for the summer, and the mini-move entailed a radical wardrobe edit—I was adamant I’d pack only things that I genuinely loved and regularly wore, and nothing in my overstuffed lingerie drawer fit the bill. I had flimsy, candy-colored “sexy” bras that were impractical to wear. I had T-shirt bras with heavy molded cups that I wore but devoutly despised because they made me feel like I had a pair of dirigibles strapped to my chest. There were latter- day versions of the legendary WonderBra that seemed to set my breasts on a platter and offer them to the world as a gift. And then—my secret favorite—I had a comfy, tank-style Jockey sports bra that did absolutely nothing for my tits. How is it possible, I wondered, that capitalism had yet to provide me with copious options for bras that I did not hate?
Lo these many years later, capitalism has come through. Women are living in an entirely different universe of underpinnings than they were just a few years ago. The sports bra I own now is a hoisting, stabilizing feat of German engineering made by the brand Anita, and I would never in a million years think to use it for anything but running, because my lingerie drawer is now filled with bras that are chic, gently supportive, and featherweight—to wit the wire-free, micromesh bralette by New York City based brand Negative Underwear, one of several newcomers to the lingerie marketplace, that I’m wearing as I write this.
“We looked around at the fashion we loved, which was all very minimal—brands like The Row, and Céline when Phoebe Philo was designing it—and it just didn’t seem like there was a bra for the woman buying those clothes,” explains Negative’s cofounder Marissa Vosper about the impetus for the brand’s launch a few years ago.
Negative’s debut followed on the heels of ThirdLove, the popular direct-to-consumer lingerie brand that offers simple styles in a dazzling array of sizes, and it’s been followed by the launch of other labels with a similar remit. Not coincidentally, many of these brands were founded or cofounded by women. CUUP, launched in November, is typical in that its products reflect the simple goal articulated by cofounder Abby Morgan. “I wanted to embrace my natural shape,” she says.
“More often than not, the ideal breast is an invented breast,” wrote science columnist Natalie Angier in Woman: An Intimate Geography, published in 1999. “Breasts vary in size and shape to an outlandish degree, but they can be whipped into an impressive conformity.” The striking thing about the new, minimalist lingerie brands is that they aren’t really offering a silhouette proposition—they provide a range of styles meant to enhance women’s genetically determined breasts rather than sculpt them to match a culturally ordained ideal. You can see the same kind of shift in the move toward shapewear that smooths rather than suctions, like that made by cult-favorite brand Yummie.
“When you look at a push-up bra now, it looks so . . . foreign,” says superstylist Mel Ottenberg, who has worked with Rihanna, among others. “Like, it used to seem so normal, and now cool girls are wearing Baserange and it’s all totally unstructured. You just don’t want—or need—that kind of lift if you’re wearing Erdem or Loewe or Valentino.”
Is it possible that our POV on bras and breasts is undergoing one of those cyclical readjustments, as when women in the 1960s took a hard look at their pointy bullet bras and thought, To hell with this? That’s how I feel when I look back at the famous WonderBra ad from 1994 with Eva Herzigova staring gleefully down at her bolstered breasts next to the tagline hello boys. Pardon me for believing that a bra ought to be made for the people wearing it—not some hypothetical male gaze.
“If you look back, the idea of ‘sexy’ wasn’t owned by women so much,” says CUUP’s Morgan. “Whereas now it’s more about sensuality and how a woman feels.”
If you had to isolate the moment when this pivot began, it would be sometime in 2013. That year, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was watched live by an astounding 9.7 million people in the U.S.; one month later, ThirdLove launched. Earlier this year, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company announced that it would no longer be airing a fashion show on network television. Increasingly, it seems that pinup femininity, and the lingerie abetting it, is becoming passé. Technology has fostered the change, with startups and heritage brands alike seeking out high-performance fabrications and investing in new technologies that create a gossamer lingerie architecture. ThirdLove’s T-shirt bra is made with a lightweight memory foam that molds to the breast’s natural shape; Wolford, a lingerie- department stalwart, has developed a system of 3-D silicone printing that replaces wires and seams with nearly invisible contouring—its 3W line, produced with the technology, has been a blockbuster hit with customers. “Fifty percent of them leave the store in the 3W bra they tried on,” reports Wolford’s Robyn Breighner.
Fit is another area that has witnessed rapid advancement. New brands are encouraging women to rethink bra sizing, clueing them in to the fact that, for decades, we’ve been contorting ourselves into the relatively few sizes available. (After years of buying 34C bras, I left a fitting at the CUUP showroom convinced I was a 32D—or, in one style, a 32E.) “Bras are complex to make,” notes CUUP CEO Kearnon O’Molony. “For a long time, manufacturers were getting away with forcing women to work around a small range of sizes because no one was challenging them. The question we were asking was, How do you make a great-looking bra where the experience is the same for the 32B as for the 38E?”
Whether their breasts are large or small, perky or teardrop-shaped, women are demanding the kind of barely there brassieres that were once the exclusive province of the flat-chested—and in some cases they’re just demanding more options, period. Model Ashley Graham, who has launched her own line of larger-size bras for the brand Addition Elle, sees this demand for more and better options as closely connected to the body-positivity movement she’s helped spearhead. “It’s contributed to a societal shift toward authenticity and acceptance, empowering more women to celebrate their bodies rather than feeling like we need to conform to a certain size or shape to be included,” Graham says. “Customers are no longer just purchasing—they’re participating.”
And, it turns out, when women chime in with their demands for better bras, they get ones they don’t hate—that are sleek and functional and made for them, rather than furbelow-trimmed and made to induce Faster, Pussycat! proportions. For some women, of course, that pneumatic look retains its appeal—and that’s fine, so long as other women have the freedom to choose something else.
“Having more choice has allowed women to make a choice,” says ThirdLove cofounder and co-CEO Heidi Zak. “Every woman has a bra story, and they always think: Oh, my God, what’s wrong with me? My body’s so weird. It’s never just you! It’s just, until recently, that’s how bra-shopping made you feel—that you were supposed to be some other way. Now, finally, that’s changed.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue