The death of the bra: will the great lingerie liberation of lockdown last?

Emine Saner

It was after a shopping trip, the first time for weeks that Louise Kilburn had ventured out during the lockdown, that she realised she wasn’t wearing a bra. “I’d completely forgotten to put it on,” she says. Kilburn, a university lecturer, had been shielding since the last week of March. She was still busy teaching online, although not usually by video, and had created a more comfortable work wardrobe of pyjamas, loungewear “and, more importantly, no bra”. Her bras were somewhere, she says, with a laugh, under a pile of pre-lockdown clothes – lost enough that she had to buy some bralettes, a more unstructured style, to try out. She had, she says, “mislaid my boob cages”.

Lockdown has changed a lot of things about the way we present ourselves to the world, and for many women, ditching their bra has been a particularly popular one. “I just don’t see bras making a comeback after this,” tweeted the Buzzfeed writer Tomi Obaro in May. Her tweet has been “liked” more than half a million times. The feminist satire website Reductress ran a headline last week reading: “Bra furlough extended.”

Bras are often considered to be a necessary, but unwelcome, contraption. Who can forget the comedian Gina Yashere’s question to Michelle Obama when she was interviewed by the Guardian: “Was the end of your husband’s presidency the equivalent of taking your bra off after a long day, in terms of complete freedom?” Long before the pandemic and the weeks of lockdown, Kilburn says, “the first thing I did when returning home was to rid myself of the constraints of my underwired bra, as soon as I got into the hallway. There is no greater liberation.” She did remember to put one on the other day before going out. “Again, as soon as I got in, it came off.”

Emma Roddick, a local authority councillor, also stopped wearing a bra early in the lockdown. “I live alone and when I was getting ready in the morning, I’d be getting dressed and because there is nobody else here and I wasn’t seeing anyone, it was like: ‘Why do I need to put a bra on? It’s just going to be uncomfortable.’ I got used to not wearing it for the first couple of months and now I’m thinking I’m just going to ditch it,” she says. She did put one on when a potential flatmate came round for a viewing. “I was thinking: ‘This is so itchy, how could I wear this every day?’ The underwire was stabbing me, the back was scratchy.” As soon as he left, she took it off again.

It wasn’t as if Roddick had previously found wearing a bra before terribly uncomfortable, she says, but “now I put one on, I think: ‘I want this off, this is horrible.’”

Going braless has been surprising, she says, because she was always under the impression that with a bust like hers – she is a G cup – it was non-negotiable. For many of us, the idea of going without a bra is only possible if you have a figure like that famous bra-shunner, Kate Moss. “All I heard before was: ‘You need support and it’s bad for your back if you don’t wear one,’ or ‘It will be really uncomfortable.’ And it just isn’t,” she says.

Underwear companies are taking notice. “I do believe that bras are here to stay,” says Clare Turner, the head of product and supply planning for the lingerie brand Bravissimo, although she adds, with a laugh, that she would say that. The company caters for women with larger busts – the women, like Roddick, who thought they needed to wear a bra – and although underwired bras are still the biggest part of their business, Turner says “we’ve seen huge growth” in non-wired bras and more comfortable styles.

This isn’t only a reaction to lockdown but something that has “been in rapid growth now for the last two to three years”. She puts it down to the effect of the athleisure trend and the increased focus on “wellness” and self-care. “People are wanting to take good care of themselves and put things on their body that make them feel nice, and that’s become more important for lots of people versus how they look, or of equal importance.”

The type of garment we would recognise as a bra has only been around for 100 years or so, replacing the corset, but they have become something we put on automatically without questioning why. Do we really need them? For women who experience breast pain, “a bra can help to relieve that by holding the breast tissue in place”, says Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth, who leads a research group into breast health.

Bras also prevent “excessive movement”, she says. “There are no muscles within the breast, and there are only two weak supportive structures that hold the breast in place.” These are the skin, and Cooper’s ligaments, the fibrous tissue that support and shape the breast. “When the breast moves, which it does during sporting activities, that movement can potentially cause damage to the supporting structures,” says Wakefield-Scurr. “That’s one of the initial benefits of a bra – they can prevent excessive strain on those supportive structures. The skin has a strain limit of about 60%: if you took a 10cm piece of skin and you stretched it to 16cm, it would recover. If you stretched it beyond 16cm, you start to cause damage to the skin. It gradually stretches and stretches, and so we see premature sagging occurring in the breast.” This could also cause injury to the skin, showing up as stretchmarks.

However, she adds that there isn’t evidence to show that wearing a bra – an everyday one, as opposed to a sports bra when running or taking part in sports – prevents sagging in the long term (for that, blame age, gravity, pregnancy and genetics, among other things). “There haven’t been any studies looking at a group of women who wear a good bra for 50 years of their life, versus another group of women who don’t wear a bra.” There was much excitement in 2013 when a French sports scientist suggested in an interview that the opposite was true – that not wearing a bra from a young age could actually improve the structure of the breast, resulting in less sagging – but trying to track down a published version of his 15-year-long study appears to be near impossible.

There may be legitimate health reasons for wearing a bra, such as reducing breast or back pain, and for some women, lower-hanging breasts may cause under-boob skin problems and it may be more comfortable to keep them lifted. But for many women, it’s an aesthetic issue. Breasts, we have been told for centuries, are to be perky and full (and nipples are not to be visible). Even if the late-60s feminist bra-burners were largely a myth, the act of abandoning your bra has always had unavoidable political connotations – as, tediously, every personal choice a woman makes tends to – beyond caring about straps that dig in and underwires that poke out. And lockdown has accelerated, rather than created, a growing trend towards bralessness.

Women protesting against the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968 wave their underwear in the air. Photograph: Bev Grant/Getty Images

Celebrities such as Rihanna have raised the profile of the choice to go braless, while the Free the Nipple campaign – which argues for topless equality for women – exposes the bra as something that not only wrestles the shape and natural movement of breasts into something more acceptable, but demurely disguises the nipple too.

The writer Chidera Eggerue stopped wearing a bra in 2017 and started the body-positive movement she called Saggy Boobs Matter, after embracing her own body shape. “For me it was more about comfort but also being resistant to a world that says I should wear a bra,” she says. “It’s just not a mandatory piece of clothing for me and I think your body can be an important site for activism.” Although she is clear that wearing a bra is a personal choice, “for me, wearing a bra was partially conforming … I had saggy boobs and so I thought they needed to always look perky. I found it was uncomfortable. I just want to be able to show up as I am and not be penalised for that.”

Eggerue has had some negative comments, “mainly from women who have internalised misogyny and cis men who still think they have a right over women’s bodies”.

Will bralessness carry on once some semblance of normal life, particularly professional life, returns? Alison Harris, an actor, has also stopped wearing a bra – “It feels more freeing. It’s definitely a comfort thing,” she says – but may go back to them, particularly for auditions. “If it was noticeable, it could be distracting. But I don’t know if that’s an issue for me or for them. If they’re distracted, then is that their problem?”

Roddick thinks that wearing a bra will be expected once she is back at work; she fears colleagues may “judge me for not wearing one. I think people will notice and I’m not sure they’d look well on it. I’m going to see my mum today and I’m thinking: ‘Oh, what’s she going to be like?’ I’m kind of expecting her to say something.”

So how will the future pan out? Roddick would like society to reach a place where bras are not considered necessary, “as long as it’s a choice”. For her part, Kilburn has already ruled out returning to underwired bras, but may wear her new bralette under her work clothes. Going braless is more comfortable, she says, but it also feels “that I’m not conforming to society”. She says it in a way that sounds almost thrilling, unrestrained by underwires.