The brazen display of bra straps on the streets of Washington stings like a slap in the face of good taste. The fashion industry is to blame.

For at least a decade, designers have touted the appeal of treating innerwear as outerwear. The Italian design team Dolce & Gabbana created thousand-dollar dresses that had scooped-out backs with attached--and visible--bra straps. The two offered dresses with scandalous decolletage that revealed the top of a bra that had been built into the garment. Fashion went through a period during which tops were designed to look like bras. And fashion magazines muttered about how some brassieres were simply too extravagant, too glorious to hide under a blouse. Let them be seen, they cried.

But through it all, women seemed to be exercising good sense, scoffing at the lunacy of strolling into a restaurant or boutique with bra straps showing. They quietly ignored the fashion industry and stuck to the long-held position that lingerie was meant to be viewed only in the confines of one's home or other intimate setting. Women refused to toss out a commendable bit of tradition: that underwear was not meant for public exhibition.

But then slip dresses and camisoles began to dominate the summer sportswear market. And the fashion industry kept encouraging slovenliness. Finally, their resolve shattered, hordes of women stopped making any attempt to hide their bra straps when they wore dresses and shirts with spaghetti straps or tops with racer backs. The numbers have multiplied to such a degree that now, the women who don't have visible bra straps are the anomaly.

These roving bands of strap-happy women are everywhere, from the Mall to the Metro. They have given new meaning to the word "straphanger."

Women have flagrantly ignored the advantages of a strapless bra or all of those mutable bras with straps that convert from crisscross to halter style. A strapless bra can be purchased for less than $20. What gives? Decorum, that's what. Decorum is crumbling.

The fashion industry--and those streetwise hipsters it loves to emulate--have slowly chipped away at the old-fashioned principles of modesty and tastefulness. The result has been trousers hanging low enough to reveal underwear waistbands and crotches that bag so close to the knees that they must constantly be hoisted up in the manner of a ballplayer making an adjustment. And now women have an equal opportunity to be churlish. The result is bra straps hanging out all over town. Do you let your slip show, too? Probably not, because slips have become so passe. Indeed, foundation garments have become quaint notions--things Grandma used to wear. Grandma may have suffered through the torture device known as a girdle, but she probably didn't have panty lines either.

To be fair, slip dresses and camisoles can be frustrating garments. They are wonderfully bare and cool. Perfect for a sweltering summer. But they do not offer a lot of support. And some women feel that they are a little too well-endowed to trust their cleavage to a strapless bra that always seems to be in danger of sliding down around the waist. The answer is not to wear a traditional bra with straps as wide as the Potomac. The answer is to skip the spaghetti-strap dress and wear a tank dress, which will hide the bra straps nicely. Or choose a halter and wear a halter bra. Select a racer-back top and wear a corresponding bra. Or at least choose a flesh-tone bra.

And please, don't get on a feminist soapbox and declare that there's nothing wrong with seeing a woman's bra strap. First, a steel-spined feminist wouldn't have on a bra to begin with. Second, a good feminist would not have fallen for a bunch of fashion industry gibberish about how visible bra straps are so declasse as to be hip and cool in a girl-rocker, Lilith Fair sort of way.

To be sure, these wayward bra straps are not a federal crime. Instead, they are further proof that gentility has fallen by the wayside in the name of ease and informality. And they are an undeniable example of how the fashion industry has managed to wield its influence in a stealthy manner, slowly convincing Washington women that underwear as outerwear is a perfectly acceptable proposition.