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Women are over the underwire bra

The pandemic prompted a switch to comfy attire — and more forgiving forms of support

(Ana Jaren for The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — In the last two years, many of us abandoned the office, travel, parties, family gatherings and, so it would seem, the underwire bra.

“At least there’s one happy thing to come out of this pandemic,” says Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel analyst with the NPD Group.

For many women, underwire bras and comfort remain mutually exclusive concepts. When underwire bras go rogue, they don’t mess around. They go straight for flesh and bone.

In the post-housebound era, if casual toggery becomes the norm for work, will underwire bras go the way of ties, suits and vertiginous heels? Rather than being burned, will they be tossed in our collective trash heap for good?

Since 2019, sales of sports bras, the majority of them wire-free, have stretched by more than 50 percent, according to NPD — even if “sport” consisted of strolling from the bedroom to the fridge. Women embraced elastic everything. They relished pajamas, with sales expanding 43 percent. For the first time in five years, wireless, soft-cup bras outsold underwire, the latter gathering so much rust.

“All I wore was sports bras for the last two years, like six bras, all of them for comfort,” says Susan Dowd, 69, who teaches citizenship classes and lives in North Andover, Mass.

Today, she opts for underwire. We know this because Dowd conducts much of the interview shirtless while attending the Curve expo for intimates buyers; her daughter, Libby Basile, is one of hundreds in attendance. Here on the trade show floor, it is not uncommon for women to yank down their shirts to present an undergarment or declare their bra size unbidden.

Underwire bras, the early patents dating back a century, pose several existential questions.

Why, at this moment celebrating body positivity and diversity, the natural pulchritude of all figures, do women continue to wrap wire around their breasts, hoisting them inches above their innate resting position? Also, why do so many underwire bras shield nipples as though they’re in some witness protection program?

How is it that women are besotted with leggings that reveal their true shapes, yet ask their bras to perform engineering miracles that defy gravity and form? Is the underwire bra an enduring vestige of antiquated beauty standards dictated by the male gaze? Has the pandemic brought us to a point where women view it as a wire-enforced booby trap?

“I want my breasts lifted to the gods,” says model Naimah Terry sporting an Elila matching set in the frigid Javits Center. She jokes: “I want my boobs up to my neck.”

Coming out of the pandemic may be a transformational moment, intimates experts say, a prime opportunity to rethink what women (and nonbinary people and some men) want from their bras. It’s also an ideal time to reckon with our fit crisis, which the pandemic only exacerbated.

“Eighty to 90 percent of women have no idea what size they are,” says Frederika Zappe, national fit specialist for Eveden lingerie brands, a sentiment echoed by many experts. They’re wearing the wrong band size (usually too large) and the wrong cup size (often way too small, producing a pronounced overflow).

Women may also have different breasts than they did before, especially after two years of snacking on cashews and cheese. “Our breasts are made of fatty tissue and our bra size changes all the time,” says Kimmay Caldwell, an “undergarment educator” who offers online workshops and appears frequently on talk shows.

“I see myself as a self-love coach,” Caldwell says. “I know I can change someone’s life with the right bra.”

Given that people didn’t shop in person for months, if not two years, many are donning bras that are too old (“vintage” an unseemly concept in lingerie) and possibly dead (the elastic stretched to the point of futility). How long does a bra last? Six months or 100 wears.

Bra styles change constantly, as subject to the whims of fashion as shoes and denim. Styles favoring the smaller, demure chest enjoyed popularity with the ’20s flapper, the ’60s feminist and today’s gamine in gossamer bralette, while bullet models gained favor after World War II — supporting the two Ja(y)nes, Mansfield and Russell — and with Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconic cone bra.

Meanwhile, breasts evolved and shifted in sizing, even among tweens and ectomorphs. “They started getting larger,” says Danny Koch, the fourth-generation owner of New York’s Town Shop, founded in 1888. (When his grandmother Selma died, her obit noted: “She was 95 and a 34B.”)

“The goal of this game is to keep your breasts closer to your chin than your navel,” says Koch, who employs a dozen fitters. “We’re trying to defy gravity, and gravity is very tough these days.”

For years, lingerie sizes came to a terminus at DD. Breasts, however, did not. Perhaps the fear was anything higher would appear unseemly, as if the purchaser were flunking bra school. Now, brands like Parfait and Elila follow the mammary, producing sizes up to J or K, the latter the equivalent of a DDDDDDDD.

At the lingerie expo, there’s plenty of talk about the complexity of bras, how one may consist of 25 or 30 components. They perform hard work. A fuller breast — there’s a concerted effort to move away from loaded language like stacked or flat — can weigh four pounds.

“You’re part psychologist, part engineer,” says Ellen Jacobson, the third generation to run Elila lingerie, which specializes in styles for the full-figured, many of them soft cups. “Women may be in a lot of pain. They may not know where it’s coming from. It is transformative to get the right bra.”

Underwire bras, with a dizzying array of band and cup sizes, are a particular challenge to fit when shopping online. “From brand to brand, one size is going to fit completely differently,” says Jacci Fredenburg, a designer and stylist who teaches corsetry at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I think we’re in an interesting moment in time. Underwire bras are not the most comfortable for everybody.”

In addition to sidestepping the corporeal aches of wire, sports bras offer the simplicity of small, medium or large, which means consumers can usually avoid the headache of returns.

At the intimates expo, there’s a bounty of soft-cup options, including an entire diaphanous line from Slovenia promoted as Europe’s top pole-dancing apparel. Manufacturers learned from the pandemic. They’re producing more wire-free models. Even the French. It’s what women want, brand reps say, so here they are.

“A good bra should feel like two hands holding you — two hands that you like,” Zappe says, teaching a fit class. Also, “don’t be afraid to touch your boobies.” She frequently clutches her breasts as though they were plums. She likens bras to friends.

“This is Mathilda,” Zappe extols. “She just always works.”

Then it happens, the moment of Dowd’s intimates epiphany. “I’ve been wearing the wrong size forever,” she says, encased in Mathilda. She has “bra burns,” heretofore an unknown concept, on her back. Is Dowd upset? No, she’s thrilled, enlightened. She always believed that she was a 38DD. Always. Lo and behold, she’s a 36G.

The pandemic bra revolution: How to find a comfortable one, or go without

Master bra fitters say that this is the heart of the bra crisis — and that underwire can be a friend if consumers purchase the right size. Most shops don’t staff expert fitters. When she worked at a specialty store, Anita lingerie sales consultant Lauren Preszler received six months of fit training. By the time she left, it was down to six weeks. Now, with retail employees quitting in record numbers, there may be no training or fitters at all.

The right underwire bra feels terrific, experts say — you hardly know it’s there. “If you arrive home and you’re uncomfortable, and you can’t wait to take it right off, you have a bad fit,” says Mary Alice Kelly, an executive with Parfait.

In this post-pandemic period, we may not be arriving home from somewhere else quite as much. In a January Pew Research poll, 60 percent of workers who could work from home were doing so. Little more than a quarter of workers in America’s largest business districts had returned to the office, a Kastle Systems survey found that month, and more than half of those working from home considered quitting if they were required to return. Fashion experts note that many people are returning to workplaces with a pronounced affection for more-relaxed clothes. “This idea of comfort is here to stay,” says NPD’s Classi-Zummo — partly because our old work attire may no longer fit.

This is our pajama moment

Few experiences are as discomfiting as attending a lingerie trade show in an antique, pre-pandemic underwire bra, in need of something new and kind. The fitters know. They see all, especially between the navel and neck. They are quite capable of offering side-eyed glances best summed up as “Oh, dear.”

The halls are filled with fresh colors and fanciful designs in every size imaginable, a boudoir of infinite choice. Yet all are available only for order to the trade. It is akin to Samuel Coleridge’s ancient mariner drowning at sea: Bras, bras everywhere, and not a one for sale.

Dowd later purchased a new underwire bra elsewhere. It did not go well.

“Oh, I don’t think I can go all day in this. I felt confined. Instead of two hands caressing, it felt like daggers,” she says. “I felt it right under my armpit. There was so much stuff happening under my arms.”

She adds, “I felt like it lifted everything. It did feel like it gave me an hourglass shape and made me thinner. But why do I need that wearing sweaters and baggy clothes? I don’t really need a curvaceous look.”

Instead, in advance of teaching her citizenship class, she opted for a bra purchased pre-pandemic, an old wireless favorite.