“My body doesn’t want me to strap it in for fashion’s sake or because culture says I should. Nope. No more,” says Chapman, 51, a life coach who lives in Colorado. She spent decades performing in theater productions and would wear a bra again for such a purpose, she said; it would keep her breasts from bouncing, which is painful over time. But she believes bras ought to be “relegated to the land of the jockstrap,” and used for exercise only. She hopes that, post-coronavirus pandemic, “free-flying breasts is the norm, not the exception.”
Indeed, over the past 19 months, many women ripped off their bras — just as they once did after coming home from work. But this time, many didn’t put them back on the next morning. Some, like Chapman, are swearing off bras almost completely; others have simply traded in their underwire for something softer.
In 2020, bra sales dropped by about 8 percent, says Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm. Sports bras were a “bright spot,” with an increase in sales over 2019, and wireless bras performed well, too.
This cultural shift toward comfort had been transpiring even before we retreated inside our homes in March 2020, with the increasing popularity of less-structured bralettes in all colors and designs: bandage-style, frilled, high-neck, racerback, zip-up.
“Things were changing prior to covid, big time, within the bra industry,” says Elisabeth Dale, founder of the Breast Life and author of “The Bra Zone: How to Find Your Ideal Size, Style, and Support.” “What has happened alongside the pandemic is exploding interest in comfort, more flexible wires, softer fabrics and thinner fabrics.” (For example, there have been more tanks with built-in bras, which can be ideal for lounging at home.)
And it’s not just about comfort, Classi-Zummo says. “Intimate apparel used to serve as an item of clothing that was really worn for someone else. Now it’s become a symbol of empowerment. It’s about how it makes me feel versus how I look to you.”
Innovations in comfort
Vicki Seawright, vice president of Maidenform, an underwear company, says consumers became “more vocal about their product preferences” during the pandemic. Their No. 1 demand: comfort. Bralettes and sports bras have been selling well, Seawright says, but so have “more comfortable underwire options,” such as wires wrapped in foam with a soft outer fabric.
That’s just one example of innovation in the industry. “It used to be just cotton, but now Lycra, tricot, spandex, Spanette, latex and nylon are all blended together to achieve specific purposes,” says Jené Luciani Sena, author of “The Bra Book.” Nylon and spandex are combined to create “brushed microfiber,” for example, and the resulting fabric is a good choice for those who prioritize softness. Want something smooth and breathable? Opt for “power mesh,” Sena suggests. “Higher spandex typically means more support, and foam will provide shaping,” she says.
Dale has been excited about the company Evelyn & Bobbie, which combines the fabrics polyamide and elastane for lift support, no underwire necessary. If you’re more interested in a bra to sleep in, consider one made out of cotton or bamboo. “The bottom line is that all the fabric innovations mean you have a choice of softer, thinner and more comfortable fabrics,” Dale says. “We no longer have just two choices: thick padded or totally thin fabrics.”
Given all these advances, Sena doesn’t see a need for underwire at all. “It’s almost like underwire can become obsolete, because the advancements in the construction of bras, the materials and the fabrics have replaced the wires,” she says.
Deanna Attai, a breast surgeon at UCLA, points out that a bra’s wire typically doesn’t provide much support: The majority comes from its band. But that doesn’t mean you have to ditch your underwire. “If you happen to feel that it’s more comfortable for you, or it’s a style you like, go for it,” says Attai, who also points out that there are no health concerns with wearing underwire. Longtime rumors linking underwire bras to breast cancer are false, she says.
On the other hand, there also aren’t health reasons that dictate that you should wear a bra, though “not wearing a properly fitted, supportive bra can contribute to breast pain, especially over time,” Attai says. That’s particularly true as the ligaments in the breast stretch and the denser glandular tissue is gradually replaced by fat, she says, which often happens after menopause.
And women with large breasts almost always prefer to wear a bra, says Alice Kim, who has worked in the fashion industry for 20 years and launched PerfectDD, a clothing brand that caters to such women, during the pandemic. She found that heavier, tightly woven compression fabrics tend to provide the best support and prevent bouncing for those with more generous cup sizes. Racer-back straps are good at “lifting and holding your boobs in place,” she says.
During the pandemic, Kim, whose cup size is DD, tested more than 200 sports bras to see which worked best. Among her takeaways: Sports bras with front closures, and those made of just one piece of fabric across the front, without seams, caused “uniboob.” “Back closures, underwire and some sort of paneling on the side and center help separate the breasts,” she says.
Lingerie companies are also coming up with innovations to serve other populations that might prefer to continue wearing bras. “I’m loving what I’m seeing in sports, post-mastectomy, nursing and new lingerie designs for transgender and femme-identifying women,” Dale says.
Tips for going bra-free
Of course, it’s one thing to go bra-free or lean into less-structured options at home. But what will happen when we return to the office? “People who have been working at home do not want to go back to wearing bras,” says Alison Green, who runs the work-advice blog Ask a Manager. Nevertheless, she feels compelled to tell them that she thinks going braless at work “will be seen as less than professional in a lot of offices.”
She doesn’t think women will be disciplined for not wearing bras, however, because most office dress codes don’t specifically require them. The more likely outcome, she says, is “people notice, they have opinions about it and maybe it affects how you’re perceived.” And who knows? You might be okay with that, she says.
If you do decide to go bra-free but are worried about how to make it work in public, here are a few tips:
Use a nipple cover. These are patches that conceal your nipples with thin silicone gel, and they help some women feel more comfortable going braless at work. Nipple covers are available in all colors, shapes and sizes, Dale says, so you’ll have lots of options. “Silicone ones are great for hotter weather and for swimming,” she notes. “And pasties, such as those from Bristols 6, Commando and Savage X Fenty, are wonderful for sheer fabrics.”
Fill your closet with no-bra clothing. Companies are making more garments that include built-in bra-like support, both with and without underwire. Frankly Apparel, for example, sells a $190 fun, bright-red dress that features a lingerie-inspired underwire top, so you don’t have to wear a bra with it. Another company, Bralessly, targets women “who want to be comfortably braless and still be modest.” Their products include T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts and dresses with “bust panels” that are designed to make the braless chest less noticeable.
Embrace layering. For an office-appropriate look, Sena suggests wearing a camisole with a built-in shelf bra; they “go under almost anything,” she notes. Toss a cardigan or leather jacket over the cami, and you’ll have a professional — and still braless — look. Dale is also a fan of layering, and she points out that there are wire-free tank options in a variety of styles and torso lengths.
“If you take a look back at the last 100 years of bra manufacturing and design, it’s easy to see how often styles change, as fashion does,” she says. “There’s a bra out there to meet everyone’s needs, from super sexy to super sporty and everything in-between.”
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.