Changing Mores and Expectations: Bras in Public

Paleo Retiree writes:

The heat and humidity have finally settled over New York City, and with the onset of sultry weather the city’s women have been stripping down to skimpy hot-weather wear. Early summer here is always a fun season for girl-watching, bemusement and wondering what it’s all about. This season — and I may well be a year or two behind on noticing this, but — the main theme seems to be the bra.

Now, straps, lace, frilly edges and outlines have been out in the open for quite a while, of course. It’s been a lonnnngggg time since bras were understood to be purely underthings, let alone private underthings.

Along these lines: the bra as seen and sensed through a semi see-through blouse:


Prettily-colored and elegantly-made bra straps:

apersonal_ne_nyc_2014_06_bras72 apersonal_ne_nyc_2014_06_bras73 apersonal_ne_nyc_2014_06_bra01

This next display of strappage strikes me as being a little on the bold side, not that bold is a bad thing, of course:


This combo of straps, flesh and semi-transparency convey a sexy-sprite-darting-around-downtown feeling:


But summer this year isn’t about just the pretty strap or the trace of a bra as discerned thru semi-transparency. Some examples:



Back in the day — a long, long time ago — a glimpse of bra strap could be quite a thrill. Bras themselves were “intimates” and “foundations,” private things that were either utilitarian and a little gross (I have fond hot-weather memories of my aged piano teacher hauling her bra straps aside so she could reach into her cleavage to mop up some sweat), or private, shared, delicate confections, enhancers of and contributors to a woman’s Mystery.

Innerwear worn as outerwear has its roots, as far as I know, in the punk movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Madonna popularized it, academics made theories about it … Bringing your lingerie to the surface was a revolutionary act, don’t you know? It was part of deconstruction — seriously, there was a moment when fashion was being “deconstructed” … And by the late ’90s the general public was taking for granted the visible bra as part of a woman’s public ensemble.

What strikes me most about the kind of bra-visibility that’s around the city this summer isn’t so much how provocative or blatant it is, it’s how matter-of-fact a lot of it seems. I don’t think this is just because I’m jaded, I think it’s because the gesture has become so routine that it’s now empty of meaning.

Take, for instance, this inelegant example:


Is there much difference between its effect and a slobby guy wearing a sleeveless t-shirt?

I found this next one ….


… so remarkable in its combo of out-there-ness and blahness that I had to explore further, and to see what was going on from another angle.


That’s, to my mind, not even a fabulously attractive piece of lingerie. It’s such an unremarkable bra-bra, and it’s being put out there in such a pffft way, that I found myself wondering why the young woman was bothering to cover up the front of her bra with any dress-fabric at all. Well, if young men these days are going out in public in pyjama bottoms, maybe next year we’ll be seeing young women wearing nothing but mediocre bras as tops. Because why not?

Incidentally, to forestall any potential scolding: I like a flirty and provocative public life. I’m not suggesting passing laws or forbidding anything to anybody. I just enjoy observing how mores and expectations evolve and change. Tattoos, skirt lengths, smartphone behavior, young women treating their boyfriends like testy pets … Often these changes are entertaining to notice in themselves; sometimes they can tell us a bit about what’s happening in the culture; and they’re often good for triggering off fun discussions. So, chill, and let’s have a good time wondering what it’s all about.

A few musings of my own.

  • To me, a lot of these stylings say something like “I’m doing this for myself. How dare you criticize me, let alone look at me in that way. I’m just being free.” As well as, of course, “I’m trying to stay a little cooler in the hot and humid weather.”
  • In a context like the current “of course I’m putting it out there” one, what becomes of flirtiness and provocation? Both depend on games of concealing and revealing (the French used to call it “cache-cache” — ie., hide and seek); on the existence of taboos, formalities, and rules; and on some awareness of, and respect for, the fact that you aren’t just expressing yourself, you’re having (and aiming to have) an impact on others. When what you’re doing is just self-assertiveness, and when you’ve made an everyday policy of putting on public display your intimate secrets, is sexy game-playing even possible? If so, of what kind?
  • Part of my surprise at this development stems from the fact that I came to New York City at a very different time in the city’s history. The NYC of the late ’70s was dark and dirty, rough and dangerous; in my own first five years here, I was pickpocketed twice, attacked twice and mugged once. It was a great era for women getting themselves up provocatively — disco and punk each had their own way of pushing buttons. But the women wearing tight, ripped and torn clothing knew that they were playing with nitroglycerine. Taunting the beast was part of the fun, after all. They weren’t just expressing themselves; they were also aiming to have an impact.
  • By contrast, the contempo galz in my snapz seem to be oblivious to the nitroglycerine side of things. They’re staying cool, they’re having fun, they’re pleasing themselves … They’re nothing if not assertive and confident, which is nice, I guess. But they also seem remarkably unconscious of the signals they’re sending off.
  • They also seem to be taking it for granted that the enormous, high-energy / high-stress, collision-of-cultures city they inhabit should be as sweet and well-patrolled a place as a smalltown college campus. Maybe that’s today’s formula, in fact: I get to be who I choose; and the rest of the world gets to behave itself.
  • Does showing any concern whatsoever for the fact that modes of dress and self-display aren’t just self-expression but also communication always constitute “slut shaming”?
  • Not for the first time, I wonder how it is that young people today will ever manage to mate up. They’re enviably uninhibited where self-expression goes. But young men want things entirely on their terms, and young women expect things entirely on their terms … And it’s hard to see this as a recipe for shared-life bliss.
  • I feel sorry for people who don’t recognize the basic dance of the species — the basic fact that many of the activities women enjoy men find attractive and arousing, and that what men enjoy devoting themselves to signals “prowess” to women, and that the reason for this strange, strange coincidence is that it’s a mechanism and a pattern the species has evolved as a way to help itself reproduce itself. At least in its big, bold strokes, life becomes a lot simpler and easier to understand when you notice this DNA-like pattern.
  • Why is so much of liberal education and liberal politics devoted to quarreling with the evo-bio basics of life? That’s a hard one to explain, I find.
  • Although Americans like to imagine that openness, transparency, casualness and looseness will cure what ails ya, the practical fact seems to be that eroticism often withers under conditions of too much permissiveness, and often thrives on a little judiciously-applied repression.
  • The Question Lady thinks that one reason so many of the current visible-bra ploys fall flat is simple: it’s that many women are inept at fashion. The women are hoping to be cute, but they’re screwing it up.
  • Incidentally: my snapshots in this posting — creepshots or not?


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Trends, Women men and fashion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Changing Mores and Expectations: Bras in Public

  1. agnostic says:

    Conspicuous bras are part of the look in falling-crime times. I remember girls my age (high school) starting to wear the bra with a tank top sort of thing in the second half of the ’90s, and today it’s even more common.

    Last time before that? The Midcentury — shame on guys here for not having “the sweater girl” as part of their historical visual vocabulary. Middle-aged woman, teenage student, it didn’t matter. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, you were greeted by her bullet bra before she could even say “hello there.” True, the bra was still covered by the sweater, but that’s legalistic — covered or not, a pair of nosecones threatened to poke your eye out. Not exactly subtle, hidden, or private.

    Back in the ’80s, women wore baggy, boxy, curtain-like things on top, whether blouses, sweaters, jackets, or coats. Don’t even give the pervs a hint of what’s underneath. Same look during the height of the last crime wave, the Jazz Age. Loose, boxy, flattened-out. No hint of their figure.

    When women don’t feel much of a threat of rape, they feel free to indulge in their “look but don’t touch” games by flaunting their bras. When they are more fearful, they hide their boobs in a box.

    There were situations where girls and women used to wear no bra at all, that was actually more common in the ’70s and ’80s than showing off / exposing a bra. The girl would be wearing a t-shirt or tank top, sans bra, to go along with jogging shorts or daisy dukes, and the woman would be wearing a blouse or sweater with no bra.

    You’d think that would’ve provoked potential rapists more than wearing one, but perhaps not. Perhaps those females had a better hunch of what appearance provoked what response from what spectator. Natural boobs don’t look as aroused, defined razor-sharp, or deliberate as a bullet bra or exposed bra straps. If she looked like she just threw on a t-shirt, and her normal ol’ boobs are hanging in their normal ol’ way, she isn’t trying to deliberately attract men’s attention there. Otherwise she would’ve dressed, gussied, and styled ’em up a little bit more than not at all.


  2. agnostic says:

    The bras-everywhere thing also goes to show how little women today feel that they’re threatened by a rape culture. Along with 20 year-old girls jogging alone at night in cities, wearing shorts and a tank, with earbuds blocking outside sounds. Actions speak louder than words.

    And it’s not just molesters who they no longer feel as a presence lurking out there, it’s everyday guys making cat calls, or frat dudes telling them to “show us your tits!” Not even construction workers do that nowadays. In fact, last year I saw one go to say something, then another one held him back like “C’mon, we don’t do that kinda thing.”

    It’s almost like they’re trying to call our bluff about who takes charge.

    “Here I am, strutting around with my bra exposed, and yet no “lookin’ good baby!” and no cat calls? Sure, maybe some guys are ignoring my bra because they find it obvious and been-there / done-that — but *every* guy behaving himself so well? It’s like they’ve lost their libido — awesome sauce! No more pesky boys bothering me for sex. And even if I did want to get into a relationship with one of them, I’d just have to hold out the tiniest morsel of sexuality and I’d have them eating out of the palm of my hand.”

    On the one hand, you don’t want to feed the attention whores by making cat calls or giving them a friendly wanna-get-to-know-you smile. But at least women — the target of your signal and all bystanders — would feel like men were still red-blooded aggressors. The alternative of ignoring their body-flaunting appears to have not only emboldened them, but convinced them that all men are a bunch of limp-dicks.

    By now they’re so smug and glib about that conviction that we can only expect them to act more annoying into the future, unless…


    • Can’t disagree with any of that. Having come here when the city was a much more dangerous place, I’m amazed by how for-granted many of the new young female arrivees take it that the place should be wellbehaved and safe. They romp around town in gym shorts, yoga pants and spaghetti-strap tops as though they’re between classes at a nice college. Seems a little foolish and unreal, and you gotta wonder why they’ve got so little horse sense. But it makes for a lot of eye candy.


  3. Faze says:

    Agnostic: Much of what you say rings true. But I can almost tell you the very day in 1967 when all young women across the country seem to have simultaneously decided to stop wearing bras, I can tell you the effect was swooningly sexy. For the next six years, the streets of our major cities were seas of beauteous bobble, and it seemed like it was going to last forever. I associate the end of this era with onset the Carter administration, when cities like New York shut down the public fountains, and cheerful outdoor lights went dark, and the hardened bosom returned, perhaps as a reflection of the hard demands of his puritanical presidency.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Faze says:

    And the bra is a damned strange garment when you think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to know that women have a complex psychological relationship with their bras that prevents men from making accurate interpretations of bra concealment and exposure strategies. Bras are a gender-based social hygiene construct, like men’s shaving: we hate shaving, but we do it for social acceptance. Every so often, however, we sprout a mustache or several days of beard by way of small rebellion. So it may be with these visible bras.


    • LT says:

      Woman here, chiming in. I think the exposed bras are a combination of fashion AND not caring. Loose tanks with open sides are a trend and my 18yo niece will buy special bandeaus for them. The bandeau or bra is part of the outfit. Those sheer shirts are trendy as heck too. But for most ladies with bra straps showing under tanks: It’s hot and we don’t care. Sure, the strap might be pretty but that’s just because we like pretty undergarments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Faze — In my experience, at least, women nearly always turn out to be more complicated than we expect them to be.


  5. Days of Broken Arrows says:

    “The goal of feminism is to remove all constraints on female sexuality while maximally restricting male sexuality.” — Roissy

    Liked by 2 people

  6. ironrailsironweights says:

    These women are bold enough to go around in public with mostly visible bras, yet I would bet anything that not one of them would EVER allow even one hair follicle to exist.


    Liked by 2 people

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  8. FWIW: I’ve always loved NYC women’s combo of earthiness, sweatiness, provocativeness, aggression, annoyingness, etc. That said, this new generation of post Paris Hilton younggalz here in the city seems amazingly unconscious of their own motives and impacts. Which is a strange (and fun-to-try-to-explain) development, because something NYC galz have NEVER been short on (until recently) is hyper-awareness of what they’re doing, and the impact they’re aiming to have.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. nightman1 says:

    Deeply fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. amac78 says:

    > Incidentally: my snapshots in this posting — creepshots or not?

    Not, certainly not. They’re integral to the post. Us flyover denizens would have been left guessing as to the exact subjects of your musings.

    Incedentally, what does Hollywood have to say (= show) on the subject? My impression is that girls dressed thusly almost never appear as part of the scenery of the Contemporary City Street in broadcast, cable, or movies.

    Liked by 1 person

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