facebook twitter youtube tumblr share this

Underwires, Sweet Nothings and the Undershirt Rebellion

January 15th, 1998

There was a time not so long ago when I could go into a lingerie department and buy a pretty little no-nonsense bra. Maidenform made some called Sweet Nothings. and they were delicate and simple with a little bit of silky satin fabric rimmed in a little bit of lace. They came in many colors and I suspect they came in many sizes too. This kind of bra was a far cry from the fortresses that women wear today. It was soft and pliable, providing just enough support and a protective layer over your nipples so they didn’t get chafed. These were the kind of bras you could spontaneously slip off, envelope completely in your fist and cross a crowded room before transferring it to your purse or coat pocket. This was a bra before underwires.

I remember that underwires were an option when I was in High School, but they weren’t the only choice. Some of my girlfriends wore them and I would watch somewhat jealously as they bent over to let their breasts fall into the cups. I didn’t/don’t have the mass that would necessitate that kind of maneuver. For girls like me, the underwire was not the way to go. It was unnecessary equipment. It had extra parts that were widely known to be a drag among the girls that wore them. That is, until the late 80’s. Somewhere along the line (and this was a market that was 100% created) upright boobs came back into vogue. We were told through advertising, and then through the selection in lingerie departments, that we needed underwires (and their more flamboyant cousins the push-up bra) so our breasts would stay up where they belong. Face forward, up and at ’em.

But in the 70’s and 80’s, my type of bra was still an option. Those that wanted them could get underwires and those of us who didn’t could get the others. Today, it is nearly impossible to find a bra as basic and as comfortable as a Sweet Nothing in an average bra shoppe.

I try underwires. I actually own a few. But inevitably, the discomfort gets to me and mid-date I sneak off to the bathroom to slip it off – although this is not the kind of bra one can hide in her hand to cross a crowded room. Over and over I have heard that underwires are comfortable if they fit correctly, but I’ve tried many and I don’t believe it. You may get used to it, you may find one that’s not uncomfortable, you may take comfort in having your breasts right where you want them, but ultimately, “comfortable” is not what bras are. Slippers are comfortable, bras are…supportive. And they offer a kind of security that could be confused for comfort, but comfort itself really comes from taking the bra off at the end of the day, scratching your breasts a little and putting on jammies.

When I go into a lingerie department, I make my way through the racks grabbing the bottom of every bra feeling for the underwire. I move quickly, mindlessly, using both hands. Right, left, right, left, right, left I go grabbing under the cup of all the pretty, patterned, lacy, silky, sexy bras in search of a single one without an underwire. Nothing. I keep moving: surely there are others here, not every woman wears underwire. Finally I reach the first bra without an underwire. It’s a sport bra. The fabric goes to my neck and the strength of the cotton/spandex blend ensures that my breasts will be kept put until I say so. So much for the feminine little number I was looking for.

I still wear the few old Maidenform Sweet Nothings that I have. Mine are sad little bras now, dingy and torn. One time my old friend, Tim Nice was over he saw my dingy torn bras hanging on a doorknob. “What’s this, Bruin?” he demanded fingering one distastefully. “Are these what you wear?” I told him I did and he went into a ten minute monologue (not uncommon for Tim) about the virtues of bright new bras. “Kath, Kath – your breasts deserve better than this!” he tells me “you have sweet, perky breasts, you ought to wear sweet, perky bras! You’ve got to treat your breasts better than to wear these tired old things.” But I told Tim and I’ll say it again, I am not giving them up until I find a decent substitute!

I do understand the need for underwire bras, particularly for larger breasted women, but I don’t get why those of us A and B cups have to wear them too. Does every woman need an underwire? And what about those of us that just don’t want one? The thing that irritates me the most about fashion, especially as it affects clothing staples, is that if something is “in” it slowly takes over, to the exclusion of everything else. I think a wicked cycle is created when the “in fashion” items get the primary space in the store. They catch your eye as you search for your Sweet Nothings (which are being moved further and further from the main aisles to make room for the exciting(!) new models) and soon the store buyers are telling the bra manufacturers that there’s “just no demand” for simple, pretty, non-underwire bras anymore. “They all want underwires,” they say. And it irritates me that we women so often don’t demand what we want. We are so easily made to feel like those old bras and panties (or shoe heels or skirt lengths or lipstick colors) that we liked are terrible choices now that they’re out of fashion, and so easily coerced into buying the new stuff.. (Thank god we still have access to big white panties rather than all having to wear thongs.)

One time I became so discouraged in the lingerie department that when I happened upon a chair among the racks I sat down and cried. “I want to wear the pretty floral bras too!” I balled sitting among the bras. “It’s not fair that there is no selection of non-underwires!” As you can imagine it was one of those moments of utter disillusionment. No one stumbled upon me that day as I sat there weeping which was kind of a shame because it wouldn’t be all bad for a lingerie clerk to hear a different perspective. But, suddenly, a thought came to me. I came up with a good solution for myself, one that would allow me a comfortable option while also letting me rebel against the underwire glut. “Undershirts!” I thought. I actually got up, dried my tears and bought half a dozen undershirts.

Undershirts have proven to be a great solution for me. They can be feminine, sporty, sexy or just plain practical and they come in lots of different patterns, prints, colors and fabrics. They are soft and comfortable and they help keep me warm too. This may not be a solution for everyone, nor should it be. The point is that fashion shouldn’t dictate whether we can find the kinds of clothing staples we depend on. I think we should always have options so that we, rather than the marketers and manufacturers, can determine what we want to wear. I’m hoping the new millennium will bring back the “natural look” in bras, but until then I’ll just pray that undershirts don’t go out of fashion.


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. She is wondering whether she can wear an undershirt under her wedding dress.