The 1960s and 1970s brought a lot of changes to the American mindset. These decades saw an increasing interest in qualify and fashion. The idea of maternity and mastectomy bras became more widely accepted, and women were more inclined to wear them than before. Washing machines became increasingly more popular, and demanded more durable bra designs to withstand washing.
But most importantly, cultural changes in the 1960s resulted in a serious threat to bras in the American marketplace. The Civil Rights Movement and a resurgence of feminism in the early 1960s led to a subset of women focused on moving away from the bra and what it represented, and feminist protests actually threatened the existence of the bra in the late 1960s.
Emblems of Femininity Become Targets of Feminist Activism
In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published and it gave many unhappy housewives an avenue to explore the sources of their unhappiness. The book discussed the lives of several housewives who were unhappy even though they had many material comforts, they were happily married and they had fine children. Friedan’s book promoted education and meaningful work as the way to avoid this unhappiness, and many women took her lessons to heart. This became the core of the feminist attitude in the 1960s.
By the late 1960s, feminist activists began to attack emblems of femininity. They argued that bras were designed to make women look more attractive to men, and that they reduced women to mere sex objects. Feminists during this period began to publicly disavow bras as an anti-sexist act, arguing that by rejecting these symbols they were engaging in acts of feminine liberation. Germaine Greer stated “Bras are a ludicrous invention,” and her words resonated with many women.
At the same time the bra was undergoing attack, women began railing against the Miss America beauty pageant. Feminist protestors argued that the Miss American beauty pageant was an oppression of women, because it emphasized an arbitrary standard of artificial beauty. On September 7, 1968, some feminist protestors placed a “Freedom Trash Can” and piled it high with symbols of femininity, including high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, hairspray, curlers, girdles, makeup, corsets – and bras. These protestors called the items “instruments of torture” and symbols of enforced femininity. The protestors were not able to obtain a permit to burn the items, so no public burning took place, but it began to turn women against these visible symbols of oppression.
More protests followed, including a feminist rally in Berkeley, California in June 1970. A 38-C bra was burned in a wastebasket, along with other items of femininity. Another bra-burning protest took place in Toronoto, Canada.
Following these protest, journalists took off with the idea of “bra burning” as symbolic of a rejection of social mores, and bra burning became linked with the feminist movement – mostly falsely, as bra burnings were extremely rare and isolated. Many people viewed this as an attempt to shock and garner attention, and organizers of the feminist movement felt this was the wrong kind of attention. Anti-feminists have ridiculed the practice of “bra burning” and going “braless” derogatory and trivializing terms for feminist activists.
But for nearly a decade, it was unpopular among feminists to wear a bra, and some women today still view bras as objectifying and sexist garments.