Bra burning  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Bra burning is a metaphorical term for 1960s feminism. It refers to an event which did not happen. In the late 1960s, some of the emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism. Feminists charged that these objects, typified as patriarchal, reduced women to the status of sex objects. Some women publicly disavowed bras in an anti-sexist act of female liberation. The actual bra burning refers to feminist protesters who on September 7, 1968, the day of the Miss America pageant in the Atlantic City Convention Center, gathered up items they felt represented the oppression of women in America — high heels, curlers, girdles and bras — and placed them in a trash can. They talked about setting it on fire, but were stopped by local police, who said that it posed a hazard to the wooden boardwalk they were standing on. So in reality there was no burning, nor did anyone take off her bra.

Close to four hundred protesters of the New York Radical Women gathered on the boardwalk on September 7, 1968, the day of the pageant. Protesters waved signs with slogans: "No More Beauty Standards." "Miss America is Alive and Well -- in Harlem." "Welcome to the Cattle Auction." "Girls Crowned -- Boys Killed." While Bert Parks was inside the Atlantic City Convention Center rehearsing with contestants, he was being hung in effigy by protesters outside.

Feminist protests, Miss America, and "bra burning"

When Germaine Greer in the The Female Eunuch stated that "Bras are a ludicrous invention," her statement resonated with many women who had been questioning the role of the bra. Pivotal in popular bra culture is a now-notorious protest against the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, seen as an oppression of women. On September 7, 1968 about 400 women from the New York Radical Women were involved in a demonstration at the Atlantic City Convention Hall shortly after the Democratic National Convention. Protesters saw the pageant and its symbols as an oppression of women (because of its emphasis on an arbitrary standard of beauty, and its elevation of its choice of the "most beautiful girl in America" to a pedestal for public worship and commercial exploitation). A "Freedom Trash Can" was placed on the ground, and filled with bras, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, girdles, curlers, hairspray, makeup, corsets, magazines, and other items thought to be "instruments of torture", accoutrements of enforced femininity. Someone suggested lighting a fire, but a permit could not be obtained, and so (contrary to the subsequent urban legend) there was no burning, nor did anyone take off her bra.

The event received quite a bit of media coverage at the time but the notion of women burning their bras was merely a concatenation of several movements, including sexual liberation, in the media imagery . A number of journalists who wrote descriptions of the incident drew parallels with the young men who had burned their draft cards in opposition to the Vietnam War with the women's action and used the term "bra-burning." These parallels were encouraged by organisers such as Robin Morgan. Lindsay van Gelder's account in the New York Post carried a headline "Bra Burners and Miss America". The phrase became headline material and was quickly associated with women who chose to go braless, following Germaine Greer's comments.

Feminism and "bra-burning" then became linked in popular culture and Greer became a metaphor for bra burning.

Since then anti-feminists have used "bra burning" and "braless" as derogatory and trivializing terms for the feminist movement. What got lost in the rhetoric, and is probably more important, is that it became quite acceptable in the 1960s and 1970s to not wear a bra. Thus echoes of the 'liberated 60s' or 'bra-burning 60s' have continue to reverberate in women's fashion history.

Many women stopped wearing bras, but few did so with a public ceremony: they simply left their existing bras in a dresser drawer and stopped buying more. The only women who took off their bras in public were strippers and bargain hunters in Filene's Basement in Boston: notoriously, many women stripped to their underwear or to nudity before trying on garments in this crowded store, which was well known to lack dressing rooms. In 1971, Herb Caen, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, reported that the Berkeley Roos-Atkins store had closed its bra department because of poor sales. Berkeley was notably on the leading edge of social change: in the 1970s many outspoken lesbians lived there, and few lesbians wore bras then; few straight women did either (in Berkeley). (Roos-Atkins was until then a major clothing retailer in the San Francisco Bay Area. It closed in the 1980s.)

Bra sales were not noticeably affected by the protest, and manufacturers capitalised on the attitudes of sexual liberation by emphasising allure. They also promoted "no-bra" alternatives like the "no-bra bra" and adhesive pads that supported the breasts and covered the nipples.These strategems were clearly attempts to recover braless women as customers, by offering them something that they could spend money on. Nevertheless this era was perceived by the industry as a crisis, and a preoccupation, which led indirectly to multiple mergers and acquisitions and the development of large corporations.

See also

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