I find bras totally uncomfortable, hot and itchy, for both work and leisure. But looking around, I seem to be in the minority. What are the rules for going braless? Is it OK to show my nips, or is it rude? — Eddye, Madison, Wis.
You are not the only one having an anti-bra moment. When many dressing mores went out the window during the pandemic lockdowns, the no-bra movement, which has resurfaced regularly since the 1960s, once again began picking up steam (led, in part, by Florence Pugh, above).
Still, when it comes to the question of “to bra or not to bra,” especially as we return to offices and summer draws to a close, there are really three kinds of issues: the literal one, the physical one and the sociocultural one.
First things first: There are literally no rules, which is to say laws, that govern women’s underwear. Instead, laws focus on body parts, and what can be shown and not shown. Indiana, for example, prohibits public indecency and then defines it partly as “the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple.”
However, a number of states, including New York, Utah and Oklahoma, and many more cities (including Madison) allow women to go topless in public. Which also means braless.
This gets a little more complicated when it comes to workplace dress codes, according to Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute. New York City was, she said, the first jurisdiction to insist on “full gender neutrality,” meaning an employer can “require an individual identifying as female to wear a bra or hide her nipples, but only if the same rule applies to a male employee.”
It is possible to imagine “S.N.L.” having a field day with that. But the current situation is better than it was back in 2010, when the investment bank UBS issued a 44-page dress code, which, among other things, dictated that its female employees wear flesh-toned lingerie.
When it comes to federal law, Ms. Scafidi said, “it only requires that dress codes have gender parity with regard to burdens such as cost.” Whether bras constitute an extra financial burden has not yet been addressed.
As to the notion that bras are necessary for women’s health, Cassann Blake, chair of the breast services department at a Cleveland Clinic hospital in Weston, Fla., told its health blog that there is no particular medical reason to wear a bra (and that bras don’t prevent sagging) — though women with especially large breasts may find a sports bra eases back strain.
Which brings me to the elephant — or catcall — in the room. After all, abandoning the bra isn’t just about changing mores when it comes to underwear. It’s about gender norms, the reality (and historical fear) of women’s bodies, power struggles and sexual stereotypes.
To be faced with freed breasts, whether or not nipples are visible, is to be forced to confront deep-seated prejudices about all of this, and that is both upsetting and distracting to a lot of people. Especially at this particular moment in time, when control of women’s bodies and their reproductive purpose has become once again a hot-button political issue. It reminds me of the brouhaha that arose a few years ago when the parent of a Notre Dame student complained about girls in leggings, saying they were distracting for the boys.
It is not, of course, your job to make other people comfortable or to help them sort through their own feelings about all of the above. Though if you are actually on the job, it is also true that group dynamics matter, and you may not want to spend a chunk of time with colleagues having to discuss your breasts. At least for now, however, it is still your choice.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.
Vanessa Friedman has been the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The Times since 2014. In this role she covers global fashion for both The New York Times and International New York Times. More about Vanessa Friedman
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