It may sound a tad overdramatic, but not having a Victoria’s Secret in my hometown was one of the great tragedies of my adolescence. Or at least, it certainly felt like it at the time. The brand didn’t open its first store in Canada until 2010, so until then, persuasive Toronto teens like myself had to goad their moms into driving them all the way to the Walden Galleria in Buffalo, New York to the promised land of padded bras and Swarovski-laden undies. The add-two-cup-sizes promise of its molded push-ups felt vitally important as a 14-year-old who could barely fill an A, like the socially acceptable version of literally stuffing socks down your bra, and La Senza, the Canadian version of the ubiquitous lingerie giant, just didn’t have the same cachet.
If I’d been born a decade later, though, I’m not sure I’d still be clamoring for the Very Sexy or Bombshell Bra (or maybe I would—no boobs are still no boobs to a teenager). Maybe instead I’d be shopping at Aerie, where wireless, unpadded styles have been a hallmark of the brand’s super-successful “Aerie Real” campaign in recent years, along with a renunciation of both retouching and supermodels—not that its current roster of models breaks too far from the norm. Maybe I’d be discovering brands like Lonely and Toronto-based Fortnight on Instagram, and seeing their models—some big, some small, some white, some brown—rocking unlined, nipple-baring styles in quiet defiance of the platform’s community guidelines, and looking damn cool while doing it.
The reigning, pushed-up-to-there aesthetic of the early-aughts has given way to a more relaxed, natural look—lines like Lively and Negative have built fashion-girl followings on phrases like “leisurée” and “less is more,” handmade operations have proliferated on Etsy and elsewhere, specializing in filmy, lacy underthings, and even stalwart brands such as Wacoal and Chantelle have launched non-underwire options to meet the growing trend. Finally, this spring, Victoria’s Secret declared that “No Padding Is Sexy Now!” in a major campaign touting its new line of bralettes—though was it too slow to the gate? Some analysts have argued that the trend has already hurt its bottom line, after parent company L Brands announced slower-than-expected sales and shares dropped 8 percent earlier this month.
But, back to the bralette: While there isn’t a technical definition of the term, it generally denotes a bra that is wireless and cut-and-sew, rather than a molded contour-cup. Styles range from triangle bras, which offer little in the way of support or coverage, to more labor-intensive styles (which, some argue, are better referred to as wire-free bras), which feature seams and wide, supportive bands.
According to Cora Harrington, a veteran industry writer and founder of The Lingerie Addict, the bralette trend started with indie brands and percolated up, over the course of many years, to the major lingerie companies, a movement that makes sense when you consider how the garment is made. “Bralettes are easy to construct—they’re easy to pattern, easy to design, easy to make—and underwire bras are such highly technical garments—they require specialized training, they’re very expensive to pattern grade, they require specialized machinery to sew,” she explains. “Bralettes are an easy access point for a lot of new and young designers either who don’t have the technical background or expertise to make underwires, or who have it and maybe don’t have the time to spend sewing and pattern grading all the sizes that would require.”
Even for a line that offers a relatively small size range—say, 32A to 36D—traditional bra designers have to manufacture bras in 12 sizes, rather than three or four. Underwire bras also have up to 40 components, and, says Harrington, can take years of research and development to actually come to market, leaving very little in the way of profit margins. By comparison, the simplest bralettes can be fashioned entirely out of stretch lace or micromesh and tweaked season after season—a halter here, an extra strap there—to entice consumers to buy more. Most come in size extra-small to extra-large.
“The bralette is part of what put Aerie on the map in a big way, and really what gave them recognition,” says Jenny Altman, lingerie expert and founder of I Love A Good, who worked with Aerie while it was launching the Real campaign. “Aerie cannot churn out enough bralettes for how much people love them—in a good way. No matter how many reinventions it goes through, with different straps and amounts of padding, there’s never enough. Because women really love them.”
Altman now works with Chantelle, a 150-year-old French lingerie brand whose sister line, Passionata, recently launched a wireless style called the Dream, and at a lingerie trade show this year, it showed the style on a model wearing an E-cup. “She was up and separated, and I was like, how did you do this?” Altman exclaims. “These old school brands, it may have taken them a little longer to get into the bralette portion, but I think it’s because they don’t want to tarnish their brand. If they’re known for fit, they still have to be known for fit, because they still have to exist long after the bralette trend.”
Complaints of few options for larger bust sizes have been one of the main criticisms lobbed at the companies throwing their marketing dollars behind bralettes—but, says Harrington, these grievances are misguided.
“I think the issue is when people have like bra-like expectations for a bralette,” she argues, illustrating an issue of using the term as an umbrella for all unwired styles. “If a bralette isn’t supportive, that’s not a failure of the bralette—that’s the point of the garment. You would want to look at something like a wire-free bra instead, which offers more support and seaming and structure over a bralette.”
One of the best—or so I’m told by my bustier friends—is Fortnight’s Luna Longline and its accompanying stable of rigorously-designed, generously-sized (32A-32F) bras, which are manufactured in-house out of materials like high-performance jersey and power mesh.
“With a cut-and-sew pattern and seaming, you’re really having to make the seams work with a woman’s body to enhance and support and lift,” says founder Christina Remenyi. “You’re really working with a small area that has to do a huge amount of work. Fabrics are a huge factor in getting garments that can support a wide range of sizes. You definitely don’t want it to be too stretchy, but you don’t want it too stiff either, where your body can’t move with the garment. Seaming is really important too—any time there’s a seam in a cup or a band, that adds shape, structure, support, and durability as well.”
The process is time- and labor-intensive, which is reflected in the prices ($80-$110 per bra), but the construction makes it possible for women with bigger cup sizes to find a wireless style they can wear for everyday—something that definitely wasn’t available back when the brand was founded in 2010, and especially not at the mass-market stores where it’s now carried, like Bloomingdale’s and Anthropologie. In the past two or three years, Remenyi says, she’s noticed more and more brands turning their attention to wireless bralette styles—both indie labels and power players like VS, which still controls more than 60 percent of the intimates market in the U.S.
Brook Delorme, who shifted the focus of her sustainable, organic-cotton line Brook There to lingerie in 2013, says that customers have grown more and more accepting of the easy wireless silhouette. “I never liked the bubble-breast look—it’s not really real—and I think the rest of the market has come around to the idea that we don’t have to look like Barbie dolls,” she says. “In general, athletic silhouettes have become more mainstream, more fashionable, considered more beautiful—I’m sure that has a correlation.”
The timing makes sense—with the rise of athleisure over the past few years, the trend toward comfort over “come hither,” and of women dressing for ourselves rather than for a significant other has infiltrated all aspects of our lives. Why shouldn’t that extend to our bras—which, as any woman can tell you, can ruin even a good day if they’re ill-fitting? Bralettes won’t ever usurp the underwire bra entirely (there’s a time and a place for everything, after all, plus the push-up has Kylie Jenner in its corner) but if its newfound popularity means more options for women and less time with wires digging into our sides, well, it’s hard to miss the extra cleavage.