A few months into the pandemic, speculation went wild about the variety of industries it might kill. Influencer culture. Real pants. Lipsticks! One of these prematurely announced casualties was the bra. Finding themselves in new and surprising lockdown conditions, famous and non-famous brassiere-wearers worldwide had stopped wearing them altogether, succumbing to the comfort — or was it the sheer panic? — this new reality brought. The media, looking for pandemic-inspired shifts in our closets, homes, and habits, ate it up.
This wasn’t the first time the bra was pronounced dead. A classic scene from Mad Men comes to mind: Joan, the office goddess, arrives home after a hard day at work and starts taking off her cumbersome bra, revealing the deep marks the straps had left on her shoulders. You don’t need to be a ’60s secretary to identify — wearing a tight bra to work and taking it off as soon as you walk through the bedroom door is a well-known ritual.
Gripping and restricting, the item had long been considered a symbol of oppression. Having begun as a successor to the corset and evolved with perceptions of femininity (and the male gaze that shaped them), they were infamously burned at the 1969 Miss America protest — or, more accurately, tossed into a symbolic trash can. In 2020, as Covid-19 shut down workplaces and day cares, it was perhaps fatigue, rather than feminism, that led many women, myself included, to temporarily dump the bra. Declaring it “over” felt good. Life seemed horrible and unfair, so why not get rid of one small contraption, at the very least?
It might come as a surprise, then, that the year of the pandemic, starting roughly in March 2020, was actually very kind to (some) bras. According to a report from NPD Group, the market has seen a 32 percent increase in sports bra sales, while bralettes and wireless bras were up 5 percent. Instead of banishment, the undergarment has been undergoing a reevaluation, emerging for the first time in history as a product that really answers women’s needs for comfort and support.
For many women, this reevaluation looked something like Marisa Speer’s. The pandemic caught Speer, a registered nurse living in Philadelphia, in “two different stages of busy.” First, after graduating from nursing school in late 2019, she was stuck at home looking for a job. Then, having found one at a local birth center in early 2020, she faced long shifts, often stepping in for colleagues who were out of commission with Covid-19. Prior to the pandemic, Speer was an underwire bra kind of woman, favoring lacy European styles. But, “being at home, I was looking for less supportive, comfy bras, just to have around the house,” Speer says.
Upon returning to work, Speer realized that she’s not willing to give up the comfort, but also found herself seeking more support and posture improvement. She found both in Kinflyte Essentials, a brand she discovered via an Instagram ad. Speer was attracted to the promise of posture improvement and size inclusivity. “I find myself cued by the way the bra sits on me, reminding me to sit straighter,” she says. Speer currently wears mostly Kinflyte bras — for work, at home, even for bedtime.
The brand, which launched in 2019, just months before the pandemic started, specializes in bras that err on the sportier side of things, with a bonus tech side; they’re constructed in 3D and utilize a patent-pending design that grips the shoulders and supports the lower back. According to founder Vivian Lee, its 2020 sales grew 240 percent, taking off after April. This year is looking good, too. “Based on our 2021 forecast, we’re looking at 450 percent sales growth compared to 2019,” Lee says. The key word in Kinflyte’s vocabulary is “multifunctional” — easy to wear under a Zoom-appropriate sweatshirt, fit for a workout, forgiving enough to lounge in.
Stepping away from padded, underwired bras into a hybrid territory of function and performance has been the leading trend of pandemic lingerie. On the website of the online lingerie retailer Bare Necessities, the bestselling items in 2020 were a wire-free T-shirt bra and a stretchy bralette, among others, reports Heather Garcia, senior director of merchandising. Like Kinflyte, other direct-to-consumer brands that focus on underwire alternatives and strip the bra down to its basics have been enjoying increased interest — especially the ones that underscore high-tech fabrics, advanced engineering, and a clean, simple look and feel.
Intelliskin, which promises to cool the wearer and eliminate bacteria, is a Kinflyte competitor. Its bra fabric is created with antibacterial silver ion technology, and the bras are marketed as the perfect companion for computer work thanks to posture-supporting features. Pepper, a lingerie brand for smaller breast sizes that launched in 2017, is advertising its wireless, lifting bra as the lingerie equivalent of yoga pants.
Soma, a brand dedicated to loungewear and smooth, seamless, no-frills lingerie, is another player catering to post-pandemic clientele; the Enbliss collection, composed of wireless bras and bralettes, includes a new shoulder-supporting, front-zipping racerback that’s easy to put on and take off. Soma’s Vanishing collection is designed to disappear under the thinnest of T-shirts, lifting the breasts without the help of underwires or heavy straps. According to Vanessa Dusold, SVP of merchandising and design, Soma’s fourth-quarter sales in 2020 were the highest in the history of the brand.
What all of these brands have in common is the focus on what the bra is for, rather than how it looks. That is not to say that aesthetics are unimportant, but that details without functional purpose — bows, frills, and scalloping — are filtered out, while posture-enhancing, fabric-smoothing, and contact-reducing touches, such as tagless care labels, are added.
It’s not a coincidence that these bras have taken off in the last year. We dress differently and move differently these days, sinking into soft sofas and working out from our living rooms. Shouldn’t bras get with the program?
Content writer Kimberly Zerkel is a good example of this shift; she recently left her communications job at a San Francisco restaurant group due to the pandemic and returned to her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, to work from home on writing projects. For Zerkel, lacy, wired bras have always been a part of “feeling nicely dressed from the skin up, especially when I’d go out or to the office.” Now, that doesn’t happen much, and Zerkel spends her days in sports bras, which isn’t ideal. “I’m looking for a comfortable bra with no wire that can either be worn casually around the house under a sweatshirt, or a sports bra that I wear all day long with activewear,” she says. Having said that, a perfect pandemic-era bra, Zerkel suggests, would be “a sexy sports bra, one with soft materials and lots of straps, or sheer mesh or an interesting, plunge-y design.”
Negative Underwear, a lingerie brand that walks the fine line of cute and functional, might just be the ticket. “We’ve always been about less is more — minimalism, removing unnecessary clutter,” says co-founder Marissa Vosper. Their wireless game has been strong since the 2014 launch, Vosper says, but in 2020 their sales tripled, and endless DMs on Instagram followed, with customers asking for the best WFH undergarments. As the size goes up, Negative bras increase in strap strength and sewn-in support. They also feature demure, sheer fabrics. “We are not of the mindset that nipples are offensive and should be hidden,” co-founder Lauren Schwab laughs. In 2021, a sporty mesh style will launch, as well as a silky wireless bra that’s actually made of stretchy nylon.
Negative, like Kinflyte, Pepper, and many other new-wave bra brands, relies on online shopping and Instagram advertising, as well as social commerce, i.e., shopping on the social media platform directly. With the pandemic’s social distancing as a priority, more and more find such contactless bra shopping options logical, and it just so happens that wireless, flexible, and adjustable models are simply easier to shop for. “The fact the Kinflyte bra doesn’t have cups certainly helped me go for it online,” says Marissa Speer. Kinflyte bra sizes go from XS to 5XL; Negative — in wireless bras — from 0 to 5; Intelliskin ranges from XS to 2X. When shopping for pandemic bras online, Zerkel, too, was less hesitant. “I never really ordered bras online before,” she says, “but I entered my size and hoped for the best.”
Both Zerkel and Speer still have the bras of yesteryear — structured, textured, intricate, and decorated — in the backs of their drawers, but these are now deemed “special occasion.” In everyday life, it seems like we’ve reached a point of no return. “Women have the default of having underwear to be uncomfortable to look good, but they’re taking comfort back,” Vosper says. Comfort no longer means going braless. Bras didn’t really go anywhere during the pandemic, but those who wear them can finally forget they exist.