The Athleisure of Unmentionables

Slate asked lingerie experts about bralettes, the newest trend in undergarments.

Urban Outfitters

Meet the bralette, the underwire bra’s kid sister. She’s a dainty little thing, all flimsy straps, lace, and minimal padding. After years of playing second fiddle, she’s finally enjoying some time in the limelight: displays at major retailers, articles about her growing influence. But watch out: This ingénue has her eye on snatching best supporting role from the overbearing hooks of the underwire bra.

The bralette is everywhere this spring. BuzzFeed recently ran a post called “18 Reasons You Should Ditch Your Bra for a Bralette.” Business Insider reported that Victoria’s Secret is betting big on bralettes, and my friends at Racked theorized that Kendall Jenner is a one-woman ambassador for the undergarment, singlechestedly acclimating the world to the sight of the bralette in the wild.

So what exactly is this newfangled take on the over-the-shoulder boulder holder, and does it finally solve the age-old problem of having boobs? “A bralette is an unstructured bra. It’s usually unlined, unpadded, wire-free,” explained Cora Harrington, who founded and has run the website Lingerie Addict for eight years. (Some brands, like Journelle, favor the spelling bralet.) Bras without underwires are far from new, and in fact, Harrington pointed out that the earliest bras, in the 1920s and ’30s, were themselves bralettes by today’s standards. Still, with underwire and padding as ubiquitous as they are, an unstructured bra that doesn’t retain a 3-D shape when off the body can seem like a novel, even liberating, thing.

Maybe we’re witnessing a new era of body positivity in which women are throwing off the encumbrance of traditional bras and flaunting what nature gave them. Or if you want to be cynical about it, maybe retailers have just found a new category to thrust on customers. “Victoria’s Secret has had bralettes for a long time,” Harrington said. “They hadn’t pushed them as much as they pushed their push-up bras, no pun intended, but they’ve been in stores for a while.” Either way, if the 1950s were all about pointy boobs and the ’90s were the era of the Wonderbra, perhaps the breasthetic of this decade will be that of the bralette.

Bralettes are supposed to be comfortable and casual, the athleisure of unmentionables. “They seem like no fuss,” said Kimmay Caldwell, a bra-fit expert and lingerie marketer. “Right now a woman wants to feel like, ‘I’m cool, I don’t try too hard, I’m totally chill,’ and that’s sort of like what a bralette seems like to me.” They fit right in with the boom in “festival wear,” the idea that you need a new wardrobe that’s Coachella-appropriate: You can let bralettes peek out of loose-fitting tops or wear them alone, underwear as outerwear. “The casual ‘I’m wearing denim cutoff shorts and a fringe vest’ kind of vibe very much goes with the bralette world,” Caldwell said.

However, bralettes sometimes feature fancy, complicated-looking straps, which would seem to belie their laid-back reputation. Check out this number from Nasty Gal, or this one from For Love & Lemons. This one that purports to enhance underboob looks particularly impractical—and not exactly low-maintenance. “Those little bondage straps, that’s totally decorative,” Caldwell said of the extra bands and frills. “It’s not going to do very much for fit or support.” The bondage look has been another trend in lingerie in recent years, one it turns out is relatively easy to combine with bralettes because of how they’re produced.

Unlike traditional bras, which have a band size (typically 32 through 40, by twos) and a cup size (most brands carry A through at least DD), most bralettes come in the basic sizes extra small through extra large, and this simplicity explains part of their appeal to retailers. “Bralettes are less technical to make,” Harrington said. “They don’t require as much money and as much design know-how. An underwire bra is an extremely technical garment. You have to have specialized designers, specialized fabric, specialized training.” Indie designers have been infatuated with bralettes for a few years now, but the relative ease of making them may explain why mainstream retailers have lately embraced them: They’re more straightforward to manufacture and there’s less guesswork involved in what quantities of each size to produce.

For consumers, though, this means not always being able to find a perfect fit. “I’m not a fan” of the small-medium-large model, Caldwell said. “I think that your band and your bust are not necessarily in proportion to what everyone thinks. I actually have a pretty small band and not a super-full bust but full enough that I probably need like a medium for the bust but a small for the band. As a stickler for fit, because [bra fitting] is what I do, it just kind of annoys the crap out of me.”

Because they only have to produce them in five sizes as opposed to dozens, though, retailers are much more likely to offer a variety of colors and decorative details for bralettes. It’s form vs. function. Underwire bras have important boob-holding–up to do, but bralettes are free to get wild and crazy with the superfluous straps and over-the-nipple details.

To decide if a bralette is right for you, the best thing to do is probably to try one on, which I finally did on a recent outing to Victoria’s Secret. For all the hype about bralettes replacing push-up bras at the store, the push-up bra still reigned supreme at one of its locations in Midtown Manhattan, New York, lining most of the walls and taking up much more real estate than bralettes. Of the store’s bralette offerings, some have a few kinks to work out. The eyelash lace high-neck bralette seems perfect for the scores of women who’ve always wished for a bra that was also a mock turtleneck and extremely hard to put on: You have to squeeze your breasts through the underwire to get it over you. Yes, this “bralette” breaks what I thought was a cardinal rule of the genre by having an underwire. So does the tropical lace push-up bralette, the most oxymoronic garment since bathing suits that aren’t meant to get wet. Judging by these, VS is still pretty wedded to its underwires.

The opposite is true of Urban Outfitters, where the many types of bralettes on sale outnumber traditional-structured bras. The difference between the two stores points to a definite generation gap in intimate apparel. The bralettes at UO are all cute and thin and call to mind a phrase I hadn’t thought of in a long time: training bras. They offer very little support and no enhancement, which could be either a pro or a con, depending on your size and shape. Basically, if you like how your breasts look and feel in bathing suits with minimal lining, you’ll probably like how they look in bralettes.

One Slate colleague who regularly wears bralettes (not telling you who, pervs) told me she’s always found underwires uncomfortable. Bralettes “make the bra, a longtime instrument of bodily confinement and discomfort and oppression, into a site of self-expression and frivolity,” she said. But what if you’ve grown to love your oppressor and the shaping and structure it provides? Like any trend, bralettes may just not be for everyone.

Or for every situation. Caldwell compared traditional bras to makeup. “I love to wear makeup, and I love to wear underwire bras when I’m out and meeting people and around people and presenting myself to other human beings, especially in a professional environment,” said Caldwell. “But on the weekends, if I’m going to a friend’s house, if I’m just running an errand, I’m probably not going to put makeup on. Same thing with a bralette.”