There’s an episode in the seventh season of Seinfeld where, as in all things Seinfeld, Elaine Benes is annoyed about something so incredibly specific it borders on irrational: her friend Sue Ellen Mischke’s refusal to wear a bra. Naturally, Elaine decides to take matters into her own hands by giving Sue Ellen a bra for her birthday, which Sue Ellen then proceeds to wear in a subsequent scene—under a blazer, without a shirt.
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“Is something wrong?” Sue Ellen asks, registering Elaine’s horrified expression.
“Well, Sue Ellen,” Elaine replies. “It’s not a top, it’s a bra.”
That kind of thinking wouldn’t get Elaine very far these days. Kylie—one of over 50 passionate bra-as-top wearers who spoke to me for this story—shared, “I haven’t worn a shirt in months.” She’s ditched them in favour of simply wearing a bra, oftentimes styled under a blazer in the exact manner that Elaine found so preposterous. It’s a combination that’s seemingly everywhere these days. Not just on fashion runways and influencer Instagram grids, but also on, say, Jenny—a first-grade teacher based in Washington D.C. who told me she would wear this particular pairing “every day for the rest of [her] life,” if not for the unique constraints of her work environment.
Of course, the combination of a bra sans-shirt under a blazer or jacket is nothing new. There are numerous iconic references throughout pop culture history—several of which predate the Sue Ellen Mischke Seinfeld episode, which aired in 1996. Notable examples include Brooke Shields at the Staying Alive movie premiere in 1983 (knotted navy bra, oversized white blazer), Iman at Hooray For Hollywood’s AIDS Benefit in 1988 (white bra, fitted white blazer), and Madonna in the Vogue music video, which was released in 1990 (black bra, long black velvet blazer).
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When I interviewed stylist Rachael Wang, she reminded me that this combination was also Jody Watley’s signature look, worn on the cover of her 1991 album “Affairs of the Heart” (black bra, slouchy yellow blazer). I reached out to Wang after seeing a street style photo of her at fashion week from 2019. In it, she’s wearing high-waist pants and an oversized plaid blazer, styled open over an olive green triangle bra. I asked if she, as someone who thinks about the mechanics of combining clothes for a living, could shed any light on why this “trend” (if it’s fair to call forgoing a shirt in favour of wearing just a bra under a blazer a trend) seems to have a certain stickiness. Her explanation stems from the tension created between what is covered and what is uncovered: “It’s a very different kind of exposure than, for example, a body-con dress that exposes your entire body’s silhouette,” she said.
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Multiple people I spoke with cited a similar appeal, by which I mean a certain kind of sex appeal. One woman, Jes, confessed, “Tight clothes or showing a ton of skin have never really been my thing; so the bra/blazer combo has long been a favourite going out look for when I want to add a little chic sex appeal while still being mostly covered up.” Another, Katy, emphasised that it’s sexy without the “pressure or discomfort” of something more form-fitting.
“I think it really challenges some conventions about what is or isn’t sexy, or what parts of the body certain women are allowed to show,” stylist and costume designer Shiona Turini told me. Turini is an outspoken advocate of wearing a bra (or crop top) underneath a blazer herself. For those who follow her on Instagram, there is no doubt that this is her signature look. She also styled Issa Rae in a Saint Laurent blazer and armour-esque gold bustier bra on the June 2021 cover of Vanity Fair. “Theoretically ANYTHING can moonlight as a crop top,” she proclaimed, citing a Nike sports bra that she once paired with a pencil skirt and a blazer over her shoulders as a pertinent example.
Alexandra Sickles, Partner and Chief Marketing Officer at Rebecca de Ravenel and devoted wearer of bras under blazers, offered another perspective on the combination’s relevance. She credits it to the fact that “most people own both items and therefore the trend isn’t specific to the luxury market.” It’s a vehicle for looking cool and feeling sexy (or “sparkly,” as Sickles described it) that doesn’t necessitate going out and buying something new.
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A July 2021 report from Allied Market Research found that the global lingerie industry accounted for US$19.28 billion in 2020 and is estimated to reach US$32 billion by 2028 — growing by more than one and a half times. Bras have never been more accessible than they are now — from an availability, size, or price standpoint — and they are only going to become more so. This growth is especially interesting to consider in light of the uptick in a particular breed of DTC lingerie brands (think CUUP, Savage Fenty, Parade) that not only strive to offer more inclusive sizing but also highlight the option of styling bras as “outerwear” in various campaigns and through user-generated content on social media. CUUP creative director Laura Michael shared that showing their community of customers how to style “bra first” is a deliberate part of the brand’s strategy: “We intentionally celebrate details to be seen,” she said. It’s a testament to the grip that bra mania has on all of us that, even after the increase in people working remotely (and the enthusiastic Tweets about embracing bralessness that accompanied it), this approach is still as influential as ever.
“Bra culture is so huge these days,” stylist Mecca James-Williams agreed when I spoke to her over the phone. James-Williams loves to style blazers over brightly coloured bras that pop underneath and is excited about how many fun options there are to experiment with these days. With a 36 DD cup size, she is aware of the “notion out there that I shouldn’t be wearing bras out like this because my boobs are too big,” but she’s never been one to pay it any attention. “I think it looks beautiful,” she said.
Photographer Lydia Hudgens has found it challenging at times to find crop tops that she likes in her size, but bras — which can achieve a similar look, especially when styled under a blazer — are a different story. She tends to gravitate toward bralette styles with fuller coverage and no underwire, like the Full Coverage Bra from ARQ, which comes in 21 different colours and runs up to a size 3X. “It’s hard to find things in plus sizes,” she said, “especially if you want to show a little bit of skin, but you don’t want to be overtly sexual.” For her, wearing a bralette under a blazer is also an opportunity to feel sexy without looking ultra-feminine. Other people I spoke with echoed this sentiment, like Mehr, who called it “a middle finger to gendered dressing,” and Ashley, who said, “The bra-under-blazer look allows me to play with gender performance in a way I find empowering.”
There aren’t many stylistic choices that facilitate both self-expression and sex appeal in equal measure, a power that is clearly at the crux of this trend’s charm. That said, I can understand why some might harbour trepidation about styling an item of clothing that is still worn under something 99% of the time. For those intrigued by this look but wary about how to approach, I’ll share stylist Dione Davis’s practical advice: She recommends opting for a bra that doesn’t look too functional, which can not only help tone down the hello-here-is-my-lingerie factor but also works well from a contrasting perspective (the bra “should have shape, but not too much because the blazer already has shape,” Davis explained). If you’re styling the combo with pants, Davis would advocate for something with more of an awkward length—like a pedal pusher—instead of a really corporate-ish trouser, so that you can safely avoid looking like the accountant who forgot their shirt on the way to work (unless, of course, that’s your thing). And if you want my two cents as someone who has worn a bra under a blazer numerous times and lived to tell this tale you’re reading now, I like to compare it to salt on dark chocolate. Weird in theory, delicious in practice—so much so that you can’t wait to have it that way again.
As for the Seinfeld episode I referenced earlier, further bra-under blazer drama does, in fact, transpire. When Jerry and Kramer are driving down a street and spot Sue Ellen Mischke walking by in her outfit, they end up getting so distracted that Kramer crashes his car, which is ultimately (and absurdly) grounds for a lawsuit against Sue Ellen. She emerges victorious, though—and not just in the sense that the lawsuit gets thrown out. Sue Ellen’s true victory has materialized now, a quarter-century later, when it is finally evident that she wasn’t doing anything wrong by wearing a bra as a top, she was actually just ahead of her time.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US