The laws of lingerie loosen

Fashion: The trend these days is to let bra straps show. Just call it peek chic.

September 05, 1999|By Nora Zamichow | Nora Zamichow,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Thirteen-year-old Katie Riggs is not allowed to wear mascara and isn't really going on dates, but she doesn't think twice about sashaying through the mall with -- heaven forbid -- her bra straps exposed.

Grandma, cover your eyes: Bra straps are cool. The undergarment whose absence once symbolized rebellion has returned in a most visible way.

After cropping up in New York and Los Angeles several years ago, the exposed strap has become a national phenomenon among under-30 women, fashion experts say. It's a look that young people variously praise as comfortable and feminine, in-your-face cute and alluring.

"Even Mennonite girls are wearing it in church functions," sighs a disapproving Andree Conrad, editor of Apparel Industry magazine.

To Heather Talbot, 21, who works at Afterthoughts in Eastpoint Mall, strap-exposure is fine "as long as they're not doing it in a distasteful way."

With the proliferation of skinny-strapped tanks and camisoles it's virtually unavoidable, she adds.

"What's worse?" she says. "Not wearing a bra, period? Or showing a bra strap?"

Young women chortle when reminded that their mothers once took great pains, occasionally rigging safety pins, to prevent the horrifying fashion faux pas of an errant strap. Why bother going to any length to obscure something everyone knows, they ask.

"What's the big deal?" said Lena Demirjian, a 17-year-old junior at Pasadena (Calif.) High School. "It's just a bra."

Amie Martin, 21, who works at Claire's boutique in White Marsh, doesn't share this lingerie liberalism. "I think it's nasty," she says.

On the rare occasion that she does show a strap, "at least I make sure it matches the shirt I'm wearing."

But experts who measure how fashion and values intersect find deep meaning in this trend.

"Nothing is kept private," groused Linda Velez, a textile manufacturer and an associate professor at New York's Parsons School of Design. "It reflects society -- no one has any reserve anymore. Reserve is not a word young people understand; it's all about showing everything," she said. "It's an extremely forthright generation that's willing to really expose itself. And at the same time, it's an extremely demanding generation that requires reconsideration of dress in bold ways," said Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, who has curated several exhibits involving lingerie, including one called "Bare Witness: Dress and Exposure."

The fad represents a sea change in women's perception of their bodies and their willingness to accept casual comfort over style, pundits say. It's also a fashion that reflects a society in which sexual images have become part of the cultural vernacular.

"A previous generation might have been embarrassed, but today having your bra strap exposed is a badge, a sexual signal, that's flaunted," says fashion historian Peter Dervis. "The sexual charge gets neutralized -- we're immunized because it's all around us. It's been sanitized so all-American teen-age girls can wear this and parents are not going ballistic."

Katie Riggs, who lives near San Bernardino, Calif., has won that battle. Her mother also gave in on allowing Katie to wear sparkles around her eyes and wild-colored nail polish on her fingers, but enforces a no-mascara rule. When Katie went to the mall recently, she wore a black tank top with white bra straps, and painted her finger nails aqua.

Every generation embraces a fashion for shock value. In the '60s it was tie-dye and construction boots and, for women, wearing no bra. At the 1968 Miss America contest, protesters hurled bras, girdles and curlers into a trash can.

Lingerie reflects who we are and how we live, experts say. When women's intellectual and social lives were restricted during the 1800s, their bodies were also confined in corsets. When America throttled into the sexual revolution, women wore no bras.

Lingerie has transcended its role as the foundation of an outfit, becoming part of fashion itself. Transparent blouses abound. Slip dresses, which resemble a garment worn under an outfit, are so commonplace that they're now office attire. And men's low-cut jeans are designed to reveal the tops of their underwear.

To some observers, the road to the exposed strap was paved by Madonna, who went on stage in a bustier, and by the scantily clothed models used to advertise designer Calvin Klein's fashions.

About the only rule of this style is picking the proper bra to expose. Many women now have a wardrobe of bras for virtually every occasion: sports, evening, school or work. The exposed strap is a slender, adjustable one with the telltale metal clip. Some women try to coordinate so their straps match their shirts. Others prefer more daring combinations of contrasting colors. Still others opt for patterns and prints meant to complement their tops.

As a testament to their newfound popularity, faux bra straps are now worn as headbands.

Tom Julian, a trend analyst for the New York-based advertising firm Fallon & McElligott, says part of the exposed strap's appeal lies in the fact that anybody can do it. "Young girls are all very body-conscious, but it doesn't matter what shape their body is in for this."

Sun staff writer Tamara Ikenberg contributed to this article.

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