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From 'Burn the bra' to Sports bra (via Wonderbra)

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

- 55 years of women's liberation in three bras




As 2022 draws to an end, I can’t help reflecting on what I think was an iconic moment this year, not just for women’s sport but more broadly for women’s liberation.


It had been a tense Euros Football final that ended at 1-1 after 90 minutes. And then, that goal in extra-time by Chloe Kelly that brought England a major football trophy for the first time in 56 years.


As Chloe raced around the pitch in celebration with her shirt held high, I reflected on the journey from the 1968 ‘burn the bra’ protest outside the Miss America competition venue to this moment.


There is debate about whether a bra was ever actually burned at the Miss America competition venue in 1968, and women’s liberation had been fought for many generations before that moment. But the discarding of bras and other items of women’s clothing and cosmetics into a ‘Freedom Trash can’ on that occasion seemed to symbolise the start of a new phase of women asserting that 'enough is enough' when it came to the oppression and objectification of women. As one of the original protesters declared, “we were tired of making coffee but not policy”. In time ‘bra-burners’ became a disparaging label that misogynists chose to throw at any woman asserting their rights as a woman.


Fast forward to another iconic moment 26 years later – the appearance of the first ‘Wonderbra’ advert in 1994 with its famous "Hello Boys!" caption that the company hailed as women celebrating their liberated sexuality. In reality, it probably served more to reinforce the objectification of women as sex objects. Twenty-five years after the advert first appeared, at the height of the #MeToo protests, the company relaunched the Wonderbra with a new slogan more in keeping with the zeitgeist. Wonderbra claimed that “Hello me!” "empowered women to express their individuality with confidence in themselves."


Feminist writers such as Julie Bindel of ‘Justice for women’ were scathing in their criticism: "Wonderbra's 'Hello Boys' advert, the scourge of the feminist movement throughout the mid-1990s, was so sexist it was almost a parody. We are being fed the guff that the new slogan is less about appealing to sleazy men and more about targeting 'empowered, liberated women'. This, we are told, is about women wishing to feel sexy 'for themselves'. If you ask me, [this] is the same nonsense, different era."


Fast forward again to 2022, and Chloe’s display of women’s underwear designed purely for functional purposes in a moment of pure joy and celebration for the sporting achievement of women, seemed to mark an important moment in women’s liberation. Not only had women’s sport achieved a pinnacle in its own right but it had also surpassed the achievement of the men’s team the previous year.


There is still a long way to go. The Miss America and Miss World pageants are still going and is still heavily criticised by feminists despite the latter ditching its swimwear parade. But the achievement of the England women’s football team, crowned by the winning of BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year 2022 by Chloe’s team-mate, Beth Mead, surely marks an important milestone on the journey towards women’s equality and respect. And the photo of Chloe’s goal celebration at the Euros is an iconic image to go with it.



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