Howzit Bra

Despite a balking older
generation, it is now fashionable
to see what lies beneath

What's sexy and why

By Ruby Mata-Viti

The line used to be clear: To expose a bra strap was a fashion faux pas. Now that the strap itself is clear, the line has slipped a bit, especially on the newer ones adorned with accessories.

Clear bra straps debuted a few years ago, but Victoria's Secret unveiled this summer their line of vinyl straps decorated with trinkets such as metallic and fabric butterflies, ribbons, grommets and rhinestones.

What is not clear is the point of all this embellishment.

Lauren Polo, a University of Hawaii junior, doesn't see what the fuss is about in letting one's bra straps show. She said she's always done it, though older women generally find the look sloppy. Polo said she'd draw the line at wearing a strapless top with a regular bra. (Inset, top) Kuulei Kuroda of Jeans Warehouse Kahala shows a clear solution to softening the impact of visible bra straps.

Before the '60s, when women were burning bras to symbolize feminist freedom, a conservative Hollywood of the '50s signaled a fallen woman with an errant bra strap. That was a simpler time, when such signals were understood by all. Today those signals have all been crossed, re-crossed, rewired and pumped up. Bra straps have even gone to some women's heads in the form of hair-restraining headbands.

Add to this the covert low-rider jeans with a peek of the thong on women; sheer blouses; men baring the tops of their boxer briefs; and sport bras, corsets and camisoles worn as tops. And how can we forget -- because the magazines and a mall stroll won't let us -- the boxers-as-shorts look for men and women, slip dresses and slip skirts?

Every generation tries to make a unique fashion statement, and the exposed bra strap as fashion is no different, says Diane Chung, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii who was part of the '60s rebellion.

"We were told (breasts) weren't supposed to jiggle," said Chung, "and were raised learning to pin straps to our tops."

Bras at the time were more functional than fashionable, she said, and her generation found it fashionable to go braless.

Embellished bra straps are starting to resemble jewelry.

With fashion, nothing is original, added Chung, who teaches clothing construction in the Apparel Product Design and Merchandising program. It's what she called an "upward spiral," taking an idea and building upon it to make it novel.

That novelty makes it a new form of expression, said Marcia Morgado, also an assistant professor in the program. "Most of us probably have far more clothing than we need, and there's no reason to buy any more of it unless it's new, different and thus interesting." Adding frills to clear straps creates interest in something that has worn out its novelty.

People of the Renaissance revealed underwear as fashion with a technique called slashing, she said. Small cuts or tears were made in outer garments with undergarments pulled through the holes. That was taken a step further by wearing contrasting undergarments.

AS A FASHION statement today, it's common among the teen girl set to be seen sashaying, straps exposed, on any given day at the shopping center, with the cutoff point being age 30, at least for fashion historian Peter Dervis.

A Princesse Tam Tam bra features sequined straps. The bra also comes with straps of clear plastic and matching fabric.

Teenage girls are budding independent entities, said Dervis from his New York office, and flaunting something with sexual implications is a badge that serves a dual purpose. "It may raise eyebrows of those of their parents' generation," he said, but it's fashion, so parents can't go ballistic. "It's rebellious, yet it makes it titillating and exciting for the teen."

Chang agrees, also citing those who "wear low-cut pants with thongs that stick out, decorated with pins."

The flaunted strap "sanitizes sexuality," said Dervis, making it acceptable within the confines of fashion yet racy.

A slipped strap used to be an embarrassment for women, he said, similar to having their slip show, but now we see skirts designed to look like slips. A walk past display windows at Blumarine at Ala Moana Center and Ohelo Road in Kahala Mall last week turned up sheer fabric and lace-trimmed hems.

Those things aren't supposed to be seen, Dervis said, lest the wearer be marked as making an unconscious sexual statement. Today's adornments add a twist, a layer of intent.

"It's 'naughty for nice people,'" said Dervis, quoting a piece he read in the Wall Street Journal.

The trend needs to be taken in context with age group, region and gender. For instance, he said, "I've never heard a man gripe about a woman's visible panty lines or exposed straps; it's a hint at something supposedly forbidden."

He said he doubts a woman in her late 40s at an elegant cocktail party would be pleased to hear her bra strap is showing. But tank tops commonly worn in Hawaii might contribute to its ubiquity here.

DERVIS IS writing a book on the history of military uniforms, and from his observations, the exposed strap is on its way out in New York.

Morgado, who teaches fashion theory and marketing, just returned from New York and said the newer clear-strap bras were sold out at Victoria's Secret after prices were slashed for end-of-summer clearance.

Misa Helbling, a sales associate with Allure, a Ward Center swimsuit and lingerie boutique, said that customers snapped up clear straps for the novelty when they first appeared. But now women see them as a viable option to wearing strapless bras. Helbling said some women in Hawaii wear tanks daily, and "with some fashions it's just hard to wear bras, and they don't want to go without."

The trendiest item is the tinted plastic strap, she said.

Allure, which has stores at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and Hilton Hawaiian Village, carries Princesse Tam Tam, a European line of lingerie that offers a bra with clear and interchangeable solid straps dotted with sequins. "You wear it with a camisole top, and the sequins peek out. They're on the expensive side ($53), but women just love it," especially paired with a sheer blouse.

Jealousie, a lingerie shop in Hawaii Kai, was the first on the island to carry the clear strap, according to Celia Lee, 23, who has been with the store since it opened five years ago.

Some bought them because they found the strapless uncomfortable, giving little support, says Lee. "They slip (from the rib cage) and keep having to be pulled up." But that's still better, she said, than having a tinted clear strap show, unless it matches your outfit.

She suggests color coordinating bras with clothing, so if the strap happens to show, "it looks nicer."

Whether her boyfriend minds a runaway strap is not an issue. "He doesn't pay attention to those kinds of things," she said. "But an older person, like my mom and my aunty, they don't like it. They'd think it's revealing something very personal, and they'd think it was wrong."

Her preference is in avoiding a peep show, period.

Jealousie also carries "The Manicure Kit" ($6.99), which contains thin straps for replacing thicker ones.

Matching what's inside with what's outside agrees with Colissa Goo, also 23, a customer at the store. "I wouldn't wear a printed sleeveless blouse with a daisy-strap bra," and, as far as she's concerned, embellished clear straps is a gimmick that just doesn't hold.

"What's the point in putting decorations on a clear bra strap?" she said.

You can argue any point, but whether a visible bra strap flags its wearer as a contemporary fashion fanatic, a person lacking proper grooming habits, a sensual sort unashamed of her physical gifts or a powerful self-realized individual, intent is still a woman's secret.


You sexy thing

Why women wear lingerie:

Men's responses:

To look sexy to appeal to men 54%

Women's responses:

Functional, to cover the body 28%

To boost confidence, make body look better 27%

Other women wear it to look sexy 25%

To look and feel sexy themselves 15%

To appeal to men 7%

The sexiest clothing according to the sexes are:

To men:

Thong 26%

All-lace bra 22%

Push-up bra 15%

Sheer bra 15%

To women:

All-lace bra 25%

Push-up bra 24%

Thong 20%

Every-day bra 5%

Source: Maidenform, conducted through ROPERASW interviews of 1,023 Americans age 18 and older.

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