By Jovanna Tan
Last August, a woman attended the Kedah Fashion Week dressed in a green tailored suit without a bra. Her photo quickly went viral on the internet.
One social media user reacted: “This is Kedah, not Paris or the Met Gala.”
Such a statement made some ponder, as the bra is actually an innovation from the West and was not part of the garments in Southeast Asia before the colonial ‘invasion’.
The modern bra was invented in the late 19th Century and grew popular in the 20th Century as a replacement for the corset.
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So, the use of the bra in Southeast Asia was originally influenced by Western society.
Before bras became popular in the West, Southeast Asia had no tradition of women wearing bras to cover their breasts. In some regional societies, such as among the Dayaks or the Balinese, women were traditionally topless.
Some would say the widespread use of bras as lingerie in Southeast Asia is a form of Western cultural imperialism.
Capitalism and consumerism also contributed to the popularity of the bra in Southeast Asia. The bra was promoted by capitalists and brought great profits to the fashion and lingerie industries.
Through advertising and promotion, many became familiar with the image of Victoria’s Secret models wearing their brand of underwear in fashion shows. Such attire became the symbol of female beauty and fashion. The models’ bodies became the standard for ‘beautiful’ women’s bodies.
In our society, it is ‘common knowledge’ that women’s breasts would sag if they did not wear bras all the time. It is also suggested that bras should be worn to support the weight and structure of the breast.
However, according to research by Jean-Dean Rouillan, a professor of sports science at the Université de Franche-Comté, not wearing a bra improves a woman’s posture and allows her body to use the muscle groups under the breasts to prevent sagging.
Aside from aesthetics and health considerations, morality is the most associated element in arguments about whether women should wear bras or go braless. If a woman goes braless in public today, her morals are the first thing to be questioned.
In 2021 a tweet went around about a woman who claimed she was pulled over at a roadblock at Jalan Duta.
The policeman apparently told her: “Seriouslah you tak pakai bra, cuba bukak tunjuk, kalau you tunjuk i tak saman you.” (Seriously, you are not wearing a bra. Please open up and show me. If you show me, I won’t issue you a penalty notice.)
The tweet caught the attention of netizens and went viral. This was not just about serious police misconduct or sexual harassment. It was about a serious intrusion into one’s privacy.
The underlying message in this incident seemed to be that a woman not wearing a bra could be treated with disrespect, with no regard for her dignity. The woman’s choice to go braless seemed to give the policeman a licence to harass her because she was not seen as a ‘decent’ woman.
In another incident, in 2020 a woman was denied entry to the Kuala Lumpur Library because of her attire. She was wearing a long-sleeves white blouse and long trousers.
Yet she was stopped by the security guard and receptionist because the outline of her bra was visible through her white blouse. She was told that her attire was “eye-catching”, and she was therefore advised to cover her “bra line” before entering the library.
In this case, it was not a matter of wearing a bra or going braless but of being judged as inappropriately dressed simply because the outline of her bra was visible from a certain angle.
Whilst not wearing a bra would be considered inappropriate, it seemed as if even wearing a bra was also somehow considered inappropriate!
Ultimately, the real issue here is not about wearing a bra or going braless; it is about domination and control over a woman’s body by others who decide what is appropriate for women to wear.
The bra is no longer a tool of Western cultural imperialism but now appears to be a tool of conservative forces out to deprive women of their freedom to decide what to wear.
In my view, women should be able to exercise their right to control their own bodies according to their own comfort levels and happiness, not based on the implicit social norms set by a patriarchal society. However, there is still much to be done in this country to make this happen.
Jovanna Tan is a history student at the University of Malaya. She is interested in body politics, pop culture history, and gender and sexuality studies. She is currently obsessed with nasi dagang (rice steamed in coconut milk, fish curry and other ingredients).
She wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop “Writing for Change” organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran