Two fifty-something mums are taking their 16-year-old daughters out to dinner to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. The girls are dressed in all the trappings of the Y2K trend that hails from the early Noughties and is currently popular with their age-group: trainers, vest tops and low-slung combat pants that expose their pierced belly buttons. To the chagrin of their mothers, their belly buttons aren't the only things exposed. Through the thin fabric of their tops, it's evident that both girls are braless.
Despite the impression given by Love Island, the cantilevered breasts of the "Hello, Boys" era that saw Eva Herzigova smile down from billboards across Europe in Wonderbra's 1994 campaign are not a look favoured by Gen Z – and it's a trend that spreading among some older women, too.
For a generation of girls born in the Noughties, trussing them up is less appealing than letting them hang free. In this, there are commonalities with the bra-burning movement of the late Sixties – an era when women didn't burn nearly as many bras as history has recorded, but did, at times, go braless as a feminist statement that favoured the "natural" look over restrictive bras and the symbolic idea that they oppressed women.
But if these women were taking a stand on women's rights and viewed their bra-free status as a symbol of their independence from men, their granddaughters are taking a very different view.
"I wear one when I want to, and don't wear one when I don't want to," says 16-year-old Freya. "I don't even think about it – it's not a big deal to me, and it's somewhat surprising when it matters to other people."
Her friend Lucy agrees. "If someone's not wearing a bra, I literally wouldn't notice. It's just not a thing."
Their mothers might seek to politicise their lingerie choices, but Gen Z views this as yet another example of "deeping" – a word they use to describe their parents' proclivity for attributing hidden meaning and subtext to behaviours that, in their eyes, have none.
"No one's trying to make a statement," says Emma, 18, who is hoping to study history at Edinburgh University. "More likely is that they won't wear a bra if it doesn't work with their outfit." She explains that the Noughties-style racerback vest tops that she and her friends currently favour look better without bra straps cluttering up the look. What about a strapless model? She looks scornful: "I've just finished my A-levels. I don't have a job. What, do I just pluck one from the bra tree?"
It's fair to say that lack of funds is not the reason for the braless trend spreading among some older women. At Glastonbury last weekend, the model Poppy Delevigne was braless under her white vest, as was the model Mary Charteris, as well as Alexa Chung and Sienna Miller. If there's anywhere to let it all hang out, it's surely a music festival with a long political history and a strong countercultural stance. But the trend is evident in cities, too, and not just among the pert-breasted elite such as Zoe Kravitz, Lily Rose Depp and the Hadid sisters. In London's Soho, the recent heatwave saw women of all ages ditch more than just their cardigans.
An anathema as this might be to women bigger than a D cup, a large driver of the braless trend is comfort. The pandemic saw many women go free because they could: why wear a bra when you're working from home? After 18 months, many grew accustomed to this level of comfort and didn't want to relinquish it when life opened up again. The actress Gillian Anderson is one such person, saying in an Instagram Live clip last year: "I don't care if my breasts reach my belly button. I'm not wearing a bra – it's just too f------ uncomfortable."
The author Lotte Jeffs agrees. "I've never worn a bra because my chest doesn't need the support, and that's the only sensible justification I can conceive of for wearing one," she says. "Any time I've tried on a bra, it's felt so uncomfortable and constricting that I've not been able to stand it. I've never really stopped to think about what not wearing a bra says about me. That I'm not interested in conforming? That the male gaze doesn't factor into how I see myself? As a gender-queer person I have a different relationship with my chest. I like it to look flat because I prefer the way clothes look on me. I also enjoy not having a body that other people can quickly gender as 'female'".
This point is significant to Gen Z, who see gender in more fluid terms than their parents. Rather than being a political statement, many Gen Zers simply see bras as unnecessary, the imperative to wear one less linked to their gender than the size of their breasts. "Why wear a bra if you don't need one, just because you're female? It shouldn't be considered feminist not to wear a bra. It should just be considered normal," says 19-year-old Katie. "I don't see why women should have to defend their choices in the first place."
While in the real world, women might be ditching their bras, the same freedom of expression is not being accorded to them online. The "Free The Nipple" movement sparked a decade ago by the 2012 film of the same name has done nothing to change Instagram's censorship of the female body. Last year, the site was forced to apologise to director Pedro Almodovar for censoring a film poster featuring a nipple, which it had removed from the site for violating guidelines. In May, it removed a topless image of the model Paloma Elsesser, despite it having been modified to meet community guidelines. So censorious is Instagram that it even removes all #freethenipple hashtags, a fact that led one user to set up @genderless_nipples, an account devoted to posting images cropped in such a way that users can't tell which gender they belong to. Lest it not be obvious, male nipples aren't banned by the site.
"We've been conditioned to see the female body as something that needs to be covered up so as not to excite straight men, but why should their comfort be worth more than my own?" says Jeffs. "Last night at a gig I spoke to someone in their early-20s who was wearing a see-through frilly bra and an open shirt. I could see her nipples, but it was on me not to stare at them rather than on her to cover them up. It felt like quite a radical shift in power."
Back at the restaurant, the fifty-something mums spend dinner explaining that while their daughters' bra-less stance might be a choice, it could leave the young women vulnerable to unwanted attention. An argument ensues. The 16-year-olds insist that this isn't their problem. Their mothers only wish this could be true.