New Bra Reveals Army Moving Towards Gender Equality
This marks a major change for the military. Until now, military women bought bras for themselves. Crucially, it also reflects a shift in how military leaders view female soldiers. In 1957, military women’s bras exploded into the news because of what they meant for appearances by female soldiers. At the time, military regulations governed every aspect of a female soldier’s outward appearance, from makeup application and hair care to how much food to eat. Military leaders expected servicewomen to look like the “first ladies of the country,” as an early 1950s recruiting ad proclaimed.
While change has come gradually and vestiges of this thinking still plague the military, the development of the ATB – with its goal of better equipping female soldiers to do their jobs – indicates that the military is making significant efforts to move towards equity.
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act granted women permanent positions in all branches of the military. After the end of World War II, servicewomen filled military roles around the world in the American occupation zones.
The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but American troops remained in the country, including a group from the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
Soldier appearances in the WAC mattered to military officials. They commissioned fashion designer Hattie Carnegie to design WAC uniforms. During World War II, Elizabeth Arden developed a lipstick color, Montezuma Red, designed to match the trim on Marine Corps Women’s Reserve uniforms. Publicity materials routinely depicted female servicemen as well-dressed young women wearing smart, tailored uniforms. Even so, the supporting elements under the uniform remained secret until 1957.
That fall, Lt. Jeane Wolcott arrived to take command of the 96-member WAC detachment in Yokohama. While inspecting his unit, Wolcott discovered that 95 of the staggering 96 women did not have as refined a feminine appearance as regulations required. Wolcott told the women to better prepare for their next inspection. She recommended women shop for shapewear, including girdles, shoulder pads and “faux” – better known today as push-up bras.
It’s unclear how news of Wolcott’s disappointment spread, though it may have come from the women in the unit themselves, but The Associated Press picked up the story. He appeared in newspapers around the world; “Shape Up in Falsies, Army Orders Girls”, read the London Daily Sketch big title.
Wolcott doubled down, telling the New York Journal-American, “Some of the young girls who aren’t too good at certain things have been told they can make improvements.” For women who were “starting to bulk up a bit,” Wolcott suggested girdles. For those who were not “well endowed”, causing their uniform to “fall past the shoulders”, Wolcott suggested “shoulder padding” or “fakes”.
But because the Army did not issue belts or bras to servicewomen, Wolcott could not order the women to comply. She promised that no disciplinary action would be taken against those whose appearance did not improve, but some women nonetheless expressed dismay at her verdict. A military woman contacted her congresswoman to complain.
Within a week, a male commander came to inspect the women. He and Wolcott believed the women looked better during this inspection, although Wolcott said she had sent women for medical attention so they could be put on a diet. In his opinion, women should look feminine, and when they didn’t, it had to be remedied. Wolcott explained that she wanted her “women to be women”. Her views reflected the prevailing views of military leaders on female soldiers at the time. Ever since World War II, military leaders had worried about the possibility of lesbianism in women’s services. To combat these fears, officials linked femininity and women’s military service, assuming that women who looked and acted like women were also heterosexual.
Following Wolcott’s caustic assessment, the women found support not only from the male commander who then inspected them, but also from New York bra maker Martin Schur. He telegramed Wolcott: “Your order to fashion interesting but difficult, also old-fashioned scythes.” Instead, the manufacturer would send out 100 bras “to maintain and elevate the best traditions of the Army.”
The ‘Battle of the Bulge’, as one cartoonist called it, revealed tensions over expectations about women’s appearance. While some WACs reportedly rushed to buy underwear as Wolcott recommended, many resented being reduced to physical specimens of femininity. In contrast, the incident grew stronger for some, like the San Francisco Chronicle columnist and editor Abe Mellinkoff, that women had no place in advocacy roles.
In an article titled “Urgent Support for Strategic Fields,” Mellinkoff argued that Wolcott’s demands were proof that women weren’t in the military. He reminded readers that Wolcott could not implement his suggestions because the Army did not stock “fakes”.
“In fact,” he wrote, “the Army cannot issue fakes because no training manual has been written on their proper use under various combat conditions.” Because army manuals tended to fight “a few wars late”, Mellinkoff speculated that the military might “get fakes at least by the time they get intercontinental ballistics”. [sic] missile.” He lost his calculations for more than half a century – ICBMs debuted in 1959.
Yet while an army bra still took over 60 years, women began to serve in greater numbers in the following decades. But even as their numbers increased, equal treatment slowly imposed itself on the military. During the 1970s, military leaders carefully shaped women’s defense roles to make the idea of women in uniform acceptable to the American public. Regulations required parents to approve the enlistment of women if they were under 21 years of age. Rank limits ensured that few female servicemen, until the late 1960s, would advance to high ranks, in part to ensure that women would not command men. Women could marry while in service, but motherhood meant dismissal from the armed forces.
Military service offered women unique career opportunities while limiting their roles. In theory, women were equal partners in defense. In fact, these limitations and the emphasis on the femininity of military women set them apart.
A decade after Wolcott lectured to her troops, WACs serving in Vietnam expressed concerns similar to those voiced by the soldiers she objectified, asking their superiors if they were there to do a job or to look good. .
Sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault remained problems in the military even as women played an increasingly important role in America’s defense.
In 2015, the military finally eliminated gender-based combat restrictions. In the years that followed, female servicemen achieved “firsts” in the armed forces as they began to qualify for roles previously reserved for men.
Yet this process has not been easy. Today, women access their positions according to their physical and mental capacities. But even these changes have not purged sexism and gender discrimination from the military. This is a key legacy of the early Cold War and ideas preached by leaders like Wolcott.
The development of ATB is part of a larger movement to better understand what military personnel need to do their jobs well. Uniforms are more than the outer layers most people see. Bras, in particular, are increasingly seen as an important functional part of women’s clothing. In 2021, the women of the UK Olympic team received bras designed for them individually, based on research into how the right bras best support female athletes. The ATB prototypes are no different in concept, and their designers focus on comfort and performance.
In 1957, Yokohama’s “Battle of the Bulge” focused on bras as something that would help military women stay beautiful. Today, military leaders’ attention to military women’s undergarments reflects a new desire to ensure that all members of the national defense team are prepared. It is an acknowledgment that readiness may look different for men and women, even recognizing that gender should not be the primary determinant of a service member’s role.