[Picture: The 1971 paperback edition of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer featuring John Holmes's iconic cover art]
In the late 1960s, some of the emblems of femininity became targets of feminist activism. Feminists charged that these objects, typified as patriarchal, reduced women to the status of sex objects. Some women publicly disavowed bras in an anti-sexist act of female liberation.
When Germaine Greer stated that "Bras are a ludicrous invention," her statement resonated with many women who had been questioning the role of the bra. Pivotal in popular bra culture is a now-notorious protest against the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, seen as an oppression of women.
About 400 women from the New York Radical Women were involved in a demonstration at the Atlantic City Convention Hall shortly after the Democratic National Convention. Protesters saw the pageant and its symbols as an oppression of women (because of its emphasis on an arbitrary standard of beauty, and its elevation of its choice of the "most beautiful girl in America" to a pedestal for public worship and commercial exploitation). A "Freedom Trash Can" was placed on the ground, and filled with bras, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, girdles, curlers, hairspray, makeup, corsets, magazines, and other items thought to be "instruments of torture", accoutrements of enforced femininity. Someone suggested lighting a fire, but a permit could not be obtained, and so (contrary to the subsequent urban legend) there was no burning, nor did anyone take off her bra.
The event received quite a bit of media coverage at the time but the notion of women burning their bras was merely a concatenation of several movements, including sexual liberation, in the media imagery. Lindsay van Gelder's account in the New York Post carried a headline "Bra Burners and Miss America". The phrase became headline material and was quickly associated with women who chose to go braless, following Germaine Greer's comments. Feminism and "bra-burning" then became linked in popular culture and Greer became a metaphor for bra burning.
Bra sales were not noticeably affected by the protest, and manufacturers capitalised on the attitudes of sexual liberation by emphasising allure. They also promoted "no-bra" alternatives like adhesive pads that supported the breasts and covered the nipples. Nevertheless this era was perceived by the industry as a crisis, and a preoccupation, which led indirectly to multiple mergers and acquisitions and the development of large corporations.