Baltimore-area women come face-to-face with an old foe after a year of pandemic: the underwire bra

It’s been 16 months of working from home, free from the confines of both her downtown office and her casual but still business-appropriate wardrobe.

Underneath the leggings, top and flip-flops she’s been wearing instead, April Webbert feels liberated.


“It’s been a sports bra or no bra,” she said. “You couldn’t go anywhere. No one saw you. Who wants to put on a bra?”

Want to or not, she will put her “girls” back in their place come July, when Adams Funds, where she is an accountant, starts bringing its employees back to the office.


When the coronavirus swept into the United States last year, millions fled workplaces for home offices and schoolhouses for kitchen tables. Millions went on to contract COVID-19 and more than 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to it since March 2020.

As death and disease rocked the nation, Americans who could work remotely adjusted their routines to five-second commutes and round-the-clock child rearing. And while the borders dividing home life and work life blurred, so did the clothes meant to create a visual separation between the two.

Retail analysts say companies that are starting to reopen their offices will find a changed workforce, one that has grown accustomed to working in much more relaxed attire. Workers, numb to the virtual meetings, Zoom dates and online happy hours that have come to define the rhythm of daily functioning, will seek to bring some of those comforts of home to the workplace, people in the retail industry say.

As women transition back into offices and suit jackets, they’re loath to return to adjusting tight bra straps, loosening clasps and itching at their bra bands.

They might have put up with such discomfort in the past, but having escaped them during their months of working from home, some are saying: not any more. And there are signs that the industry has gotten the message and started offering more bras without underwires and wider ranges of sizes and styles.

“Bralettes are just as comfortable, and many are now making bralettes for larger-busted women,” said Emily Diehl, manager at a la Mode intimates in Fells Point, using a term to describe bras without traditional underwires. “Women are saying freely, ‘I’m not wearing a bra anymore.’ “

Shops and boutiques in the region that specialize in intimates are welcoming back customers who no longer know what fits, or how much of anything they’ll need, as they adjust to new hybrid work schedules and dress codes.

The coming return to work sent Webbert, 41, scurrying back to Hourglass Lingerie in Towson for some new undergarments. Like many, Webbert didn’t fit into her old bras any more; unlike many, it’s because she’s lost rather than gained weight. She had bariatric surgery in January and has since lost close to 70 pounds.


The dreaded return to a more structured bra, or any bra at all, for Webbert, is eased by finally getting the right fit.

Dawn Mumaw, owner of Hourglass Lingerie in Towson, places lingerie on a mannequin form in her shop.  June 9, 2021

Most women wore incorrectly sized bras before the coronavirus pandemic, said Dawn Mumaw, Hourglass Lingerie’s owner. But Mumaw has seen an influx of shoppers who after more than a year of working from home are in need of a lift. Either their bras no longer fit, or the elastic has stretched out or disintegrated over time, she said.

“I’ve had a lot of customers walking in now that went braless for the past year because they’re working from home and now they’re deciding, ‘I don’t want to go back into that bra I was wearing before because I’m realizing it hurts and it’s digging in,’” said Mumaw, who packs her store with bras in a dizzying array of sizes with bands that measure from 28 to 56 and cups from A to O.

“Or, ‘I’ve put on five to 10 pounds because of staying home, and maybe it’s time to get a bra fitting.’”

The frequency with which people choose to wear bras moving forward could disrupt a segment of the women’s clothing industry. Some said the pandemic has blown open a Pandora’s box of complaints, especially in the bra-wearing community, at a decibel that could change consumer habits for years.

The trends run parallel to the uneven expectations placed on women to run households and keep pace with remote work simultaneously. New clothes, particularly uncomfortable ones, were the last thing they needed or wanted.


Women’s clothing sales, especially, took a hit from the public health crisis, said Kristen Classi-Zummo, director of apparel market insights at The NPD Group, a national market research company. At least 70% of the decline in adult clothing sales occurred in the women’s market, Classi-Zummo said. Female apparel revenues dropped 21% overall.

Intimates — composed of categories like bras, underwear and shape wear — dropped 7%, she added. But sports bra sales jumped 11%.

“We found that not only was [the female consumer] wearing a sport bra to exercise in, but to wear every day. There was a shift to more comfortable bras that you could sleep in and wear while at home,” she said. “We were seeing the trend a bit before, but it has accelerated since quarantine.”

Dawn Mumaw, owner of Hourglass Lingerie in Towson, works on a display in her shop.  June 9, 2021

But with the return to the workplace, sales have rebounded.

According to the U.S. Census, clothing sales were up an astonishing 727% in April compared with the same month last year, when initial pandemic restrictions closed most stores save groceries and pharmacies and limited nearly all mobility except for essential trips.

Now, as public life resumes, some are even traveling out-of-state for the shopping trips they missed over the last year.


“I need all new bras,” said LaPorchia Davis, assistant professor of fashion merchandising at Morgan State University, which plans to fully reopen this fall. “I have to be re-acclimated to the professional realm.”

She is journeying to New York for a trip to a specialty bra store she found on social media. It’s worth the expense, she said, for the right fit.

“It’s very uncomfortable,” Davis said of the “wrong” bra. “You become self-conscious.”

Such renewed buying is good news for retailers, especially those hit hard by the pandemic, said Jie Zhang, a marketing professor and retail management fellow at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

But, Zhang said, consumers are in the market for a different kind of work attire than in the past after a year of working from home and wearing what they want.

”They’re not expecting to sell many suits and ties and high heels,” she said. “They’re going to sell clothing that is more casual; not sloppy, but more comfortable.”


Which is why there is now something called yoga dress pants, which combine the stretchiness of the former with the tidier look of the latter. Zhang said she’s bought a couple of pairs herself.

And some consumers may need to update not just their style but their size after a year of less activity and closer proximity to their refrigerators, she said.

“This weight gain during the pandemic seems to be a common phenomenon,” Zhang said. “No judgment!”

Zhang’s colleague at the business school, P.K. Kannan, said he sees the next couple of years as a transitional one: Employees may dress more casually as they gradually reenter the workplace, but in fields such as banking and law, they likely will return to more formal attire eventually.

“If you’re going to be meeting a client, will you wear a hoodie?” said Kannan, who holds the dean’s chair in marketing science at the Maryland business school.

He said even when he was teaching remotely, he tried to maintain appearances, at least from the waist up.


“I wore a shirt with a collar and put a blazer on top,” he said. “But sometimes, I might have been in shorts, which was fine unless I forgot and stood up.”

He anticipates that the hybrid model, with employees working sometimes at home and sometimes in the office, will become the norm for many companies. Employees will want clothing that is comfortable but appropriate for either setting, Kannan said.

That’s consistent with the projected direction of the fashion industry in general, said Jody Davis, a Baltimore-based women’s apparel designer whose clients include elected officials, media personalities and celebrities.

Jody Davis, a Baltimore fashion designer is making dresses that are not restricting. Davis says, "We have all expanded a bit in the waistline, so you want something that's a bit non-confining." These are also transition pieces that can go from the office to an evening out.  June 10, 2021.

Specializing in dresses, Davis said she pivoted away from the structured, body-hugging looks to more loose, non-fitted garments.

“This has opened the door for women, in general, to not be so conscious about the shape of the body, but what you put on to flatter who you are in the space you’re in,” she said.

An American Psychological Association survey of more than 3,000 people released in March revealed 61% of U.S. adults reporting undesired weight changes since the COVID-19 outbreak. About two in five of the 3,000 adults surveyed gained more weight than they intended over the past year, an average of 29 pounds per person.


Mumaw, who has run her lingerie store for 11 years — with the explicit goal of providing more bra choices for curvy women sizing out of the big-name competitors — said some women are struggling with body image at the store.

“A handful are very negative. ‘I’m fat, I have stretch marks, sorry you have to see this,’” she said. “I immediately say, ‘We all do!’ It’s already hard enough to take your shirt off in front of somebody if you’re not happy. But I’m here to help you. I’m not here to upset you.”

Jody Davis, a Baltimore fashion designer is making dresses that are not restricting. Davis says, "We have all expanded a bit in the waistline, so you want something that's a bit non-confining." These are also transition pieces that can go from the office to an evening out.  June 10, 2021.

For women concerned that foregoing a bra for much of the year harmed their bodies, doctors say not to worry.

A bra provides support while you are wearing it, but it doesn’t prevent sagging, said Dr. Ishrat Z. Rafi, a board member and treasurer of the Maryland chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

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The culprits, instead, are time and gravity, she said.

“The whole body will go saggy,” Rafi said. “That’s going to happen to all of us.”


So whether they choose to don bras, bralettes or nothing at all, the effect on breast health should be minimal, said Dr. Michael Schultz, director of breast health for LifeBridge Health, which operates Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital and Grace Medical Center.

Over the course of Schultz’s long career in medicine, much of it focused on women’s health and breast cancer, he said, women frequently complain about their bras, referring to them as “straitjackets” or “instruments of torture” they can’t wait to strip off once they get home.

“If you think back historically, bras came about as an accoutrement to fashion and dressing, because it pushed them up and gave them a décolletage, which was thought to be alluring,” he said. “Medically speaking, I don’t think there are any health benefits, and I think shape, size, configuration — that’s physiologic rather than anything else.”

In other words, there’s no consequence associated with letting it all hang free, Schultz said.

“It’s not going to make the back or neck go bad — it’s about comfort.” he said. “It’s whatever floats your boat.”