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Sending Signals by Bra Strap

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen-year-old Katie Riggs is not allowed to wear mascara and isn’t really going on dates, but she doesn’t think twice about sashaying through the mall with--heaven forbid--her bra straps exposed.

Grandma, cover your eyes: Bra straps are cool. The undergarment whose absence once symbolized rebellion has returned in a most visible way.

After cropping up in New York and Los Angeles several years ago, the exposed strap has become a national phenomenon among under-30 women, fashion experts say. It’s a look that young people variously praise as comfortable and feminine, in-your-face cute and alluring.

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“Even Mennonite girls are wearing it in church functions,” sighs a disapproving Andree Conrad, editor of Apparel Industry magazine.

Young women chortle when reminded that their mothers once took great pains, occasionally rigging safety pins, to prevent the horrifying fashion faux pas of an errant strap. Why bother going to any length to obscure something everyone knows, they ask.

“What’s the big deal?” said Lena Demirjian, a 17-year-old junior at Pasadena High School. “It’s just a bra.”

But experts who measure how fashion and values intersect find deeper meaning.

“Nothing is kept private,” groused Linda Velez, a textile manufacturer and an associate professor at New York’s Parsons School of Design. “It reflects society--no one has any reserve anymore. Reserve is not a word young people understand, it’s all about showing everything,” she said.

“It’s an extremely forthright generation that’s willing to really expose itself. And at the same time, it’s an extremely demanding generation that requires reconsideration of dress in bold ways,” said Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who has curated several exhibits involving lingerie, including one called “Bare Witness: Dress and Exposure.”

The fad represents a sea change in women’s perception of their bodies and their willingness to accept casual comfort over style, pundits say. It’s also a fashion that reflects a society in which sexual images have become part of the cultural vernacular.

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“A previous generation might have been embarrassed, but today having your bra strap exposed is a badge, a sexual signal, that’s flaunted,” says fashion historian Peter Dervis. “The sexual charge gets neutralized--we’re immunized because it’s all around us. It’s been sanitized so all-American teenage girls can wear this and parents are not going ballistic.”

Katie Riggs, who lives in a mountain community above San Bernardino, has won that battle. Her mother also gave in on allowing Katie to wear sparkles around her eyes and wild-colored nail polish on her fingers, but enforces a no-mascara rule. When Katie went to Santa Anita Fashion Park recently, she wore a black tank top with white bra straps, and painted her fingernails aqua.

In another part of the mall, Mandy Tran, 23, wore a form-fitting red tank top set off by white bra straps when she ran errands with a younger cousin.

“To me, it’s normal,” said Tran, a LaVerne University graduate who has been accepted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her father, a single parent in Los Angeles, used to correct her when her bra straps showed. Now, however, he’s much more concerned about other aspects of attire, like whether a skirt is too short or too tight.

Every generation embraces a fashion for shock value. In the ‘60s it was tie-dye and construction boots and, for women, wearing no bra. At the 1968 Miss America contest, protesters hurled bras, girdles and curlers into a trash can. (No, they were not burned). An aerospace engineer reportedly lost her job for organizing Bra-Less Friday.

Lingerie reflects who we are and how we live, experts say. When women’s intellectual and social lives were restricted during the 1800s, their bodies were confined in corsets. When America throttled into the sexual revolution, women wore no bras. To textile manufacturer Velez, exposing your bra strap mirrors the sexual conservatism of an AIDS-conscious society.

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“A lot of these girls would be mortified if a guy came on to them, but they are showing this as a reference to underwear: You can peek but not touch,” Velez said. “It’s sexually baiting but not in a conscious way. It’s just naughty enough to get away with.”

An Era of Underwear Evolution

Lingerie has transcended its role as the foundation of an outfit, becoming part of fashion itself. Transparent blouses abound. Slip dresses, which resemble a garment worn under an outfit, are so commonplace that they’re now office attire. Men’s low-cut jeans are designed to reveal the tops of their underwear. And both men and women don boxer shorts as shorts.

To some observers, the road to the exposed strap was paved by Madonna, who went on stage in a bustier, and by the scantily clothed models used to advertise designer Calvin Klein’s fashions.

“Somewhere along the way, somebody did this by design or by accident and the climate of our culture made it permissible,” fashion historian Dervis said.

About the only rule of this style is picking the proper bra to expose. Many women now have a wardrobe of bras for virtually every occasion: sports, evening, school or work. The exposed strap is a slender, adjustable one with the telltale metal clip. Some women try to coordinate so their straps match their shirts. Others prefer more daring combinations of contrasting colors. Still others opt for patterns and prints meant to complement their tops.

As a testament to their newfound popularity, faux bra straps are now worn as headbands.

For schools, underwear is one more thing to worry about. Los Alamitos school administrators now prohibit “swimsuit or underwear-style tops” and clothes that reveal undergarments. At Long Beach Unified School District, strapless or spaghetti strap dresses and tops are deemed unacceptable. Nor are students allowed to wear boxer shorts--or anything resembling boxers--in lieu of shorts.

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Tom Julian, a trend analyst for the New York-based advertising firm Fallon & McElligott, says part of the exposed strap’s appeal lies in the fact that anybody can do it. “Young girls are all very body conscious, but it doesn’t matter what shape their body is in for this.”

Strapless bras are one alternative. But since they are regarded as less comfortable, they have not garnered much enthusiasm.

“Nobody wants to be uncomfortable,” said Conrad of Apparel Industry magazine. “You can’t get people to put on the fashion equivalent of the Chinese bound foot.”

Rocio Salidivar is one of the women who has come late to the game.

When Salidivar, 34, first came to this country from Mexico eight years ago, she used to wear pantyhose, and her skirts were never shorter than six fingers above the knee. Her blouses reached up to her collarbone and her arms were never exposed. Gradually, her wardrobe evolved, with her clothing becoming skimpier and trendier as her confidence grew.

Six months ago, on her days off from her baby-sitting job, she began wearing shorts and a spaghetti strap shirt with bra straps showing. She knew it would horrify her mother. At first, she always carried a T-shirt with her in case she felt too exposed. She never has.

“It made me feel more free,” she said. “It’s fresh.”

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