Bra and Panties matches had one simple aim. And surprisingly, its shocking history goes back further than you’d expect!
A Brief History of Bra and Panties Matches
Modern professional wrestling was born in the late nineteenth century. Carnivals and circuses, as its parents, are partially responsible for the strangeness, silliness, and often scariness found in the squared circle.
Women’s wrestling began as a spectacle in itself, a clear gender subversion of the “fairer sex,” and immediately attracted crowds to the big top.
And a century or so later, it led to the infamous bra and panties matches of the Attitude Era.
The aim of a Bra and Panties match was simple: humiliate your opponent by removing their clothing down to the undergarments to be claimed victor.
A storytelling device in wrestling to demonstrate an abuse of power. But how exploitive was it for the performers themselves? And how far back has this type of match been used in wrestling? The answer may surprise you.
Pioneer Mildred Burke
One of wrestling’s first famous women was Mildred Burke, a circus-born strongwoman at the precipice of a new wave. She, and many after her, exhibited athletic prowess competitive to their male counterparts. Even though men controlled most of the industry, an ingredient essential for success was the feminine.
Burke wrote of this, as quoted in the book Sisterhood of the Squared Circle, “Wrestling has always had strong sex appeal. Fans live out fantasies through the various personages in wrestling. Right and wrong, and good and evil, meet in a primal struggle under the lights. Human beings are sexual beings—all of them. The wrestling game allows all manner of drives and frustrations to be vented.”
As she put it, these drives being vented would not disappear over the years, during or after Burke’s career.
Through decades, professional wrestling’s intentions have shifted, switched, put on a trench coat and hat, and yet the outcome remained the same, disguised in a different form.
These forces took shape in the mainstream popularity of wrestling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where we saw the culture become more friendly with violent and sexual content. People craved something even more subterranean.
Along Came Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon, majority owner and Executive Chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), exhumed the corpse from underneath the floorboards and reanimated sideshow acts of the past through lace-draped, hair-yanked, mud-filled pits: the bra and panties match.
But what happens when content is intended for one group of people? It results in objectification for capital because, as they say, sex sells.
To begin on this tour of what would become the bra and panties matches of the Attitude Era, the first stop should be two decades before.
The Wrestling Mags and Apartment House Wrestling
Wrestling magazines opened eyes to new wrestlers, writers, and communities of the grappling variety.
Throughout the mid-20th century, Stanley Weston was one of the leading publishers of popular wrestling magazines (creating what would become Pro Wrestling Illustrated).
It was 1973 when he worried about the dwindling sales of several of his publications. However, he had an idea for increasing sales: introducing fans to a new type of women’s wrestling.
Wrestling journalist Bill Apter described on Chris Jericho’s podcast that one typical day, he was suddenly called into Stanley Weston’s office.
Weston handed him a package from the publisher’s Los Angeles photographer, Theo Ehret, who sent dozens of photos of bra and panty-clad women wrestling one another.
The backdrop for these battles was stunning: mid-century modern apartments.
Apparently, Weston told Apter he would make a fortune off these photos and christened them apartment wrestling.
There was virtually no competition for Weston’s new advent. Photos like these had been around for a long time, but capitalizing on them the way he was about to was unprecedented. Not that it would remain that way, though.
Other wrestling magazines caught on and began publishing their own pictorials. But Weston did it first. Although not everyone joined in on the fun.
Weston did not relent. Some wrestlers didn’t want to be featured in the same magazine that pictured fighting women. But, the great Mae Young once said the real reason the men didn’t like the girls back in the day was that they would “go out there and steal the show.”
The subversion of gender that existed in the ring was a spectacle incomparable to the men; people were intrigued and steal the show they did.
Back to apartment wrestling, Weston assigned one of his writers, Dan Shockett, to write the accompanying descriptions for the photos. He wrote fan fictional erotica of the sort.
Here is one such example found in issue #4 of the Battling Girls magazine in 1973:
“She battled furiously but in vain. Hester, a woman whose fragile beauty makes a savage competitor- was the perfect opponent for a woman intent on punishing the world through a single night of mindless combat.”
He would provide the reader with a play-by-play of the match as it was. These posed, choreographed brawl scenes were popular amongst the target audience of wrestling magazines- men.
After some time, women who modeled for apartment wrestling pictorials were featured in wrestling magazines more frequently than authentic women wrestlers.
A Thin Line Between Entertainment and Something More Obscene
Writers who discuss this era in wrestling magazines usually state that it sexualized itself into obscurity by the 1980s. Mainstream publications ceased publishing these photos in response to the popular ultra-conservatism at the time.
With Christian nationalists crossing into popular culture and Ronald Reagan as U.S. president for most of the decade, a return to “family values” would follow.
Although the industry did not disappear, it just went underground.
As Sharon Mazer reported in her book Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, throughout the 1980s, some women wrestlers or bodybuilders would participate in what was similarly known as apartment house wrestling.
Another example of this business venture is described in the recent Netflix docuseries on bodybuilder Sally McNeil. Men would call numbers like 800-755-FLEX (don’t worry, major credit cards are accepted) to have a type of wrestle-phone sex with women.
Some services allowed customers to request a muscled woman to come to their home and wrestle them. The price would sometimes reach $300 an hour for an at-home visit.
Sally McNeil and Sharon Mazers’ interviewees insist these business ventures differed from sex work. Of course, it must be said that sex work is work, but they can label their businesses as they see fit.
Bra and Panties Matches Equal Ratings
McMahon monopolized and controlled the wrestling industry; his WWE had little to no competition for a long while.
When World Championship Wrestling (WCW) went to Ted Turner’s TNT, it sparked a feud with WWE.
WWE and WCW aired on Monday nights, and their ratings were consistently neck and neck. Later, this era would be known as the Monday Night Wars.
WWE began losing consistently, for a time, because of the G-rated content they were producing. Their storylines found comfort by clearly defining good and evil, but people were craving more nuance and wanted them to blur the lines.
While the ’90s flourished and moved into the new century, culture continued distancing itself from the conservative 1980s, with television following suit.
Talk shows like Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones leaned away from the softness of Phil Donahue and dove head first into lurid stories.
Wrestling naturally found inspiration in these storylines that lived in the realm of trash.
WWE writer Brian Gerwitz worked through much of the time when bra and panties matches were so popular, and he confirmed this in an interview with VICE. “If you look closely, [wrestling’s] always going to mirror the times, for better or worse.”
While one would think the bra and panties match was born and bred by Vince McMahon and his WWF at the time, it was actually WCW that introduced them to the fans first.
In August of 2000, there was a match between Tylene Buck (Major Gunns) and Stacy Keibler (Miss Hancock).
It was presented as an ROTC (Rip-off-the-Clothes match), fatigue-donned bra and panties match, and Keibler gained a lot more experience in these matches over at WWE.
Initially, WCW did not know what to do with their female talent. Wrestlers like Madusa Miceli made pit stops in the company, but overall it didn’t seem WCW understood that fans wanted to see more women actually wrestle.
For a time, the only women who would appear on the runway were the WCW Nitro Girls, dancers who would entertain fans between matches.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated phenomenon; at this same time, luchadoras in the promotion Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre in Mexico were not offered many opportunities.
Throughout the mid-’90s into the 2000s, in WCW, there was usually only one women’s match a month, even though women wrestlers like Lady Apache and Martha Villalobos were working in the country.
WCW’s president and executive producer at the time, Eric Bischoff, attempted to explain years later that there weren’t any talented women wrestlers at the time.
As someone who had just let Madusa Miceli slip through his fingers, he must have known that was a weak excuse.
While WCW may have done it first, WWE was the company that really took full advantage. When they began leaning into more sexual content, their ratings increased astronomically.
The first bra and panties match they featured were between two incredible talents, Trish Stratus and Lita.
Before the match, Mick Foley, the Commissioner, asked Lita why she would want to participate in a match like this. She’s a very “credible and respected champion,” so why do a bra and panties match?
Over time, the writers became creative little devils, always coming up with a new way to strip their workers down.
Evening gown matches, mud fights, gauntlets, a paddle-on-a-pole match, a snow bunny match (featuring real snow shoveled in from outside), and a “gravy” fight with mysterious brown liquid are just some examples.
Each time one of the men threw the other over the top rope, one woman had to remove an item of clothing.
To add insult to injury, the storyline insisted Terri and B.B. be visibly unhappy to be a part of it. Thus encouraging Triple H to come out and tell the women their jobs were on the line, and if they did not strip on live T.V., they would both be fired. They wrote this! They could have at least feigned consent. But hey, art imitates life.
It seemed the bra and panty gimmick were the only matches women could get at this time. Even strongwoman Chyna was once stripped out of a red dress by Lita to reveal a baby blue lingerie set.
At that moment, a woman working for WWE wanted to be on television, so they had to participate. Except if you were named Stephanie McMahon.
Some of the WWE women workers were thrown into matches even though they were not trained professional wrestlers.
This trend began with featuring women like Sable and Stacy Kiebler and continued with Divas like Eva Marie and Ariane Andrew, known as “Cameron.”
In a way, WWE was paralleling the era of apartment wrestlers who received more real estate in wrestling magazines over authentic professional wrestlers. However, the space allowed for women was that the powers that be couldn’t make enough room for both.
Bra and Panties Matches: Crossing the Line Into Exploitation?
Men weren’t particularly safe from the debauchery, either.
For example, WCW once wrote an angle where wrestler Shane Douglas was caught on candid camera experiencing erectile dysfunction. This culminated in a match between Douglas and Billy Kidman, announced as a “Viagra on a Pole match,” with the objective being for one guy to get to it before the other.
There are many other examples, but none so quickly get to the point.
It wasn’t always so playful, though. Many men of color were regularly subjected to racist storylines and stereotyped characters.
Black women were given even less opportunity in these promotions, proven by the fact that only two reside in the WWE Hall of Fame.
The difference between male wrestlers and female counterparts is that objectification was not their sole currency in large wrestling companies like WWE and WCW.
Along with that, many people, in general, had to operate along a list of rules without their best interest in mind. But, women always had to maneuver around an industry that was generally not catering to them as legitimate athletes.
One person that never figured out this code was wrestler Luna Vachon.
As it was told in her episode of the docuseries Dark Side of the Ring, the Royal Rumble pay-per-view in 2000, WWE writers promoted a typical segment for women wrestlers- a bikini contest.
In weeks leading up to it, writers approached Luna about being a part of the lineup.
Around this time, she had been stalemated and stalled throughout her career at the company. Although an extremely talented wrestler and entertainer, she was consistently cast as a monster in the face of the tenuous femininity that was celebrated, never rewarded or accoladed, just fated to be destroyed by wrestlers less talented than she.
When putting together the contest, writers would ask Luna if she would be open to taking off her bra and exposing herself.
She stood up to the room and expressed, “You’ve been trying to make me ugly all these years, and now you want me to show you my t***?”
How quickly they requested to sexualize or make a spectacle of someone they deemed a monster for so long.
The only form of femininity marketized, commodified, and found important was created for a straight male gaze.
Luna was mirroring the women wrestlers in the 1970s, looking through those magazines, wondering if she belonged while staring at women like Dave Moll’s Hester.
Other wrestlers, of course, spoke out in opposition to those who put them in these situations.
WWE superstar Alexa Bliss took to Twitter saying she had respect for the women who chose to be in bra and panties matches, and she is grateful she’ll never have to do them because of their sacrifice.
Gail Kim, former star of WWE and producer of Impact Wrestling, replied, stating, “Never looked at it that way. I just have to say out loud that this, along with some of the other gimmick matches similar in nature, were some of the most traumatic moments of my life that I have to live with feeling like I never had a choice.”
In a later interview about that time in her career, Kim was not remorseful but made clear that she does not feed back into the objectification.
Fans have brought her photos they took of her in bra and panties matches or something of the like, and she refused to autograph or give them any more than they had already taken.
A tweet from wrestler Kelly Klein echoed a similar sentiment, “I have so much respect and appreciation for women who were put in this position. Say ‘no’ (as is your right as an independent contractor), risk being labeled as difficult to work with. Do it, and you’re labeled ‘popcorn match,’ not real wrestlers.”
Women wrestlers still found a way, amidst extreme demeaning roles, to take an invisible opportunity and exhibit their athletic talent.
On an episode of Smackdown in 2003, Dawn Marie and Torrie Wilson showed their abilities at a high level.
The match started out with heat as Dawn Marie ran to meet Wilson on the runway, laying her out.
After chucking her inside, Dawn Marie served Torrie a wicked dropkick to the shoulder while in the background, Michael Cole and Taz discussed Girls Gone Wild and its creator Joe Francis.
Dawn soon ripped Torri’s shirt and immediately used it as an instrument to choke her. As fans taunt the Lawler special, “We want puppies!” Torrie gave Dawn Marie a piercing chop to the chest that immediately ceased the chanting.
WWE would continue to write bra and panties matches for their wrestlers until 2006.
Naturally, there were many highlights during that time, like Lita and Trish’s first match and, in 2000, moments with Jacqueline, Victoria, Ivory, and more.
Although there were interesting instances, overall, it did not seem that WWE was interested in appealing to fans outside their main demographic. Their content was not made for women, not the women who worked for them, and not the ones who watched at home.
It seems the content was designed to please strictly straight, cisgender, white men.
Author Grace Perry discusses a similar sentiment in her book, The 2000s Made Me Gay, questioning what it means to love something that does not “love [you] back.”
The wives dissect the idea from their perspectives as queer women and explain how it can hurt to be invested in something that is not intended for you, not made with you in mind.
Taking Back The Stereotype
Something time has gifted is that there now exists some opportunity to take back this stereotype.
In independent wrestling promotions worldwide, some produce bra and panties segments that are funny, silly, and entertaining matches. While wrestling’s storytelling will always reach into Greek tropes of hero and villainy, the tales take on a new life in this space.
When people are brought into the creative process who have different life experiences, the stories can become more fun. In other words, when the concept is extended to those performing it, the stories can be less exploitative, racist, painful, and misogynistic. Which, incidentally, makes it much better.
For example, when WWE wrestler and valet Scarlett Bordeaux was released (since been re-signed), she tweeted, “Time to fulfill my wrestling dream of having a hardcore bra and panties match.”
In part, this sentiment is what reclamation could look like, those who want to do it, do it.
It is simple. Nothing is held over; nothing is made unstable.
Bordeaux, since that tweet, participated in a bra and panties match with male wrestler Eddy Only.
An intergender bra and panties match can so perfectly show off the genuine humor that can unfold from a story inside the squared circle. Sometimes it is slapstick or shocking, but above all else, it is a spectacle.
The most colorful, dangerous spectacle of all is the circus, modern wrestling’s birthplace, where its archetypal stories of a hero’s journey can be translated into good vs. evil and desire vs. disgust.
As Mildred Burke said before, “these desires [are] to be vented,” and it doesn’t seem like the desires change too drastically.
Mildred wouldn’t have been surprised by what was to come; she actually participated in what was deemed the “First Women’s Mud Wrestling Bout” in 1938.
The writers in the 1990s still carried the same beliefs as those who were creating characters for women in wrestling in the 1930s and ’40s. They never grew to appreciate how women wrestlers continuously evolved and kept the writers’ room looking the same as it had.
Those in power followed in the footsteps of bosses before them and valued women’s attractiveness and sex appeal over any talent.
Greater, they left any marginalized person who graced their ring to have characters created without the person in mind.
Time tends to be cyclical, seeing itself recur but surprised by its own reflection anyway. When one can reclaim the desire and sculpt it into something for themselves, they become a ringmaster in their own carnival.
But being a ringmaster isn’t mandatory; reforming it doesn’t change the experiences of those who lived it. Sometimes listening to people tell their stories in their own words holds power, and valuing them honors them.
Listen to author Alexa Pruett dive further into the history of Bra and Panties matches on her podcast, "That Wrestling Wench":
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- Mildred Burke: How She Blazed Trails for Women in Wrestling
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