I Bought a Bra

lingerie-2
Photo by Katherine Eshel.

Somehow I had managed to live approximately nine years with breasts before the day Jeniene Ferguson ushered me into one of the bright white fitting rooms at Lady Olga’s Lingerie and sold me my first well-fitting bra.

Jeniene is a professional bra fitter and the owner of Lady Olga’s. Nestled at the base of Sleeping Giant ridge in Hamden, Connecticut and tucked in between a People’s United Bank and a Talbots, Lady Olga’s carries more than four hundred bras. They range in size from 32AA to 52J. I couldn’t see any of these bras when I walked through the front door — a privacy wall shielded them from my gaze. But I could faintly detect their scent — synthetic textile, metal clasps, and fabric-freshening pine. Walking past the wall, I was assaulted with pink on white — white linoleum floor, white fluorescent lighting, and white walls ornamented with pink tulle curtains, pink tissue paper, and a pink trash bag in a trash can painted with pink roses.

That day, Jeniene greeted me with a broad and easy smile. Her 36B bra was ensconced underneath a grey turtleneck, which in turn peeked out from under her long, fiery auburn hair. Jeniene’s energy never faltered, and she kept up an animated patter of conversation, which served to relieve any potentially awkward silences. While she led me to the back fitting room, she peppered our conversation with facts, anecdotes and tips about bras. Jeniene’s recommended bra washing technique: mix a little soap and water in a basin, swish, and hang. Never use a machine. She once caught her daughter drying two bras in the dryer. “With the towels!” she exclaimed and then added with little irony, “I thought I would kill her.” Jeniene has been fitting bras for so long that she can tell a woman’s bra size as soon as she lifts up her shirt (although she always measures to confirm.) She has seen enough 40Fs try to squeeze themselves into 34DDs that she won’t let any customer assume she has the right bra size. She understands that some women may have a psychological attachment to a certain size, and she recommends that those women cut the tag off in order to forget the number and focus on how the bra feels.

Bra fitters were once ubiquitous in America. In the 1930s, every major department store employed fitters who, because they were able to suggest bras that flattered the particular shape of each woman’s breasts, reduced the number of returns and also increased repeat sales. Later, because of rations on supplies during World War II, bra fitters were essential to reducing waste. A woman who wore a bra too large for her or bought a bra she didn’t need because the ones she had at home didn’t fit her was wasting nylon that could have gone to making parachutes for the boys at Iwo Jima. The bra fitters not only suggested particular bras but also worked with seamstresses to alter the bras to achieve a perfect fit. Jeniene’s mother, the Olga of Lady Olga’s, was one of these fitters. One of her first jobs while still in high school was in the lingerie department of a department store and, after a foray into the outerwear department, she returned to become a bra fitter. She had a knack for tracking down just the right bra and just the right seamstress. Fitters like her began to disappear in the 70s as department stores, looking to cut costs, convinced themselves that liberated feminists could help themselves off the rack and didn’t need fitters. Jeniene and Olga thought differently and together, they opened Lady Olga’s in 1984. Jeniene learned on the job from Olga and grew to love the intimate person-to-person contact of selling lingerie. After all, she says, “I can’t fit you with a bra over the phone.”

After Olga passed away a few years ago, Jeniene continued to manage Lady Olga’s. She knows the nuances of the styles and sizes of all the brands she carries — Le Mystère, Wacoal, Selena, Anita, Olga, Goddess, Elomi, Fantasy, Elila, Jezebel, and Va Bien. Jeniene doesn’t alter bras anymore because the variety of bra sizes from each company and the quality of construction is such that she can find a bra in her store that fits any customer’s specific breast shape. She employs three other expert fitters, Carmella, Rose, and Nancy. The four of them combined have over 100 years of bra fitting experience. Jeniene wants every woman who walks out of her store to be comfortable, to have found a good fit, and to feel that their clothes look good.

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Some of Lady Olga’s customers are brides. They need long-line bras, which extend down to the navel, to smooth out their stomachs underneath their wedding dresses. Nancy said brides are the least fussy customers. “They are usually in seventh heaven anyway.” Others are expectant mothers, like the woman who walked in flustered and uncomfortable because her breasts had swelled so dramatically that her bras no longer fit her and couldn’t support her breasts. She was wearing a slouchy white sweater and New Balance running shoes — she had a little boy at home to chase around and was expecting a girl. Carmella calmly led her to the fitting room. Once she tried on the bra Carmella suggested, she chose not to take it off, and decided she would much rather wear it home. “I feel like I can move again,” she sighed appreciatively.

“Don’t forget to come back when you need a nursing bra,” Carmella reminded her.

Nancy, Carmella, Rose and Jeniene all agreed that their most memorable and rewarding customers are the breast cancer survivors. They come into be fitted for prosthesis bras after mastectomies, which remove part or all of the breast. Prostheses don’t merely perform a cosmetic function. Having only one breast, and therefore uneven weight on the two sides of her body, throws a woman off balance. The prosthesis helps because it not only looks like a real breast and feels like a breast, but also weighs as much as a breast.

Breast cancer survivors are also the most timid customers. Jeniene said they often enter the store wearing thick turtlenecks and scarves to mask their missing breasts. Nancy said they often can’t stand looking in the mirror and turn to look at the fitter instead.

Jeniene’s neighbor came with her husband to be fitted for prosthesis after her mastectomy. “I am ready to get my life back,” she said. Previously, Jeniene’s neighbor hadn’t known Jeniene owned a bra store or that she did mastectomy fittings. Lady Olga’s was recommended by her doctor, as it is recommended by many doctors in the area. Some hospitals nearby also offer mastectomy fittings but Jeniene thinks many women feel more comfortable in Lady Olga’s than in a hospital. “You get the bad news at the hospital and the operation at the hospital and the chemo at the hospital,” Jeniene explained. Women come to Lady Olga’s to escape from the hospital.

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The earliest bras appeared around 500 B.C. in Greece. They were no more than a wide band of cloth wrapped around the breasts to offer lift and support. The Romans distinguished themselves from barbarians by the petite, civilized, and contained breasts of their women. Bras as a means of altering the appearance of breasts first originated in order to aid Roman women whose breasts were larger than the petite ideal. The soft leather mamillare squashed the breasts into their chests, and the facia, a set of bandages worn around the breasts, was intended to slow their growth. Based on the depictions of paintings from the brothels of Pompei, Roman women considered their breasts so private that even prostitutes didn’t remove their bras during sex. With the fall of the Roman Empire, bras disappeared and women let their breasts hang freely underneath their clothes. When a desire to shape the breasts reappeared in the fifteenth century, the preferred instrument shifted to the corset, which could mold the breasts into far more unnatural positions than the bra. Under the reign of Henri II in the mid-sixteenth century, women wore a corset supported by a busk — a long spike made of boxwood, ivory, or silver — which was inserted into a front panel to force breasts into a flat, vertical position. In the eighteenth century, busks were replaced with whalebone, which compressed the breasts from below in order to force them upwards and outwards. Then in the early 19th century, wide-set breasts suddenly came into fashion so that the corset began to not only compress and elevate, but also to separate.

The first women to bring back the bra were undoubtedly the 1920s flappers. Seeking a straight, flat look antithetical to the curves created by a traditional corset, flappers began wearing tight bandeaus resembling the Roman facia. Then in the 1930s, large breasts came back in style and with them came the padded cup, invented in 1935. In the late 30s, the sharp pointed nipple, with breasts jutting out at an exact right angle from the body, came into vogue. By the 1960s, bras were worn so universally that a group of feminist protesters outside the 1968 Miss American Pageant labeled them “instruments of female torture” and symbolically threw them into a trash can, along with girdles, pots, pans, and Playboy magazines. This action earned them the misnomer of “bra burners” in a New York Post article attempting to compare the discarding of bras with the burning of draft cards, though no bras were actually burned. Since then increased bra comfort brought on by improvements in technology and increased average breast size correlating with the widespread use of birth control (which tends to enlarge the breasts as a side effect) have arguably changed the bra from an instrument of torture to a necessity and even a source of pleasure for women.

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The average American woman owns six bras. One of those bras is a strapless bra. Her bra size is 36D, but it will change six times during the course of her life because of pregnancy, aging, surgery and birth control. It is highly likely that she wears the wrong bra, overestimating her band size and underestimating her cup size.

Before I met Jeniene, I owned seven bras. One was a strapless. Three were white, two were nude, one was black, and one was pink. Four were in 34C, two in 36C, and one in 34D. My white H&M 34C and my nude Victoria’s Secret 36C were both padded enough to stop bullets. Both were rarely worn because, in the midst of animated conversation, the white H&M had been known to slide down far enough to reveal a nipple, and because when I lifted my arms up, the band of the nude Victoria’s Secret had been known to rise up onto my breasts and remain there once the arms were returned to a lowered position, leaving significant portions of breast dangling unsupported below. I purchased the white strapless Maidenform 34C during the period when I wore only strapless bras all day, everyday, to avoid the problem of falling straps, a problem I have been having since elementary school. Once upon a time, I experimented with different sizes, thinking that if I hedged my bets I would wear a properly fitting bra at least one-seventh of the time. Somewhere along the line, I gave up and for years I did not purchase a new bra. Apathetic, confused, and resigned to failure in the bra department, I had no idea of the undiscovered potential in my breasts.

The first time Jeniene fit me for a bra, she corralled me into the fitting room, pulled the curtain across behind her and gave me my marching orders. Go in there. Alright, now turn around, face me, lift up your shirt. Keep your bra on. She wrapped a tape measure around my chest and measured the band right above my breasts: thirty-five inches. She then wiggled the tape measure down to the peak of my breasts: thirty-eight inches. In an ideal world, my cup size would be 35C, but in reality, bra bands are sold only in even numbers. Jeniene flipped the tape measure back over her neck, wearing it like a doctor’s stethoscope. She strode out of the room and came back with three bras slung over her arm. All were black Le Mystere “Tisha” molded bras. She had noticed that I was wearing a molded bra when she measured me, and she usually fits customers with the type of bras with which they are already familiar.

These bras looked both sturdy and feminine. The straps were thicker and wider than those of most bras, but they also thinned out near the cups in a graceful arch. The firm contoured cups of the bra — the hallmark of a molded bra — were as flexible and responsive as a Tempur-pedic mattress.

The back of the strap consisted of a strong ribbon of satiny elastic, stitched together in broad overlapping V’s. All the corners and sides of the bra were reinforced with additional fabric. The main piece of the back band consisted of fabric as airy and soft as cotton candy. 92 percent nylon and eight percent Lycra, this bra could not have been created without these two miracle fabrics. Incredibly strong, nylon enables a bra to support the breasts horizontally around the band rather than vertically from the shoulders, redistributing the weight of the breasts (three pounds, on average), evenly spreading the pressure across a woman’s upper torso. First invented in October 1938 by Du Pont Company, nylon was developed during World War II for parachutes and flak jackets. In other words, the Le Mystère bra is made of the same material that protected the troops on D-Day from artillery shells. Besides its strength, nylon is also incredibly light, so a woman wearing it feels almost no additional weight. Nylon also resists wear, dries quickly, doesn’t wrinkle and can be mass-produced cheaply. What this means for the average American woman is that her bra can be pretty and cheap, last for a number of years, wash easily and stay flat against her clothes. Nylon can also be set at very high temperatures, a quality that the bra industry utilizes today; this means that the seamless molded cups found on the Le Mystère bra that Jeniene held out were created through a process similar to the way hand-blown glass is heated, shaped and then cooled.

In the 1980s, the Du Pont Company released yet another fabric that would revolutionize bras: Lycra. Also known as spandex or elastane, Lycra can stretch to four or five times its length and then, upon release, instantly return to its original shape. A bra made of fabric blended with as little as two percent Lycra will cling to every curve of a woman’s body. With the combination of Lycra and nylon, it is possible to create a bra that moves with a woman’s every motion. A bra that supports without compressing. A bra that maintains a woman’s natural shape, enhances her beauty and is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

Jeniene held the first bra out for me, a 36C. Jeniene doesn’t always expect women to take their bras off in front of her. She is perfectly happy to wait outside for a woman to change. The only important thing is that she be let back into the fitting room to take a look at a bra after a woman has put it on. After all, she says, “I can’t fit you through the curtain.”

Having made my way into the fitting room, I concluded that Jeniene was not about to giggle at my breasts, make fun of my small nipples, or gasp in shock at my nudity and so I was able to muster the courage to unhook my bra and change in front of her. Jeniene looked straight at my breasts without even a blush. I may as well have bared an arm or a leg.

Jeniene slid the first bra, a 36C, onto my shoulders. “Now bend over,” she instructed, “and shake yourself in.” This is the best way to put a bra on, ensuring that the breast will be properly placed within the cup, nipple secured in the center. Jeniene then snapped the clasps in place in the back, but she knew as soon as she did that the bra wasn’t right. The band rode up on my back, a clear sign that the band was too large.

I shook myself into the next bra, a 34C. This technique of putting on a bra was by far the most enjoyable method I had ever attempted. I felt like a chorus girl performing a shimmy. On this bra, the cups didn’t bulge and the band didn’t ride up. However, Jeniene instantly picked up on the line where my breasts protruded out of the bra, the indentation where the cup stuck into my breasts, and the wrinkles where my body strained against the band. She pulled out the 34D.

Familiar by now with the routine, I shimmied myself in and straightened out. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t stop looking. The bra fit every contour and every inch of my breast. It cradled my breast. It embraced my breast. Better yet, this bra wasn’t trying to do anything to my breasts. It wasn’t trying to make them bigger or smaller or perkier or higher. It was very simply holding them right where they were most comfortable.

Hellooo, breasts. I had never noticed their supple softness, their distinct fleshiness. Never had I noticed their simple seductive curve. I imagined my breasts emerging after a long bath, tinged with the sweet scent of jasmine. I felt the electric shiver of cold nakedness as I would run from that bath into my bed, and the tickle of my soft white cotton sheets against my bare nipples.

Somehow, this bra made my whole body look better — happy and energetic. Even my lumpy, somewhat droopy stomach seemed to be lifted. And though I knew that this feeling wouldn’t last — that no bra would write my papers for me, keep me from procrastinating and make it easier to find a job — I allowed myself, for a moment, to bask in the glow of optimism and euphoria exuded by my well-supported breasts. Sometimes, the foundation for confidence comes from within. Sometimes it comes from without.

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