That is the question that women no longer have to answer on their own. A tale of two bra fittings.
You never forget your first.
Mine was all innocence. White, with just a blush of pink, and purchased for 11-year-old me by my mother, in the Young Miss department at Macy’s. Which was just as quaint and goofily charming as it sounds. Macy’s was where we shopped for “good” clothes — white cotton gloves, straw hats for Easter, princess coats with velveteen collars for winter. And underwear. And socks. And what would be my first bra.
My first brassiere was a simple affair of white cotton and elastic — I don’t think spandex had been invented yet — with metal adjusters on the straps, a delicate pink bow where my cleavage would have been if I’d had one, and just a touch of exquisitely scratchy nylon lace edging on the (ha-ha) “cups.” As unnecessary as it might have been, that bra was my first, and I cherished it.
It came from a time and a place when department stores were retail palaces, staffed by ranks of tight-permed, red-lipped saleswomen, who fought each other off to serve you. Creepily glamorous women who tapped scarlet nails against their teeth as they considered whether they might have your size “in the back,” and whose necks were draped with tape measures, at whose bodices were pinned lace handkerchiefs, who exhaled the mystery odors of Violets lozenges or Sen-Sen gum, and whose presence was announced by clouds of White Shoulders, or L’aire du Temps. These were the scary, magnificent keepers of the secrets of feminine attire and allure. Life was different then. Very different.
My first bra fitting was carried out in 1964 by one of these girdled gorgons. (She herself had a bosom like a pair of antiaircraft guns.) That was the first, and sad to say, the last time I was fitted for a bra for 50 years. It was probably also the last time I had a bra that fit in 50 years. Like a reported 85 percent of American women, it seems I’ve been innocently bouncing along in the wrong-sized bra since the ’60s. But considering the changes roiling society since that first fitting, not to mention the changes roiling my figure, I really don’t think I’m to blame.
1967 was the Summer of Love, and by the time that fall rolled around, I and a million other hippie chicks had abandoned anything as bourgeois as a brassiere for two handkerchiefs and a piece of string. Then the ’70s saw the hippie chicks marrying or moving in with hippie chaps, and babies ensued. Our hippie desire to do things naturally meant that we’d be breastfeeding our babies, of course. Suddenly, a generation of free spirits found ourselves in dire need of “foundation garments,” with no idea what size we needed anymore. But the retail palaces of yore had turned into self-service big-box stores, which offered no help. The best we could do was phone for a grim volunteer from La Leche League, a terrifying cross between a prison matron and a field-hockey instructress, who gave us a lecture and handed us a gargantuan nursing bra, a device more than a garment, one seemingly designed by the Army Corps of Engineers. And even that only fit until the baby was weaned. Then once again we were left to slouch along, until the end of our childbearing years, in a seemingly endless cycle of boom and bust.
Marriage and motherhood made many more changes to our lives and our bodies. We got degrees, we got jobs, we got divorces, we got grandkids. Our average clothing size went from 8 to 14, which was evident even to ourselves; all we had to do was try on a pair of jeans and we knew. And the remedy was evident too — yoga pants, leggings, sweatpants, or mom jeans did the job from the waist down. But on top, most of us kept slumping around in the same old stretched-out 36B.
We thought it was just part of woman’s lot to have grooves in our shoulders, to have to lock ourselves in the breakroom at work to have a good scratch under the band. We could hardly wait to get home to tear off the too-tight and yet somehow unsupportive garment from hell. Our underwires stabbed us until we thought we were having heart attacks. We had Underboob. We had Quadroboob. In a bid for comfort, we went to the big-box store and bought ourselves a cupless wonder, an all-stretch bandeau, and then, we had the final indignity. Uniboob. What was a girl to do?
Until recently, not much.
But the professional bra-fitter, once eclipsed by the siren of self-service, has reemerged as a foundational element of the well-dressed woman’s style. And although bra manufacturers have publicized their fitting algorithms (“take your measurement around your chest, then the measurement of the fullest part of your bust, and if there’s less than five inches difference, you may be a 12-year-old boy…”), I have a confession. You might as well ask me: “If a train leaving Boston travels to Orlando at 70 mph, and a train leaving Orlando travels to Boston at 70 mph, will they meet before the conductor’s ice cream melts?”
Today, women no longer have to struggle, however endowed they are with math aptitude. Professional bra fittings can be obtained at lingerie boutiques and retailers that specialize in post-mastectomy wear. Who knows women’s needs for sensitive and accurate bra-fitting better? At 4 Real Lingerie on Durango Road, a mother-daughter-in-law team educates and entertains customers with humor as well as professionalism. Who wouldn’t crack a smile when being instructed on the “scoop and swoop” maneuver after a lifetime of “trap it and snap it”?
Their streetfront signage is not subtle: “BRAS — Up to a K Cup!” Wow. Even if I hadn’t been in the market for new underwear, this, I thought, I’ve got to see.
Now, I come from a family filled with bosomy women, so I’ve seen (and worn) my share of large lingerie, although I now know that most of it was the wrong size. But the women of 4 Real Lingerie were ready to remedy that.
A quick lunge around my thorax with a tape measure and the saleslady-owner determined my band size. Let’s just say it doesn’t quite match my age, but if I don’t lay off the caramel macchiatos, it soon could. The cup size was also a surprise. The sign didn’t lie.
But it was actually the way the entire bra was constructed that was the biggest eye-opener, so to speak. The elastic is far less forgiving than that of most brassieres, but here’s the thing: When a bra is the right size, the elastic is not doing the heavy lifting, so to speak. It’s just there to make the wearer a little more comfortable and the bra itself a little easier to get into.
The best part of the experience was learning that what I’d always thought was underarm fat adjacent to my “batwings” was actually breast tissue that had somehow migrated to my armpit. (Well, that’s what the saleswomen said.) Kind of like an empty-nester moving from Brooklyn to Boca. No longer do I have to feel apologetic about my “chicken cutlets.” Now I can bend over, swoop down and scoop them into their rightful place inside my 42-G, properly fitting, $50 bra, and walk out into the world, striding forth with my head and my chest held high!
So here’s to well-fitting bras, the women who wear them, and the professionals who fit them; long may they help women of all sizes and shapes stand tall, shoulders back, chests bursting with pride.