"Does your bra feel tight?
"Does your bra ride up?
"Do your bra straps slip?
"Do your straps leave ridges?
"Do your cups look smooth?"
So goes the catechism in Dillard's intimate-apparel department. Betina Bradshaw knows it by heart. Bradshaw wears what looks like a white lab coat with "Certified Fitter" embroidered above the pocket. She's a veteran of a three-month training course for expert fitters at Dillard's, where she has worked for almost two years. Now, Bradshaw says, fitters are trained for six months, but she is so gracious, friendly and informative that she instills confidence that you doubt could be enhanced by three more months of training. "You have to know a lot about these bras," she asserts.
Most women are wearing the wrong size bra, which is probably why most women hate their bras. What's the first article of clothing a woman peels off once she's home and out of the public sphere? Her bra. And she usually does this while making sounds akin to those of a convicted sinner being released from a day in the pillory. Bras grab, pinch, pull, restrain, constrict, poke, prod. It's no wonder that bras -- or, rather, the elimination of bras -- became a symbol of women's liberation in the '70s.
But bras came back, with a vengeance, in the Reagan era, with Madonna donning hers as an item of outerwear and a symbol of power. Victoria's Secret gained in popularity as aggressive sexual posturing went right along with the winning of the Cold War, yet in so doing women didn't gain in comfort. Even the least discerning eye can tell you, looking at those naughty little catalogues, that those models are stuffed into bras many sizes too small. Va-va-va-voom on the page, yes, but at the end of day in real life, ouch.
None other than Oprah has spoken out on this topic. The women's authority on literature, finance, diet, fitness and self-esteem has estimated that as many as 70 percent of American women are wearing the wrong size of bra. Oprah has given her considerable endorsement leverage to the Wacoal brand, which has benefited from her name much more than Beloved or Jonathan Franzen ever did.
We set out to find a bra that fits. On colleagues' recommendations and with two willing volunteers, we visit two stores: Dillard's in the Galleria and Margaret's in Clayton. The volunteers have been selected because they represent both ends of the size spectrum, A-D, and they are willing because we have offered to buy them new bras -- ones that fit.
As the volunteers -- let's call them "Ethel" and "Lucy" -- shop around Dillard's, Bradshaw talks bras from the Dillard's perspective. A certified fitter goes through "15 test fittings" before she gets to wear the lab coat, and after that she receives regular reviews from the store's "fit coordinator." Bradshaw's certificate of training, with her photo, is framed in the entry to the fitting rooms.
A Dillard's fitter learns a special etiquette with customers. "A lot of times, you don't want to look directly at her," says Bradshaw, "because a lot of women are shy about their bodies, especially that part of their body. You might look at the customer in the mirror but not directly at her. The goal is to make her feel as comfortable as possible."
Language is important. Despite the famed ad campaign of the 1970s and '80s in which Jane Russell sold Playtex bras for "us full-figured girls," at Dillard's, says Bradshaw, "You don't say 'full-figured,' because it sounds like you're talking about her whole body." Say "full-figured" and you're liable to hear "Do you think I'm fat?"
Another word you don't say at Dillard's is "nipples." "You refer to nipples as 'buttons,'" Bradshaw says, and apparently you do it with a straight face, as she does.
Dillard's carries Wacoal, and Bradshaw calls it "the best bra with the best support." She takes the BodySuede design off a hanger and shows the "padded straps, padded underwire -- a lot of women say the underwire of their bras are uncomfortable," but not Wacoal's.
Weight, rather than volume, has a lot to do with determining bra size, says Bradshaw. A breast weighing 1 or 2 pounds fits into an A or B cup. A D-cup breast weighs 5 to 7 pounds, a DD 9 to 10 pounds. This adds greater credence to Dolly Parton's ad-lib after she fell out of her dress one year during the Country Music Association Awards: "That's what you get for trying to stuff 50 pounds of mud in a 5-pound bag."
There's no scale in the fitting room, however. A fitter relies on her tape measure and eye and the customer's response. Ethel tries on one bra. "This is extremely uncomfortable, but, woo-hoo!, it makes me look like I have cleavage!"
Bras that scrunch or press or flatten, be it to create décolletage or to add support for athletics, "do not provide breast separation," says Bradshaw. "The breast tissue is pressed together, and once you take it off, it's not pretty." The effect is something Bradshaw calls "the uniboob."
Years of wearing bras that don't provide the proper support, or wearing no bra at all, brings on the dreaded "Cooper's droop," a sagging of the Cooper's ligaments that support the breasts. Ethel's eyes widen when she hears this. "I've seen that bra a million times," Bradshaw informs Ethel of the Victoria's Secret she has worn this night. "It offers no support." Properly chastised, Ethel chooses a Natori from the handfuls of bras Bradshaw brings her from the sale floor. It's a pretty metallic blue, and, thanks to Bradshaw's skills, Ethel goes up a notch to a 34B.
The next night we visit Margaret's, on Maryland Avenue in downtown Clayton, with Lucy. Christy Adams, in an unclinical green blazer and black skirt, greets us. "Margaret was my grandmother," she says. Margaret's was opened in 1953. "Ellen, my mother, has worked here since the late '60s. Grandmother taught her, and Mother taught me." Being the third generation of lingerie retailers, Adams admits, she's never had much of a chance to rebel against the brassiere. However, she confesses that in her more youthful days, in the '70s, "I was wearing camisoles and slips on the outside long before Madonna."
Adams shows some skepticism about the 70 percent-wrong-size figure. "I think that probably comes from the intimate-apparel industry," she says, but she agrees that most women are wearing the wrong size bra: "A lot of women really don't know their sizes.
"Most women really need a bra. They're not doing themselves any favors without one. If you have the right fitting bra, you won't even feel it." Adams says a woman should get fitted once a year, because, as Oprah surely knows, the body changes.
She and Lucy enter the fitting room. Adams takes two measurements -- one around the rib cage, one over the bust -- and concludes that Lucy has a band size of 38. Lucy came in wearing a 36D. "I just learned I bought all the wrong bras," she says. "Where were you when I was 13?"
Cup size is more difficult to determine. For one thing, breasts, like feet, are not perfectly symmetrical. "Everybody has a fuller side," says Adams. "Sometimes it's more pronounced." Adams brings back a handful of bras. "If the cup's wrinkling, it's not fitting right at all," she notes. "Ideally a bra should lie back flat against you." Underwires should not ride too far back or too high, Adams says, and the fabric between the cups, which too often rides up, should be flat against the body.
Adams scoffs at Dillard's rules for language. "Full-figured" slips out of her mouth several times. "I hardly even see why you'd need to say 'nipples,'" she remarks. "If a customer says, 'I don't want to show through,' we get the drift."
After trying on at least 15 bras, Lucy returns to a BodySuede Wacoal, 36C, that she had tried on earlier. "Oh, it is comfortable," she sighs.
It may not be the X-Bra, which we saw at Dillard's -- "your secret weapon" -- with a string to magically change the bust size, or a cleavage-scruncher like you'd find at Victoria's Secret, but it fits, supports. Cooper's droop's averted.