A bra advertisement from 1951.
The selection of bras is vast, but the quality isn’t. Rhinestones and leopard print? Sure. But an affordable bra made of nice materials that provides adequate support and doesn’t look like it belongs in a convent? Those are tough to come by.
I wondered: If bras are so unevolved in 2012, had they actually devolved since women began wearing them in the 1920s? Might they have been better back in the day?
There was only one, not terribly convenient way to find out: Try on old bras. And some new ones too, for the sake of comparison.
What I’m working with here — a relatively narrow back and ribcage but relatively large breasts — isn’t the worst card to have been dealt, but it makes finding (and, well, wearing) a good bra of the utmost importance. Should you require support of this type, you’re often left with beige, boring options, or something tacky and uncomfortable.
(That’s the great paradox of bras: the women who don’t need them are the ones who get to wear the best ones – the pretty, tastefully bejeweled options, should you so choose).
The Jean-Paul Gaultier for La Perla advertisement and inset, the bra I tried on.
The Old Bras
My experiment began at Ilissa’s Vintage Lingerie, a teensy shop in tucked in the back of a sprawling antiques bazaar in Manhattan. The shop, which specializes in lingerie from the 1920s to 1950s and is owned by Illisa Goldman, boasts an impressive collection of undies, nighties, corsets and yes, bras. Most of their business comes from renting out their merchandise to period piece films and shows (when Harvey Fierstein cross-dressed for his role in “Hairspray” on Broadway, Goldman supplied the bras).
When I arrived, Goldman was finishing selling many thousands of dollars worth of nighties to a vintage store owner in town from Paris; French designer Isabel Marant recently bought a whole crop of vintage leather jackets from her. And Marant isn’t the only designer to take cues from Goldman’s goods. Goldman told me that she had recently sold one of the bra styles I tried on, a pink silk number with a unique curve at the bottom, to a favorite customer: Jean-Paul Gaultier. She quickly pulled out a catalog and flipped to an advertisement for Gaultier’s line for luxury lingerie brand La Perla.
There it was: almost exactly the same bra design, with frilly lace on top, turned into a nightgown.
“Honey, nothing is original,” Goldman assured me.
Meanwhile, the bras, hundreds of them, all unworn, were packed in tightly along the back wall. Goldman began pulling them out by the dozen. She grabbed sizes like “34B” – laughable to me, considering the bras I own all bear multiple D’s on their labels. But sizes since the 40s and 50s had changed dramatically, she assured.
From the minute I unsnapped – or really, unbuttoned – the first silk bra, the difference in quality and workmanship was immediately noticeable. The closures weren’t pieces of metal that might snag. Instead, they were beautiful, smooth buttons. They felt graceful, almost. The other details followed suit: the quality sewing convinced you that the thing wouldn’t fall apart at the seams, and the smooth texture of the fabrics felt like high thread count linens, not like ’80s workout gear. The high quality was so evident that I asked if the bra, from the 1950s, had been handmade. It had not.
In some cases, that delicate design meant an unsupportive, floppy fit. The bras were attractive, artful even, but among the many I tried, the pointy cups and silky fabrics did little to support. One looked like Lady Gaga’s take on a tight black corset. Instead of having delicately rounded cups, the tops of the cups pointed up in a triangle shape. It looked pretty fabulous, but it was also like wearing a stunning piece of incredibly heavy, bulky piece of jewelry – great for a photo shoot, but less great for an entire day.
Though none of the old bras fit like a glove, they did have a feature that seems to have been phased out by the bra Gods that be (and much to my dismay): an extended bottom. Rather than just ending at the underwire, decades-old bras extended down as an almost half-corset, covering the rib cage. Sure, it sucks you in a bit, but not uncomfortably so, and also manages to offer much more support. I do wonder why no one’s thought to bring that back. I’d love to have one of those, but at around $400 a pop, they wouldn’t be making a trip to my closet anytime some soon.
The New, Mass Market Bras
With no glamorous bras added to my drawer, I ventured back into the modern world.
So start off, let’s address that beacon of mass market lingerie in America: Victoria’s Secret. In a pinch, I’ve bought a bra or two there. There was the time I was invited the day of to be someone’s date to a formal event and realized I needed a black strapless bra and Vicky’s was the only place near my office — I looked almost fine in my dress but I felt like I hold to hold my chest up all night. I never wore the bra again. All in all: I’ve found the quality to be subpar, and what’s worse – the sizes tend to be limited. (Side note: they do have an okay bathing suit collection for the larger chested among us.)
When I looked into trying the “season’s hottest new bras” for “larger-breasted” women from other brands, I was presented with some of the following options from Frederick’s of Hollywood: the Smooth Sensation, the Va Va Voom and the Hollywood Corset Full Figure Bra. They alternately made me feel like a Kardashian and a call-girl. Has any woman ever felt sexier or any man turned on by a rhinestone on a bra? And let’s not even get started on the tie-up corset-like feature. The material on the various bras felt stretchy and slouchy, like one of those icky old one-piece Speedo bathing suits that’s been washed one too many times. And, somewhat puzzlingly, they all came with built-in, but fortunately removable, pads. Because double D’s aren’t big enough?
But, as much as I’ll rail on the less-than-desirable materials and the unnecessary glitz, I’ll say this: I was supported. This was also the case with a bra intended for the “full-busted” among us from Elle Macpherson, a line that Goldman scoffed at as “awful” while I was in her shop. Did the fabric cause my side to chafe the first time I wore it? Sure did. But it held me up, and looked damn good under my sweater.
A Chantelle bra.
The New, Pricey Boutique Bras
I should note I’ve had some varying degrees of success with European brands like Fantasie and Chantelle, which manage to get closer to the sweet spot of support, comfort, and feeling nice-ness. And they also make less-regular but much appreciated sizes like 30DDD. But, as with other nice things, they’re both scarce and expensive, frequently running around $80 for a simple, everyday bra. Few stores I’ve been to carry more than a few of each size at a time, and good luck finding any colors aside from tan or black. As for the internet, my experience in online bra shopping has almost always ended in the disappointing realization that I’ll be running to the post office to return everything I’ve bought, so proceed at your own peril.
At the conclusion of my experiment, I’m sitting here still with my collection of both bejeweled brassieres and comfortable but matronly nude-colored ones. I do wish I could find something better, but I’m not ready to start building a time machine to go back to the lingerie of the 1950s either.
What I’m going to say will be an earth-shattering revelation for precisely no one: one size does not fit all. Actually, 10 or 15 sizes don’t fit all. At the end of the day, solve yourself the hassle and distress of trying on every bra known to man. If your proportions don’t fall squarely into the lowest common denominator of 32D or 36C or what have you, take matters into your own hands. Find a nice lingerie store staffed by old ladies who’ve seen it all and who will gladly stick their hands all over you. Ask them what brands might work. Have them call in some special orders or have them let you know when some stuff that might fits you is in stock. Custom-made bras are a great, but not cheap option. If you need a bigger cup but don’t have such a large back, try getting the bra altered. Get creative! Because the mass market retailers won’t.