A Good Bra is Hard to Find

Time for one thing is a regular section of Salon.

By Lori Leibovich

Published July 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

My grandmother Florence divided the world into two categories: things she was for and things she was against. Ready-made cake mixes? Against. Hair spray? For. Demi Moore naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair? Very, very against. Some of her most passionate opinions were reserved for how she thought a woman should or should not conduct herself. Leaving the house without lipstick, in her view, was the same as leaving the house buck naked. Dressing in black before age 20 was "morose." Going braless in public was out of the question. My grandmother insisted she was "modern" -- all for a woman showing her "shape," as she called it, as long as she didn't "spill." And spilling could be eliminated entirely, she reasoned, if only every woman -- no matter how big, small, pointy or round -- had the good sense to own a good bra.

What was a good bra? Florence taught me when I was 11. A good bra supports and flatters and looks smooth under clothes. The material allows the skin to breathe; the straps and/or the underwire should never pinch, pull or leave marks. And a bra, like a lover's touch, should feel delicious against the breast.

It was the summer before sixth grade when Florence and I set out to purchase my first bras. She notified the store beforehand of our mission. This bra shop sold bras exclusively. No panties, bathing suits, peignoirs or other "intimate apparel." Such frivolous diversions might distract customers from the serious task at hand: finding the right bra for every breast on Long Island.

My grandmother directed the sales team from her perch outside the dressing room. I would need one standard white bra, one beige bra to wear beneath white summer shirts, one navy blue bra for winter (black was too racy) and one pink bra -- "just because."

The women, all about my grandmother's age, fanned out among the racks hunting and picking among the stretchy, satiny contraptions. I stood in the dressing room wearing nothing but my shorts, arms folded across my chest.

The saleswomen surrounded me in the dressing room, leaving the door wide open while they tugged and futzed. I slipped in and out of about a dozen different styles and sizes. The saleswomen took many liberties, cupping their hands around my breasts, shoving them under my arms. One of them unfurled a tape measure and wrapped it directly beneath my bare breasts and around my back. It might have been my body, but it was their canvas.

I was educated that day: When you try on a bra, always bend at the waist and shake your breasts into the cup. If the material bunches or gapes, get rid of it. If you find a bra that fits well, get a few. "A well-fitting bra is a gift," one of the saleswomen told me, "and like lipsticks, bras can be discontinued." I left that day with four new bras that my grandmother said were perfect for my new, womanly shape.

Through the years, my grandmother and I talked bras over the phone and I would keep her up to date on my size and what styles I was wearing -- front closures as opposed to back, satin as opposed to cotton. She took notes and every year, she'd tuck a few bras (never black) in an envelope around birthday time. "Lori dear," she wrote, "there are so many styles these days! Love and Kisses, Grandma."

Grandma Florence died when I was in college and for a short while, without her guidance, my bra shopping got sloppy. I ordered lingerie from the Victoria's Secret catalog a couple of times and ended up with a drawer full of ill-fitting, lacy, Technicolor "intimates" that failed to provide me with the gravity-defying cleavage of any of the bodacious catalog models. While the Victoria's Secret bras were alluring -- transparent, wireless, demi-cup -- they did nothing for my Shape. I jiggled shamelessly. Florence would have called me a hussy, had she seen me on the quad.

Now I'm back on track. My new bra treasure, my Natori style #34362, is a bra that sadly wasn't invented until after Florence was gone. Had she seen it, had she seen the way it cradles me, holds me just right, I know she would worship it, glorify it, write odes to it, as I do.

I own two blacks, one beige and an ivory. At about $34 each, my four Natoris cost the same as my monthly grocery bill, a little less than a quarter of my rent and about the same as two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines to visit my best friend in Los Angeles. But I'm fine with that. The bra is simply elegant, highly functional and downright sexy. Underneath T-shirts, the true testing ground of any bra, it remains true to the contours of my body while providing good nipple coverage. The underwire is bendable, lifting the breast slightly without digging into the skin. The thin, smooth straps resemble a bathing suit top; the adjusters are discreet. The cup is nearly seamless; the center panel, shaped liked a trapezoid, lies flat between the breasts. And the material? God, the material! Eighty percent nylon, 20 percent spandex, the fabric shimmers and breathes. There is no spillage.

The other day, in a communal dressing room, a woman who identified herself as an artist told me my brassiere was "a work of art." By the time I left, two other women had scratched down the name and style number. My co-worker's cousin swears by her Natori. My sister-in-law-just bought her first two. I've started giving them as gifts.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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