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One woman’s search for a perfect bra

The human breast moves in complex ways, a fleshy oscillation. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Australian researchers, in which large-busted women ran on a treadmill while wearing infrared-emitting diodes on their chests. I wince at the thought of it. Breasts have no muscle; they are collections of glandular and fibrous connective tissues and fat, supported in part by the skin. The average weight of a woman’s breast is around a pound, but breast weights of ten pounds and above are possible; breasts range from soft lemons to flopping eggplants, and they swing, brother: a demonstration of Newton’s second law with every step.

Unlike other mammals, humans have breasts that remain mature outside lactation. We are born with mammary glands spread within the chest wall, stretching from the armpit down toward the groin, but not with breasts. They are the only organs to develop after birth — usually a single pair, though extra breasts do occur, in both men and women. Unmistakable, yet greatly varied, the visible breast can be shaped like a pear, melon, apricot, or orange — for some reason, produce is a common metaphor — but also like a cone, sausage, softball, plate, ham, or loaf of bread. The fibrous tissue of the breast is a kind of suspensory structure called Cooper’s ligaments that allows the breasts to move freely but gives little support. Breasts may lie near each other or be widely spaced; they may grow high on the chest or low. The nipples can point toward each other, away from each other, up, down, or straight ahead.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Breasts can change dramatically, sometimes gaining and losing more than 10 percent of their weight during a single menstrual cycle. Size is largely a matter of fat deposition and seems to be genetically determined. Fat women can have small breasts and slim women can have medium breasts, but the idealized figure with large breasts on a thin body is rare — at least rare in nature. Not uncommonly, a woman’s breasts are different sizes. Breasts of the same shape and size may have different mass; breasts of different shapes may have the same mass but different degrees of flaccidity. For women, the peak of breast development is around the age of twenty, and atrophy begins by forty. Breasts come and breasts go, and when gone, they are often acutely missed.

No one can explain why women have continually swollen breasts; the evolutionary function of such a unique body part is hard to fathom. Many have theorized that the loss of strong pheromonal attractants in humans required a compensatory mechanism — because otherwise how would a man know a woman? Such theories fail to explain a great deal about human sexual desire and even less about the life of the breasted. We simply have them, almost all our lives.

The bra is not a new idea. Aphrodite wore a kestos, a strapless band or girdle that wrapped around the breasts and fastened in front; she claimed it contained all her charms. Egyptians wore a long sheath that stopped just below the breasts, which were somewhat hidden by its wide straps. (According to lore, the breasts were sometimes painted, blue ink tracing the veins, gold covering the nipples.) The ancient Romans wore a breast band called a mamillare. The Cretans wore a short jacket, open in the front; later they wore a kind of extreme push-up bodice that bared the nipples proudly.

By the Renaissance, sophisticated European women were wearing corsets made from linen stiffened with paste on a skeleton of metal, wood, or whalebone. They were a marker of wealth and leisure, impractical to the point of the ridiculous — and a kind of torture. In the thirteenth-century Caucasus, girls wore, even while asleep, elaborate corsets made of leather straps meant to keep the breasts from growing. Early corsets were designed to compress the breasts, but their length and shape changed with the demands of fashion; by the 1600s, the goal was to accentuate the breasts. Europeans briefly abandoned the corset during the Romantic era in order to wear imitations of Grecian gowns. But it returned with a vengeance, becoming so severe by the end of the nineteenth century that a woman’s posture was forced into an unbalanced S shape, with the hips jutting backward and the chest tilting forward. In 1897, Sears was marketing corsets for girls as young as eight.

The shortened garment first known as a bust- or breast-supporter and then as a brassiere was the product of several forces. The Industrial Revolution demanded women with stamina; the brassiere made it easier for women to breathe, and thus to work. Women of leisure preferred it for the new sports of bicycling and tennis. But most of all, fashion commanded and fashion was obeyed. The trim “princess” dress of the turn of the century didn’t fit over a straight-front corset. Empire dresses needed bustlines, not waspish waists. Fashion sometimes required lush décolletage and sometimes boyish flatness, but never again were women forced into the shape of an S. By the early 1900s, bras were being sold in department stores, and women left their corsets on the closet floor with what I imagine as a loud and collective thud.

The bra has been stretched and molded and cut up and put back together in countless ways for more than a hundred years. Fragile silk and chiffon gave way to rayon, which gave way to nylon and Lycra and Jayne Mansfield. Soft elastic was added, and then countered with rigid underwire. Postwar breasts turned into torpedoes pointing at the shiny future. Bras softened, briefly threatened to disappear, then came back again — pushing up and out, promising miracles and wonders — and several thousand years of female annoyance culminated in the first bra ever seen in the fourth grade at Jackson Street Elementary School.

I grew big breasts at an early age without any wish to do so, and over the decades they have swelled and shrunk and swelled again — from menses and pregnancy and nursing; from weight gained and weight lost; from menopause; from surgery, time, and gravity. I have a photograph of myself at the age of about eleven. I am at Girl Scout summer camp, leaning on my friend Charlie, our arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, grinning. My breasts are visible, small shadows on my white shirt, but I am still free of them. I am at this point too young to know what large breasts mean — to men, to athletic coaches, to friends, to my daily routine. I love track and gymnastics, climbing trees, swimming, and hiking, and my breasts are not yet in the way of anything.

I have friends who never wear bras; their breasts are little apricot mounds, soft, barely there. For the most part, I envy those friends. Perhaps they envy me. My breasts are a little above average for American women, large enough that they cannot be forgotten for long. I’ve heard men say that wearing a bra is like wearing a necktie, but it’s a lousy comparison. A bra is more like a tight jockstrap that you are obligated to wear all day, every day, wherever you are, because your testicles are so large that your pants don’t fit otherwise, so large that they flap painfully against your thighs, chafing each other and jiggling conspicuously with every step. Envy that.

One of my friends buys bras only when they’re on sale, because, she says, they never seem to fit anyway. One woman swears by Genie; another wears only Maidenform. Many women simply buy the same size and often the same style of bra they’ve worn since high school. The general sense of resignation that many women feel about bras is often attributed to the belief that most of us — eight out of ten is a commonly cited number — are wearing the wrong size. Fitting consultants for Wacoal compared the size of bra their customers were wearing with the size the fitters thought they should wear. The company confirmed that only 20 percent of customers were about right.

“The intimate-apparel department is massive,” an executive at Wacoal told me. She’s not kidding. There are demi-cup bras and full-coverage bras, racerbacks and gatebacks and U-backs, front closures and back closures, convertible bras and bandinis and halter necks. There are bras with seamless cups, which don’t fit the same way as bras with diagonally seamed cups, which don’t fit the same way as vertically seamed cups. Cups can be soft or molded, underwired or wireless. There are balcony styles and minimizer bras that compress the breasts, and padded bras that add size. There are sports bras that hold the breast tissue against the chest and push-up bras that squeeze the breasts to create cleavage; Victoria’s Secret now sells a push-up sports bra.

What can seem like a mind-boggling variety of styles and sizes at first glance quickly blurs into a faceless sea, each bra hung cup to cup with its sisters in a wonderland of white and beige and black, with a bit of red lace and blue ribbon here and there. The Hanes Natural Lift and Shape ComfortFlex Fit Underwire Bra ($14) competes with Wacoal’s Casual Beauty Wire Free Soft Cup Bra ($48), Fantasie’s Jacqueline Underwired Full Cup Bra with Side Support ($76), and Chantelle’s Opéra Demi Bra ($110). The manufacturers will passionately argue that these bras cannot be compared, that they are worlds apart, and that a woman needs a “wardrobe of bras,” as many people in the business have told me. In many ways they seem to be a single bra in endless superficial variation: a tweak of lace here, a wider strap there, and a deeper cup here separating (lifting and separating) one variety from another. This is true, but manufacturers will tell you that none of this matters, which is not true. (Bras are destined to have terrible names. If I want “ooh-la-la,” I can try Hanes’s Bombshell Boudoir Double Pleasure Underwire Bra.) The most obvious difference is the price: you can pay ten dollars or 200 dollars for a bra, and there is no guarantee that one will fit much better than the other.

To build a better bra is a common dream. In pursuit of perfection, bra designs have borrowed elements of the bridge, the hammock, the sack, the belt, the net, the shelf, the buttress, the splint, the tourniquet, and the rigging of a ship. None, despite the ubiquitous ad copy swearing that I have never had a bra as good as this one, that this bra will be the best bra I’ve ever owned, that this bra, at last, is the bra I will look forward to wearing all day long, has been entirely satisfactory. The weight of a large breast can cause nerve damage, skin rashes, and severe back pain. A bra’s purpose is to contain and redirect this force.1

Most bras have dozens of components; a commercially made bra may have fifty different pieces made by suppliers in different countries. Thousands of bra patents have been issued (almost half the bra patents filed before 1969 were by women): bras with better side panels and better straps and better fasteners and better cups; bras built into T-shirts, tank tops, and pajamas; bras for hiding breast-milk pumps and a bra with a built-in breast pump. Bras with pockets. Air-filled bras to resist impact. Bras that use silver fibers to dispel body odor. Bras that can be decorated, written on, lit up, and perfumed; bras that cool you off and bras that warm you up. Bras that solve every problem of the bra at once.

To make a bra correctly requires a dizzying combination of measurements: the width of the sternum, the arc of the breast mound, the distance between the nipple and the shoulder. Most of the support in a bra does not come from the cups or the straps, as many women assume; support is provided by the band that surrounds the body. The underwire, which was added to bras just a few decades after the corset disappeared, partly encircles the breast for added support — and is probably the most hated part of any bra. Underwire comes in different curvatures, tensions, and lengths, and if not fitted perfectly to the size and shape of the breast, it will dig or poke. The designer must also consider the shape of the breasts, the direction in which they fall and how far apart they lie, the distribution of muscle above the breasts, the width and slope of the shoulders. Is the breast round, so that it will fill a cup, or shallow, so that it will fill only part of it? (Pregnancy often permanently hollows out the upper part of the breast.) Whether to put the closure in the front or the back, how wide to make the band, where and how to allow adjustment of the straps, how wide to make the straps, how big and of what shape to make the center bridge, and which fabric to use for the separate parts — each decision changes the degree of containment, movement, and support.

The first bra with separate cups was designed by Marie Tucek in 1893. Cup size has been designated by letter since the 1930s. Bra sizing is not universal; there are multiple systems for determining size, using both English and metric measurements. Various formulas are used, including the circumference of the rib cage at the higher part of the breast and at the widest part of the breast.2 A 36B is not the same as a 34C or a 38A of an otherwise identical bra. A 34B in one brand is not necessarily a 34B in the same type of bra made by another brand — and 34B in one style of a brand may not translate to 34B in another style made by the same brand. A 36B in New York is not a 36B in Sydney or Paris or Tokyo, where it may be a 14B or an 80C.

Buying a bra means trying on bras, lots of them. It means standing in a small room in the lingerie section of a department store while a saleswoman who, I hope, knows what she’s doing measures me in several ways, runs the results through an equation, and confidently pronounces my size. Sometimes the fitter has been right and sometimes she’s been close and sometimes every bra she’s shown me has been wrong. Sometimes all the bras I’ve owned blur in my memory to a pile of white wired trusses.

There are currently thousands of companies selling bras around the world, but the industry is dominated by Hanes and Victoria’s Secret. Hanes sells Playtex, Bali, Maidenform, Wonderbra, Lilyette, barely there, Champion, Just My Size, and Sol y Oro brands. In 2014, Hanes bought the European company DBApparel for $528 million, making it one of the largest lingerie companies in the world. (Hanes refused to return my many phone calls.) Victoria’s Secret, now the largest part of L Brands, has more than a thousand of its own stores and controls a large portion of the American lingerie market — exactly how much is a moving target.

Wacoal, a Japanese-held company with an American subsidiary, is the leading brand in the United States in what are called better department stores — Saks, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor. Wacoal has positioned itself carefully. The company never puts its bras on sale. The American subsidiary alone employs more than eighty professional fitting consultants, who train salespeople in their client stores to fit Wacoal bras properly. Wacoal also supports the Susan G. Komen organization through thousands of “Fit for the Cure” events, donating a few dollars to Komen’s breast-cancer research efforts for each fitting and for each bra sold at the events. Wacoal competes with Hanes in department stores but also with Warnaco, an American company that includes Calvin Klein, Warner’s, and Olga, which was started by Olga Erteszek, a Polish immigrant who began by sewing bras at her kitchen table. European customers shop for Wacoal bras (in many subsidiary brands) along with Chantelle, a French company; the Belgian-owned Prima Donna, which focuses on larger-breasted women with upscale taste; the American-based Little Bra Company, which markets to women with smaller cup sizes; and the British companies Royce (which sells only wireless bras), Panache (which specializes in D cups and bigger), and Miss Mandalay (which markets to women with larger cup sizes). In its home country of Japan, women shop for Wacoal alongside such brands as Ravijour and N.SENS and the multinational company Triumph. In the increasingly competitive world of Web-based bra sales, Wacoal competes with everybody, including many custom designers.

In the past few years, Web-only companies like True&Co, HerRoom, Ampere, and Brayola claim to have solved the problem of fit and the drama of bra shopping simultaneously. ThirdLove offers a sizing app and sizes like 34C ½. Negative advertises “less fabric, more skin” to its preferred cohort of millennials. Adore Me has a lingerie-of-the-month club and a lot of softcore photography.

After days of Web surfing, I hit bra fatigue. It was partly due to the endless airbrushed photographs of slim, beautiful women with unnaturally large and perky breasts. I found the scent of sex that permeates the world of bras tiring. I know that my breasts are far more than collections of fat and fibrous tissue. They are provocative and comforting; they have been stroked, nursed, kissed and slept upon, nestled and coddled and slapped with glee. My breasts, like most breasts, have been objects of love and hatred, hunger and confusion. They are like two small companions who live on my chest, whispering, demanding attention. But they are not always sexual, and looking sexy is actually the easiest thing to do in a bra. Being comfortable at work all day is the hardest, and not many companies are selling that these days. I grew tired of the breezy insistence that the difficulty of shopping for a bra was suddenly gone forever. And I got angry when I read that my nipples “should always point straight ahead.” The idea that my breasts should behave in a particular way after having proved for many decades that they will do as they please was discouraging at best.

I kept running across references to a particular bra called Jeunique on an interlocking set of websites that were rife with spelling errors and flashing neon ads for blue-green algae and Watkins vanilla extract. Jeunique bras are advertised online, but they are sold only in private consultations. With a little digging, I found my way to Gail Bogdanovich, an independent distributor and fitting consultant. Through her company, The Perfect Fit Custom Fitted Bras, she sells Jeunique-style bras. She is its sole employee.

Bogdanovich is sixty-three, a fast-talking Massachusetts native whose license plate reads bra ldy. These days, she does fittings in health clubs and goes to department stores to hand out business cards to women in the lingerie section. She believes that if she can just “get the bra on the woman,” she’ll make a sale. The Jeunique is not a pretty bra — and it’s not intended to be. “This is not a come-and-get-me, romantic, Victoria’s Secret bra,” she told me. “I don’t really like to even put out pictures of the bras, because people judge a book by the cover.”

Bogdanovich worked for years doing custom bra fittings for Cameo, a multilevel company similar to Mary Kay. She sold mostly at house parties, advancing in the company until she had a number of women working under her. She made a good salary and earned free vacations and prizes. Cameo was one of many small American bra manufacturers doing business in this way, and women like Bogdanovich — conservative but ambitious, confident, and personable — sold several brands at once. With Jeunique, Pennyrich, and Sculptress, they sold a practical style of bra that looks archaic by today’s standards.

Cameo went out of business about twelve years ago, and many of Bogdanovich’s distributors quit. But the Jeunique company was still in business, owned by a man named Mulford J. Nobbs, who believed that vitamin E had saved his life as a young man. He traveled to Hunza, in Pakistan, to learn the secret of a long life, and eventually dedicated his company to selling products for “improvements of Health and World Ecology.” (The entire loose network of Jeunique consultants has the aura of health food and easygoing family values.) When Nobbs died, in his nineties, in 2010, Bogdanovich thought she’d have to give up private bra sales. But the Mexican manufacturer for Jeunique, who hoped to unload his inventory, found her. They made a deal: he would continue to make the bras and she would try to market them under the name LeUnique.

Today Bogdanovich sells LeUnique throughout the country. Dolores Sieben, who calls herself the Bra Lady, sells them out of Calgary, Canada. Maria Monti runs The Healthy Bra Company in Edmonds, Washington, and sells Jeunique-style bras only in conjunction with a postural-therapy session that requires multiple questionnaires and a telephone interview before the fitting. Dayna Player Robinson, a young exercise physiologist, sells the bras in St. George, Utah. Player Robinson discovered Jeunique on the bulletin board at her gym. “From the first time I put them on I knew this is what I had been looking for!” she writes on her website. “I NEEDED this bra!!” When she was unable to find anyone near her who was selling the bras, she decided to sell them herself. “The bras come in a bazillion different sizes and then I custom-fit them. In stores, they measure you and say, ‘This is your size,’ and give you a lot of bras in that size. I do the opposite.”

I found Mary Jo Porter, who still sells Jeunique bras — along with the few Pennyrich and Cameo bras she has left — out of her spotless one-story house in a fifty-five-and-older subdivision, about half an hour from where I live, in Portland, Oregon. Porter is seventy-nine years old and barely five feet tall, and she has been a widow for fifteen years. When I visited her, an American flag was waving from a pole above her front porch. Ceramic angels and dolls in toy rocking chairs lined the shelves and windowsills in every room.

Porter sold Princess House crystal at house parties for years, she told me, enough to earn a trip to the Canary Islands. Eventually, she started selling bras. Over the years she’s been with Jeunique, she’s attended national seminars and prize banquets where she met Mulford J. Nobbs. These days, she mostly sells Color Me Beautiful makeup along with the occasional bra.

She led me into her neat bedroom and asked me to strip to the waist. We had known each other for five minutes. While I undressed, she pulled two giant rolling suitcases out of her closet and hefted them onto the bed. Each was filled with Jeunique bras.

“I had eleven thousand dollars’, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of inventory once,” she said, “and I cried when Nobby died.” Porter is selling down the inventory she has left — mostly to long-term customers, though once in a while she sells to someone who tracks her down, like me. “People bring their daughters and granddaughters to be fitted,” Porter told me, though it’s hard to imagine many teenage girls wearing a Jeunique.

Two things make the Jeunique different from other bras. First, it eliminates the underwire in favor of the “exclusive patented Air-O-Flex Banderin®” — a slightly molded plastic shelf that cups the breasts all the way under the arm. Second, the cups open up in the style of a nursing bra and can be adjusted in tiny increments, to accommodate the small changes that most women tend to experience in their breast size.

The first bra she handed me didn’t fit; the band was too small and the cups too big. And so we worked, as in every bra fitting I’ve ever had, trying slight variations of size and style while she made adjustments and looked at my breasts with a critical eye. Once she grabbed the band in back and hauled it down. “If your toenails come through, I’ll know I’ve gone too far,” she said.

The bra felt strange — a bit tight, but not compressive. There were steps required — you had to reach around and pull the breast tissue through the opening before fastening the cup. But I could jump up and down with barely a bounce. Eventually I settled on a smooth, classic J41 (no awkward names here), and then the second part of the fitting began. Porter gave me detailed directions about how to put the bra on, wash it, wear it, and adjust it. This is a major bra. A complex bra. This is a bra with instructions.

Meanwhile, new bras are coming. Several companies are working with new materials that function like memory foam. Silent Assembly, an Australian company, has released a line of bras in America that uses “memory” nylon polymers and will be available in limited sizes. Silent Assembly’s CEO, Kay Cohen, claims that “women who try it swear it is the best bra they’ve worn.”

Deirdre McGhee and Julie Steele of the University of Wollongong, in Australia, who studied those women running on treadmills, are now working with the university’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute to create a “smart bra” that uses a combination of electronics and tightly coiled nylon fibers. The bra is supposed to tighten with movement and loosen at rest, though a prototype has not yet been manufactured.

A few days ago, on an impulse, I went to a bra boutique I’d never visited before — a bright little store filled with bras in white and black and beige, but also polka dots and paisley, fuchsia and lime green and neon blue, many with matching panties. An assertive young woman took me in hand immediately, sizing me up — literally, without a measuring tape — and sending me to the fitting room with a test bra. For most of an hour, she ferried bras back and forth, helping me and another woman — short, round, with a smaller band size and bigger cup than me — as we tried on bra after bra.

This was no department store. The other customer and I exchanged friendly comments. The lighting was warm, and so was the fitting room. Many of the brands were from small European companies.

The saleswoman told me that she used to work at Nordstrom. “I was trained really hard in fitting,” she said. “I’ve seen every kind of breast there is.” She got tired of working for a big store and jumped to the boutique when she had a chance.

I liked the Rosa Faia, the first bra she handed me, which was made by the German company Anita.

“Sturdy bra,” she said. “The Germans don’t mess around.” But I wanted to try more. For once, I was almost enjoying the experience.

“I’ll know it when I wear it,” I said.

“Yep,” she answered. “And the clouds will part and the sun will shine on through.” She dashed off to find a few more styles.

Finally, I settled on an Elomi bra, in white, for $55.

“It’s made by Eveden,” she informed me. Eveden is part of Wacoal.

A year ago, I owned three bras. Today I own ten: a wardrobe of bras, as many people in the business have told me I must have. Which one do I wear? The Jeunique is not, after all, my favorite bra for daily wear. But it has such good support that I often wear it for exercise. I like my new Elomi, and under certain clothes I wear a seamless Bali. I wear them all, but none of them are eighteen-hour bras that I can forget are there. My favorite bra, the most comfortable bra, the one I wear when I’m home alone, is about ten years old. It is stretched and thin, so faded that I cannot read the label, and barely a bra at all.

Sallie Tisdale’s most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “An Uncommon Pain,” appeared in the May 2013 issue. Her Annotation, “The Magic Toilet,” appeared in the June 2015 issue.

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