Not the tea cup – I mean bra size.
The bra is a sort of temporary restructuring agent which appears, much further back in history than I had expected, when a society begins to make money and projects some of its images of perfectibility on to its women.
I remember longing for my first bra a sign of growing up. Then, as I recall, cup sizes were Bs and Cs: anything bigger was the subject of bated breath or nursing mothers.
Today bra cup sizes are increasing like giant vegetables.
This is not to be insensitive to women with heavy bosoms, a difficult figure to dress since the declining fashion for stays or corsets in the period following WWI.
There were bras before that – wonderful moody stories about pretty showgirls with two silk handkerchiefs (!) and indeed, however unreliable Wikipedia might be, the entry on bras is provoking in terms of time line and geography.
And there will always be women who don’t wear bras either because of the beauty of their bosom or sheer disinterest because increasingly the bra is marketed, either to fit what size you think you are, or what size they say you are – and they want to sell more bras.
I have only been fitted for bras twice, once in my forties and again, last week.
Marks and Spencer claims to sell a bra every few minutes but I confess I am not an M&S girl. An unapologetic snob in this (as in gloves and soap), the first French underwear I had came from a shop called Elegante, was made of flower printed black cotton. The bra was built into a minislip which fitted like a dream and there were matching pants.
It wore well and was worth every penny I paid for it.
Then, there were several big shops specialising what we might call “underpinnings.”
Now, almost all of them have gone.
I was earning when I was first fitted for a bra so I went to Rigby and Peller, reasoning that if it’s good enough for Her Majesty, it’s good enough for me. The wonderful Marie watched me climb into what I thought I wanted, regarded me frowningly in the mirror, muttered “Just a minute” and whisked away.
She returned with two other bras which didn’t look terribly different and suggested I tried one. I did. The improvement was visible. “What have you done?” I asked.
“Two cup sizes bigger, one size down in circumference.”
I went in an undistinguished 36B and emerged a glowing 34 DD.
That afternoon I told a very elegant Iranian acquaintance – she said I looked radiant, what had happened? – all about it and she was thrilled.
“My mother is sending me 32 FF from Paris “ she said, “ do you think they can help me?”
I did. They did. She told me so next time we met.
But times change, bodies change and the industrialisation of manufacture involving thousands of units makes sales imperative.
The woman who fitted me in Peter Jones last week was tactful and patient. And as I have said before, I have been conditioned into trusting the John Lewis Partnership over many years.
However I know that as the years have gone forward, my muscles are the same age as me or older and a few pounds have gone on. (And JL isn’t the same either.)
The evidence of my eyes suggested that the shape was good though
“c‘est un vrai balcon” (veritably, a balcony) – or as my father would have said mischievously “With all that before you, you’ll never drown!”
But 32 FF!
This is based, explained the saleswoman helpfully, on using the closest set of hooks for 4 months, second set for 4 months, last set for 4 months. We did not discuss what I call the fried egg syndrome (ie spread) that had clearly taken place to get me from DD to FF – and who cares what size the labels say if it looks all right – but I did wonder how we went from a more comfortable (say) 35 inches round me to 32?
I was tempted to say “in your dreams” but apparently it’s to do with the elastic, and a sense of constraint that made me want to giggle.
They do say that when a woman is dressed to kill, her first victims are always her feet. I am consoled by the thought that a tight bra is less miserable than tight shoes and less compulsory in the wearing.