I just counted 29 bras nesting in my wardrobe. I think that’s a lot, but we never know how many bras others have because women tend not to talk about the contents of their underwear drawers.
I admit I kept a few because they look nice, like the £50 red velvet triangle I bought five years ago which shines like a bauble and is more decorative than useful.
But the main reason for this glut of bras is that I, like all women I suspect, am driven by hope over experience in search of The Perfect One.
The definition of that depends on the individual, but I’m looking for something that looks luscious, feels like a whisper on the skin, and gives my bust a curvaceous, contained shape. No boulder holder effect please.
I haven’t always had 29 bras or anything like that. I haven’t had one for decades. As an early breast developer, I was the first in my class to wear one, which was a bit of a double-edged sword.
The Bra Whisperer: Alexandra Shulman and Susana Lorena. Alexandra didn’t even own one for decades
On the one hand, it represented a sort of sophistication, a transition into femininity that contemporaries—still in their Chilprufe vests—gazed curiously as we changed into dance class.
On the other hand, there was something very shameful about these small but sprawling hills, when no one else seemed to own them.
I remember the excitement of my first garter belt, but can’t remember that first bra. I can’t even remember the size, probably 32A or B, but I doubt there was anything attractive about it.
Bras were pretty useful numbers, even for adults, in the late 1960s. Maybe that encouraged me when I was 17 to put them off for the next 19 years. As far as I was concerned, they were uncomfortable, limiting insults to my free-spirited flesh.
I was lucky (and I’m writing this from a distant memory) to have breasts that took care of themselves. No sagging or spreading or pain. They just kind of sat there, pleasantly independent.
Although throwing out the bra was a conscious choice, it was by no means a political statement. And I didn’t think to reject conformity to male expectations of a woman’s body. Far from it.
The only time I remember feeling uncomfortable about not wearing a bra was briefly in my mid-twenties when I worked for a newspaper with a predominantly male staff.
When I went to the press conference to discuss the Piper Alpha rig disaster, I was well aware that the look of my nipples drew attention. The solution was not to wear a bra but to appear in a jacket or vest.
Alexandra calls Susana Lorena (pictured) the “bra whisperer” because with no tape measure, just a few questions and a quick look she can find you the perfect bra
At the time, I had the usual complicated romantic life of a single young woman. I remember a time when I compared my love life to a braid, with three gentleman visitors being woven in and out of the front door.
I don’t remember them paying much attention to whether I was wearing a bra. In general, men then seemed more interested in what they were not wearing.
But when I was 36, when I got pregnant, all this changed and my bra-free state came to an end. I had to re-enter the bra world to deal with breasts that became big shapeless appendages, unrecognizable to me.
Even in the midst of the joy of having a son, I remember feeling angry that I had to wear a bra. And it remains so, 27 years later, because my breasts have never returned to their pre-child perkiness.
For me, there is a very emotional aspect to bras. They say something about your identity and state of mind. There is a great contrast between a plain, seamless T-shirt bra and a graceful underwire construction. Not only do they look different, but the wearer feels different too. Knowing you’re wearing a beautiful piece of gear that no one can see is one of the reasons so many women wearing uniforms splash out on underwear.
Now Alexandra (pictured) is the proud owner of £200 worth of underwired bras, which “seem to support her without cutting into her flesh”
That’s why my friend, the late war correspondent Marie Colvin who was killed in Syria, traveled to La Perla with an arsenal.
But shopping can be a nightmare. How many hours have I stood in a cubicle staring at myself in the mirror under unflattering light!
Am I really a 34 or is a 36 just more comfortable? Am ID or DD or E? The answer, of course, can only be found in every bra, because just like jeans, there is little uniformity in sizing across brands.
Then there are straps. Little rose print spaghetti straps always catch my eye, only to drag myself away to something more substantial when the bra needs to provide some support.
Sometime in the early 90s, bras became big business. They moved from the lingerie department to thriving High Street stores such as Top Shop and Gap.
For Alexandra, who expressed her displeasure with buying bras, there is a very emotional aspect to the garment
Young women who hadn’t paid much attention to bras grabbed neon yellow understated numbers and cyclamen balconettes with skinny jeans and ballerinas.
Then came expensive shops in London’s Bond Street and Sloane Street, such as Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer. These tried to make luxury underwear more fun and sexy than traditional corsetries like Rigby & Peller.
Some have failed, and there’s now a slew of online brands that put more emphasis on comfort – like Tanya Robertson’s Womanhood with its naturalistic images, or the funnier The Pantry Underwear.
So shopping, with such a choice, should definitely be a breeze. Except a year ago a tumor was found in my breast and I had a lumpectomy.
I was lucky not to lose the breast, but still it has a different shape from the others and there is an unpleasant scar.
I was so relieved to have the tumor excised that I went back to bra business as usual and ignored the surgeon’s suggestion that I wear sports bras for a while.
That was a mistake, as braces irritate the scar – an obvious fact you might think, but it took the woman who founded my local lingerie Maison SL, in West London, to draw my attention to it.
I call Susana Lorena the “bra whisperer” because with no tape measure, just a few questions and a quick look she can find you the perfect bra.
As she explains, fitting is a world apart from measuring because it takes into account the shape and condition of the breasts. And experience counts. She has 25 years of experience measuring female breasts.
Now I am the proud owner of £200 worth of underwired bras that seem to support me without cutting into my flesh and give a smooth contour that works with T-shirts and evening wear.
In addition, Susana keeps track of her customers’ measurements, so that men who buy them on birthdays don’t have to rummage through their other half’s drawers in advance.
That makes it easier than ever – not only to find The Perfect One, but also to make sure he pays for it.