I can remember the first time I saw an underwired bra.
It was in Melbourne’s ritzy Block Arcade, in a little shop called, uninvitingly, the Slim-It Corset Salon. I was 19.
In the course of my rapid explosion from a AA to a DD cup, I’d worked my way through a clutch of white or flesh-toned cotton constructions, with pointy ends and lots of stitching to give them stiffness. By the time I’d reached DD, I was definitely looking at “corset salon” material – “matronly” was the word that sprang to mind.
“Matronly” was also a good description of the proprietor of the Slim-It Corset Salon. A French lady of extremely generous proportions and uncertain years, she was called merely “Madame” by the scuttling shopgirls in her employ.
Seduced by the card in the window that promised “swimsuits and bikinis made to order” (ever tried to buy a swimsuit that accommodates DD breasts?) I ventured inside, only to be whisked into a fitting room where my breasts were hoisted in Madame’s capable hands as she demonstrated the effects of her admirably engineered garments.
Two weeks later, after a further fitting, I returned to take possession of a brown two-piece swimsuit with orange polka dots, (yes my dears, it was the seventies) and two lacy, underwired bras. Now I, too, could lift and separate with the best of them.
So began my love/hate relationship with these frustrating pieces or ironmongery. On the one hand, they succeed in making big knockers look, well, almost perky. On the other hand, they have evil habits which can driver the wearer to distraction.
Just a few days ago, I received an email from a dear and big breasted friend. “Please write something” she wailed. “The story needs to be told. Of all the sufferings we amply endowed ladies have to endure, underwired bras are the worst.”
Of course, she’d just spend three hours dismantling her spin dryer to remove an underwire that had wormed its way through the holes of the drum and into the works. So, naturally, she was feeling a bit tired and emotional.
But as anyone who’s paid a washing machine mechanic $325 to put right what one errant bra wire has put wrong will know, these little suckers have a wandering habit and minds of their own. Down plug holes they plunge; into the innards of washing machines and dryers they insinuate themselves. They snag your pantyhose in the laundry basket and wriggle out and disappear completely in your lingerie drawer.
Of course, we could follow the manufacturer’s instructions and never put the accursed things near a washing machine or a dryer. Well, I don’t know how long hand-washing sits around for in your house. I simply don’t own enough bras to wash them once a month.
But the worst characteristic of underwires is their ability to inflict severe physical pain. People will talk about the disadvantages suffered by the bosomy – the whistles, the ogling, the groping, the sleazing, the backpain and not being appreciated for your mind. If you want my opinion, all of these pale into insignificance compared to the agony of having a deep hole bored into your chest by an underwire that is on the first stages of its great escape.
And once it’s on it’s way out, there’s just no stopping it. I’ve stitched and patched, shoved and twisted, bound and overlocked but any repair or restraint is, at best, temporary. And once that little gluey, blobby bit on the end has popped off the wire it’s really sharp. I’ve tried Blue tak, I’ve tried glue and I’ve tried sticky tape but nothing works. Another otherwise perfectly serviceable bra has bitten the dust.
So it’s back to the lingerie department for an expensive replacement. And , you can count on it, when you get there, the style that fitted you so perfectly last time has been discontinued. Of course it has.
Popular history has it that the underwired bra was, in fact, invented by Howard Hughes to prop up the truly remarkable breasts of Hollywood legend Jane Russell. It figures. How like a man – great engineering, great aesthetics – lousy grasp of detail.
It’s my belief that one of the reasons women are queueing up for breast reductions is so that they can switch to those soft, squishy non-wired bras or even, sigh, a “crop top.” As for the ones having implants, well, they just don’t know what they’re in for.
(I wrote this some years ago when underwires tended to come in two separate bits and always wriggled their way to the surface in the middle of your chest. The single bent wire approach tends to work better. Ah, modern technology.)