Although the modern bra has only existed for about a century, it has become a wardrobe staple for most women, right along with socks and panties. While some women perceive bras as a device of torture and banish them altogether on feminist principles, others laud them for their supportive qualities.
Contrary to the myth that a man invented the bra, the actual inventor of the modern bra was a woman named Mary Phelps Jacob, according to Mary Bellis, a female inventor herself and an author on about.com. Jacob was in need of a no-show undergarment to wear with a sheer dress, and the popular corsets contained boning that poked through the fabric. Thus, out of necessity, the bra was born, made of silk handkerchiefs and ribbon.
Since then, bras have undergone many changes, including divisions by cup size and the addition of underwire. Yet, the goal remains the same: shape, support and separate.
Some women find bras so constricting or uncomfortable that they refuse to wear them. Others suffer with bras that leave shoulder indentations and red band marks.
"The wire bras will always be somewhat a little uncomfortable but that's the price you have to pay for support," explained Alexandra Myerson, a sophomore writing, literature and publishing major.
Freshman writing, literature and publishing major Jill Mazzetta echoed a similar thought. "Either they fit weirdly, or don't feel right ... I've never just walked into a store and found one that fits perfectly; it's more of a search."
Finding the right bra size is crucial because the wrong band or cup size can cause undue pressure on the back, neck, and shoulders. Embarrassment keeps many women from getting sized, causing them to buy the wrong bra while the perfect one is left on the rack.
Revolutionary fabrics like spandex/cotton blends and technology such as the wildly popular IPEX from Victoria's Secret lend women the ultimate guarantee of comfort.
Still, some women complain about ill-fitting bras that poke, pinch, wrinkle, and wander.
However, bras need not be painful. Like a good friend, it should be supportive, comforting and close to the heart. Shopping for a good bra should also involve a close companion or good ol' Mom.
The first step in finding a comfortable bra is analyzing the problems with your current piece of lingerie. Jot down what you like and what bothers you. Note if your bra is sagging, pilling, pulling, pinching, too loose, too tight, or all-around agonizing.
Next, bring that list to a store where trained professionals will size you and suggest certain styles to fit your shape, preferences, needs, and size. They will help you make sense of the different materials and design structures. JC Penney and Victoria's Secret are two stores that offer this service.
Cynthia, a veteran sales associate from the Victoria's Secret on Newbury Street who declined to reveal her last name, points out that one size in a specific style may fit where the same size in another style doesn't work at all. She suggests trying several styles to find a customized fit.
Victoria's Secret is notorious for its semi-annual sales, fashion shows, and high prices. The cheapest bra available is a no-wire unlined triangle bra at $22, but most of the company's bras retail around $30-$50 each.
Carolyn Johnson, a freshman writing, literature and publishing and TV studio double major, swears by the durability of the store's bras. "Victoria's Secret is very expensive, though the quality is very high," she said.
Johnson also added that women should buy at least seven bras for the seven days of the week. When pressed for the reasoning to this, she replied, "sanitary reasons."
Cleanliness isn't the only reason to buy so many bras. A bra that is continually worn more than one day at a time will lose its shape and longevity. Constant wear will damage inner supports and eat at the elastic.
Ideally, bras should be washed by hand after every couple wears. Pragmatically speaking, a cold soak in the sink with detergent every week should be fine. If you do wash your bras in a washing machine, invest in a lingerie bag available at Victoria's Secret for $10, which will protect your delicates from snags, pilling, and twisting around the washer core.
The department store Kohl's offers a bra-buying guide on its corporate Web site, kohls.com. It explains the difference among the different styles of bras. For example, full-coverage bras offer maximum support, while demi bras or "half-cup bras," are designed to "create a bare minimum look." The demi bras are best reserved for cups sizes A-C, although they are now being produced for sizes D and above.
For any women engaging in physical activity, a sports bra is a definite must to provide needed support and comfort. For large-busted women, minimizing bras can be extremely helpful in creating a slimmer silhouette so that tops fit better without awkwardly stretching over the chest.
Although Victoria's Secret provides a wide selection for average-chested women, the largest bra size offered is only a 40DD. For the well-endowed ladies, try Lane Bryant, a store that caters to full-figured women. Located in Cambridge, Lane Bryant carries bras with band sizes up to 48 inches and a cup size of H.
On the other end of the spectrum are the flat-chested women who yearn to fill out a fancy dress or a low-cut shirt. For them, padded bras or push-up bras are usually the best option. Victoria's Secret offers The Miracle Bra, designed to add a full cup size.
Whether you like them or hate them, bras can be tolerable when you get the right size and the right fit. This holiday season, ask for gift cards to your favorite stores, and ring in the New Year with comfort and style.,Lynette F. Cornell