Solace for the girls: Bras I have known

Bras I Have Known

Bras have held me up and held me down and a few have been dear as well as near to my heart. So many I have wanted to keep as mementos. One I almost threw away, but then that bra, sad as an old pair of shoes, looked at me in that certain way and I just couldn’t dump it. I mean, what are another few inches on the bottom of the drawer? Some you owe that much.

Bras, like shoes, should have a specific fit. You get in, adjust yourself, and there should be a certain comfort, like you’re in the hands of an old friend. There should be no binding. Neither footwear nor bras should pinch. And just like shoes, bras shouldn’t be too tight or flesh will spill over the sides. That’s no good.  A bra either fits or it doesn’t, no matter how much you work the straps.

One old bra (not a keeper) closed in the front. I gave it the boot after I wore it to a Cubs game. Excitable fan that I was, I raised my arms to signal the beer vendor and the hook and eye came undone. All of the sudden–yee-ha—something was loose like dogs that had just wriggled out of their collars.  And just at that moment a nun, in full habit, passed me in the aisle. The sight of that black-and-white at the very moment my bra unsnapped triggered a reaction in this Catholic girl. I was overcome with guilt, or more likely, the prospect that I was going to get caught. I gasped in confession to my friend on the way to the john, “There was nun right there when my bra came undone.”  It was such a religious experience that I didn’t order a beer, at least not until the inning after that.

Another bra, this one an old soldier, is missing one of its “eyes.” As I fasten it, the material gapes where closure is incomplete, like a gap-toothed hillbilly smile. Each time I wear it I vow will be the last, but eventually one winter Sunday morning, this bra will be the first in my hand. If I put it on, I know I will lounge and read the paper. The antithesis of Sunday best, it keeps me from going to church, again.

That bra is in a color lingerie makers refer to as nude.  Most bras come in white, black, or nude.  Some years ago Binney & Smith Incorporated renamed the crayon called “flesh” to “peach” so I wonder how “nude” remains a standard in the bra industry. Nude to whom? And is nude the same as damask neutral, body blush, and skintone? I wonder whether Crayola namers and lingerie labelers shouldn’t get together to discuss the flesh tones. Let’s have a consensus. Which is more apt—café or cocoa; taupe, tan, or toffee; champagne, ivory, or antique beige?

Some bras have stays.  Who ever thought of them? Are they called stays because they help your breasts stay? Longer and pluckier, they are in old-fashioned girdles too. And their baby cousins mind shirt collars. The first time I ever saw stays on my big sister’s dresser I wanted to do a craft project with them, you know like a Popsicle stick house only with white stays. Can’t you picture it?

Some keeper bras have been significant, like the one I wore on my wedding day, pristine white, even if I wasn’t. No straps, with a posture all its own, that bra made me feel like Audrey Hepburn. Well, almost.

I imagine I hated my first bra, daunted by life’s complications. I was in third or fourth grade, the first in my class to get a bra (yes, I was that girl), and I didn’t really want one but I needed one. What I wanted were thinner legs like Susan Hutmacher’s so that I could wear anklets to school. Similarly, my Mother was either slow to realize her youngest girl’s needs or didn’t want to admit them (or didn’t want to spend the money, she was a child of The Depression after all). But as I came to accept I had knee sock legs, not anklet legs, I also came to concede, as my sisters had been telling me, I needed a bra.  So while Mother was on her lifelong dream trip to Ireland, my older sister met me at the Belmont el stop after school and we rode the rest of the way downtown together to meet our older sister at Wiebolt’s. They took me to the girls pre-teen department and I was measured for my first one. The actual experience is remote (I wonder: Do girls have ways of forgetting gropings?).

I do know that afterward we three walked through the S & H Stamp Redemption section, passed displays of lawn chairs, coolers, beach balls, and rafts, all available for a certain number of Green Stamp books, and into Wiebolt’s version of the Walnut Room (which is the restaurant at Marshall Field’s). The waitress was great, like a favorite aunt, and we had dinner—salads of cold iceberg lettuce, turkey, and Thousand Island dressing capped off by the best part, Gold Brick sundaes that we’d have to practically chip and mine from the sides of the metal bowls. I loved those Gold Brick sundaes. Funny, I can’t remember the bra and I can’t forget the dessert.

How about an underwire bra? The little extra pinch and snap it gives, like military spit and polish, bringing things to attention. Underwires don’t poke out from a bra as often as stays peek from their seams, but underwires do get crimped and bent in the wash if you’re, as I am, too lazy to hand wash your “delicates.”  Sometimes in the laundry bras become twisted and the underwire gets out of whack, like an over-sprung Slinky. Once mangled, the bra is unusable. Perhaps underwire could be used in that arts and crafts project too.

Also in my life there have nursing bras, venerable in white cotton but convoluted as a magician’s cabinet, with hidden doors and drapes. These bras always brought to mind a harness for in the days I wore them I felt my most bovine. Is the word cincture a right one?  If not for the warm head against my flesh, the whole nursing procedure could have seemed agricultural. I can guess why dairy cows kick over the milking stool on occasion. The only reason for me  to keep a nursing bra was for insurance—the old wives say pregnancies can occur once you dump the baby stuff and get rid of the maternity wear. But now that my hot flashes tell me not to worry about pregnancy – I suppose the bra should go, were it not for its sentimental value.

On the opposite extreme of nursing bras are sports bras, which seem to follow an ancient principle of binding.  The first sports bras I owned had to slide over my head, it was challenging just to put it on– as if you’re getting stuck in a rubber band until you wriggle into the Lycra ligature. But sports bras do cut down on flop and this is enhanced by the lack of cups, per se, and the more equal distribution pattern. However, without realignment every once in a while, your front may come to resemble a ledge, one plateau of flesh instead of two distinct mountains, as disconcerting as a unibrow. But sports bras are getting better.

Like everything else, bras have become more and more sophisticated.  When I was growing up, bustier was not in the general vocabulary. The talk was simply padded or unpadded.  And a bra strap showing was not part of a larger fashion statement. Recently girls had to decide whether they wanted to dress VBS (visible bra strap) or not. When I was their age, the discussion was whether to wear a bra at all, so the sight of a strap, obvious as a poor relation, doesn’t shock me.

When I was coming up, the bra biggies, as I remember them were Vassar, Platex Cross Your Heart, Maidenform, and Olga. Don’t you think it is ironic that one of the leading women’s schools shares its name with underwear?   You may wonder which came first, the school or the bra. Well, the school was established in 1861 while bras were not mass marketed until the 1900s.

Maidenform sounds somewhat medieval, as if the company got its start with chastity belts. Playtex–think of rubber gloves then think of bras, and Cross your Heart–it implies so much.  Olga, wasn’t she one of the women who worked at Schwartz’s on Lawrence Avenue?  Did you or one of your girlfriends have a music box with a tiny dancer doing a pirouette? Well, that’s how I picture the Albany Park storefront—a pink jewel box.

How abashed I was to have the saleslady exhort, “Bend over and shake into it.”   Then when I turned right side up again, her fingers probed cup depth as if putting down piecrust or tested the fit by snapping the elastic.  Unlike the impertinent fifth-grade boy who did the same thing, she would not ask, “If you’re not a turtle, then why do you snap?” but instead wondered aloud, “Do we need a 36?” A bra from Schwartz’s was a special occasion.

A recent birthday made me blue for any number of reasons (that’s another essay entirely) so I sought the solace of Schwartz’s.  It may be true that you can’t go home again but you can go to back to your bra store.

Now in a north suburban location, the store is doublewide with racks of intimates on one side and bathing suits on the other. I strolled up and down the aisles until I realized I needed a ticket, just like at the bagel bakery. When my number was called, it was not Olga but Cindy who greeted me, and she was near my own age.  She looked at the bra I arrived in and said, in the kindest way possible, “Well, that’s not doing much.”  I didn’t take umbrage at the remark for I knew then, here was a woman who spoke the truth, who would shore me up and help me face the world.

I was ready when she took the measuring tape from around her neck.  Unlike the shy girl forty-some years earlier, I had no qualms getting measured without a layer of blouse or bra to distort the number. The tape disclosed I had been wearing the wrong size. How long had I been deceiving myself? No wonder my spirits sagged while the back of the bra crept up my spine all day. The off-the-rack bras, the catalog ones—all had been ineffective.

Each selection she brought lifted me higher. This was the way bra-buying should be.  Once I had lost my religion but I found it again and here was the place to practice. Cindy was just on the other side of the fitting room door to see how I fared with each trial.  When one bra fit well except for a small pucker in the cup, she pinned a dart on each side for the bra to be altered by the in-store tailor.  Cindy and a tailor!! —How I relished all the personal attention; to think, an entire staff was there to help me put my best breast forward.

Four bras and a canister of talcum powder later, I was armed to face the world.  Like a kid at a shoe store, I wore one of my new purchases home.  When Cindy asked did I want my old bra, I suggested it be burned and she remarked that was a different era.  Even though I could not set something ablaze, I was exhilarated.  Before my trip to Schwartz’s, I felt as if I were traveling a darkened road.  After, with my headlights adjusted, I didn’t think life’s journey would be quite so hard to navigate.

But alas, even a well-fitting bra outgrows its usefulness. Throughout the years bras of stretched out dingy elastic have been traded in for new ones. Not quite shocking but certainly intimidating is the Wonder Bra from Victoria’s Secret.  Vickie Hush-Hush has her secret and I have mine: I’ve never bought one there.  I cannot relate to those angels with their perfect figures. I am looking for the model who, like Olga herself, has a little gooseflesh on her arms.  I can’t be Victoria’s Secret Angel just like at 12, I didn’t look like Ann Francis when she was Honey West.  But at least with Honey West, I could pretend.

Anyone–man or woman–may have a chip on his or her shoulder but it’s predominately big-breasted women who suffer chinks in their trapezius muscles from the weight they lug around. There’s a certain truth to why a bra is called “the over the shoulder boulder holder” by 10-year-old boys. Like a bag of rocks, it leaves a mark. I’ve noticed that the strap of my shoulder bag just fits into the dent made by my bra strap. Was that just on account of darn good luck?

As I recall the bras of my past, one lesson is clear: Take care of the boobs and the rest will follow. Whether it helps you stand taller or enhances your décolletage, a bra is called a foundation garment for a reason. Remember that time is elastic and so are bras. When you need to shore up your confidence and lift sagging spirits, look to the foundation because chances are, it’s time to get a new bra.

Dear Reader — If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging me.  I’ve had this essay in my files and never been able to place it so I figured why not publish here. If you enjoyed it, please check out the accompanying Glimpse of Solace (Two by Two). News of the world has left me glum lately so I got into some light-hearted distraction with my camera.

Peace, love, and solace







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  1. Alysia says:

    Fifth paragraph from the end had me on the floor. This was fantastic. Every angle!

  2. Andrea Billhardt says:

    Love your humorous look at the bra as rite of passage and old friend! Great photo, too.

  3. Margaret says:

    You really can entertain with your written thoughts!
    I was smiling as I read. Every description every store, clerk, even the salad and dessert brought back so many memories!!
    And yes in our world of such bad news, it’s fun to read clever writing !!!
    You are Good!!

    Xoxo. Peg

  4. Ellen Beals says:


  5. Ellen Beals says:

    Thanks for reading!

  6. Ellen Beals says:

    Thanks Andrea!

  7. Ellen Beals says:

    Thank you so much.

  8. carol lou giannasi says:

    I am Jeannie Prikos’ sister. She always told me you were hilarious and this essay proves her right. It also gave me ideas about what I might so with some of the writing I do. Making people laugh is such fun, please keep it up, carol Lou

  9. Ellen Beals says:

    Carol Lou — I appreciate your comments so much. Hope you do revisit your old writing. Thanks again for reading me.

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