My mother had promised: When we got back to New York from the beach resort where we were spending the summer, I could have a bra. I was just thirteen and still only a little beyond flat-chested. But there had been bouncing. And teasing. And embarrassment. It was the summer of 1944.
My mother didn’t make promises easily, but those she made, she kept. In September, we went to Best & Company, a department store she felt she could trust for what she called “such an important purchase.” The saleswoman in Misses’ Lingerie looked me over doubtfully, shook her head and gave my mother a little card from the drawer under the cash register. “Come back in a year or so,” she said to me.
The address on the card was that of a small shop on Madison Avenue in the Seventies. We waited on little gilt chairs until someone could be with us. There was a pale pink brochure on the round glass-topped table next to my chair, which I read. Brassieres could apparently be fitted to the requirements of, or could be custom-made for, the client with extremely large breasts, or pendulous breasts, or just one breast, or no breasts. The brochure was silent as to the needs of the very young client.
However, the white-haired corseted lady who finally emerged from behind the floor-length pink curtains that divided the anteroom from the rest of the shop seemed absolutely delighted to see me. “Exactly the sort of client we love,” she cooed. “A young girl with happy problems, easily solved.” She ushered us past the pink curtains into a large mirrored alcove shielded by more pink curtains. There I was instructed to take off my blouse, drop the wide straps of my slip, and remove my undershirt. My mother sat on yet another gilt chair, holding the blouse and undershirt and looking anxious. She did not know what all this was going to cost.
I felt shy about exposing my budding breasts. Even my mother hadn’t seen them recently. But the white-haired lady didn’t seem to find them peculiar. “Lovely,” she murmured, running the tips of her fingers softly around the sides. “These are very delicate tissues,” she explained to my mother. “One must be so careful to protect them from bruising and strain. Lack of proper care at this age can result in irreparable damage and a lifetime of regret.” I wondered if lack of care in Russia was the reason my mother was so floppy without her brassiere. Was she now enduring a lifetime of regret?
The white-haired lady measured me with a pink silk tape measure and jotted notes on a small pink pad with a small silvery pencil. She felt each baby breast gently to gauge its circumference, and jotted more notes on the pad. Then she slipped away for a few minutes. Before I knew it, she was instructing me how to center each breast in the AA-cup of a beautiful pink silk satin brassiere. “There is a right way, and a wrong way,” she said. “Now you are one of the lucky young girls who knows the right way.”
When I was hooked in, she had me turn around, inspecting me as if I were a work of art. “We’ll need to take a teensy tuck in the left cup,” she told my mother. “Nothing to worry about. Many young girls need it, on one side or the other.”
My mother nodded, inquired the price, bit her lip, and said we would take two. The white-haired lady looked pained. “But my dear!” she exclaimed. “She needs at least two more for night wear. Are you really going to permit your precious daughter to damage those delicate young tissues while she sleeps?”
So it was that I became the owner of four AA-cup pink silk satin brassieres at the beginning of my second term of high school. My mother worried aloud all the way home on the subway about what my father would say when he heard what she had paid. But they couldn’t be returned. The left cup of each of them had been custom fitted especially for me.
I never wore the extra two to bed. For at least a year I had been playing with my nipples under my pajama top every night before I fell asleep, and it didn’t feel as good through the silk satin. Besides, I didn’t care if my fragile tissues got bruised; I was sure I was destined to be a dud in the looks department anyway. I just wanted not to bounce when I walked. To generate enough laundry to allay maternal suspicions, I changed brassieres every day instead of every other.
By the following year, I had developed sufficiently to go back to Best & Co. The four now outgrown pink silk satin bras went to the Salvation Army, where perhaps they found a second young wearer with delicate tissues. Or perhaps not. You never know with those custom-fitted items.
I suppose you could say all that about “happy problems” and “precious daughters” were the good old days. I’m not sure what was so good about them. Except that they’re fun to post about. And hopefully to read about too.