“For people who’ve never worn a bra—men, children, animals, Agyness Deyn—it is almost impossible to describe the sheer pleasure of taking off a bad bra,” reports Caitlin Moran in her British best-seller How to Be a Woman. “It’s like a combination of putting your feet up, going to the bathroom, having a drink of water on a hot day, and sitting on the steps of a trailer having a smoke.”
That, right there, is why the Town Shop has thrived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for four generations. We who have worn bras know that Moran is not exaggerating—even though we may not have witnessed (as she has) women tearing off their bras in London cabs and, once, at a bus stop on Camden High Street.
The Town Shop’s legendary owner, Selma Koch, turned her husband’s store (est. 1888) into an underwear emporium in 1936, and never abandoned her zeal for giving customers the right fit. At 95 she was still spending 10-hour days on the shop floor, chirpily answering phones, fitting customers by eyeball (no tape measure needed), and sweetly bawling out suppliers—until a fall in the store led to her death. (NPR caught six minutes of Selma in feisty action at age 94; listen here.)
Now Selma’s son, Peter, and her grandson, Danny, run the shop. Danny, the buyer, was the only one of Selma’s six grandchildren who could be persuaded to come into the business; 23 years ago he said yes, with the proviso that he keep his acting career (voice-overs and TV commercials). “Being here is an enviable or an unenviable position, depending on where you sit,” he says with a grin. He was fresh from the August Intimate Apparel show at the Javits Center. “Market week!” he cried in mock distress. “I’ve seen 400 women in bras this week, more than any man could”—long pause—“dream of.”
The shop stocks some 25,000 bras, ranging in size from 28 Double-A to 48 K. There are fancy bras and plain bras and nursing bras: The company’s websiteshows the extraordinary variety.
What the website can’t provide, as the real store does, is “the delicate art of fitting.” When you enter the shop (Broadway between 81st and 82nd Street), a saleswoman greets you, escorts you to a dressing room, and measures you—visually; there are no tape measures in the Town Shop. She’ll take into account your band size (the breath of your back, from 28 to 48) and your cup size.
Town Shop staffers are on the alert to find you a bra that will minimize “back fat”—those ridges over the top of the bra that signal a bad fit. “Everyone’s got extra stuff,” Danny acknowledges, “some on their tummies, some on their arms; this is just extra skin that appears. It’s got to go somewhere; we make sure it’s going somewhere that’s being managed.” (A wider band helps minimize the skin bulge.)
What’s the most common reason for a bad fit? “The band is usually too loose—too broad for the customer’s back—which means the cups are probably too small,” says saleswoman Shawntell King. And what’s the most popular (largest selling) bra? Size 32D. “Size 30s are needed too; we’d sell a lot more 30s if more bra makers produced them,” Danny says. “We’re also very active in our 28 business—narrow backs and bigger cups (E, F, G, and H) is where the action is, because breasts are getting larger. Department stores don’t carry this range. They refuse to believe that there are people walking among us who are a size 28.”
Another cause of bad fit, Danny says, is wearing a bra too long. “Wearing a bra for three to five years is insane. Women should get a bra every three to six months. It’s the difference between you wearing the bra and the bra wearing you.
Sometimes the staff has to “duke it out” with a customer. (You can hear Selma gently duking with a customer on the NPR tape above.) “They say the customer is always right, but often she thinks she’s a certain size, but we know better,” Danny says. “Customers walk in wearing the wrong-size bra, and they walk out wearing the one we showed them. After you’ve had the wrong size for years and someone puts the right size on you, there’s no reason to put the wrong bra on again.”
While the Town Shop was a pioneer in personal custom-fitting, it’s by no means the only one of its kind. Many New York women are fans of the Lower East Side’s Orchard Corset, whose founding fitter, Magda Bergstein, was also on duty at an advanced age; it stocks “thousands” of bras. Bra Smyth (shops on the Upper East and the Upper West Side), which also specializes in fitting, carries some 15 styles of bras made in Europe. My Intimacy (“improve your life!”) is national (15 shops, with fitters, around the country). Last year, WVFC singled out Dee Generallo, bra-fitter extraordinaire at Johari, a lingerie boutique in Montclair, New Jersey, to provide answers to “our most burning bra questions.”
All of these stores have websites—but, of course, a real makeover comes with having an expert fitter substitute a good bra for your bad bra. In an attempt to minimize the guesswork in buying on the Internet, two sites just released online fitting tools that ask customers to indicate their breast shape, answer questions, and then get answers back about what bra type would fit them best: herroom.com (“Know Your Breasts Bra Finder”) and trueandco.com, (“What Is Your Shape?”)
Being aware of the sheer range, in size and shape, of the breasts of most women (as opposed to lingerie models) can be enlightening—and comforting—for the many women who have spent a lifetime ashamed of their breasts. In a poignant article in NYCityWoman, Robin Marantz Henig is forthright about the anguish the size of her breasts caused her: “My breasts are tiny, stunted somehow, for reasons that I’ve never quite figured out. Not just small breasts; bonsai breasts . . . . It sobers me to think that maybe my own private shame about my appearance was the driving force of some of my big decisions, too”
Her epiphany was discovering, on a website showing the range of normal breasts, how idealized the TV/movie/advertising image of a breast is. “This is what normal is,” she finally realized, “in all its splendid, flawed, dizzying variety.”
The Town Shop stands ready to accommodate that dizzying variety.