I have just counted 29 bras nestling in my wardrobe. I think that’s a lot, but we never know how many bras others own because women tend not to discuss the contents of their underwear drawers.
I admit to keeping some just because they look pretty, like the £50 triangle of red velvet I bought five years ago that gleams like a Christmas bauble and is more decorative than useful.
But the main reason for this abundance of bras is that, like all women I suspect, I am driven by hope over experience in search of The Perfect One.
The definition of that depends on the individual, but I’m searching for something that looks delicious, feels like a whisper on the skin and gives my bust some curvaceous, contained shape. No boulder-holder effect please.
I haven’t always owned 29 bras or anything like that number. For decades, I didn’t own one. As an early developer of breasts, I was the first of my school class to wear one, which was a bit of a double-edged sword.
The bra whisperer: Alexandra Shulman and Susana Lorena. For decades, Alexandra didn’t own even one
On one hand, it represented a kind of sophistication, a pass into womanhood that contemporaries — still in their Chilprufe vests — stared at with curiosity as we changed at dance class.
On the other, there was something deeply embarrassing about these small but expanding mounds, when no one else appeared to possess them.
I remember the excitement of my first suspender belt but have no recollection of that first bra. I can’t even remember its size, 32A or B probably, but I doubt there was anything attractive about it.
Bras in the late 1960s, even for adults, were fairly serviceable cross-your-heart numbers. Maybe that’s what encouraged me at 17 to ditch them for the next 19 years. As far as I was concerned, they were uncomfortable, restrictive insults to my free-spirited flesh.
I was lucky (and I write this from distant memory) in having breasts that looked after themselves. No sag or spread or aches. They just kind of perched there, pleasantly independent.
Although ditching the bra was a conscious decision, it was in no way a political statement. And I had no thoughts of rejecting conformity to male expectations of a woman’s body. Far from it.
The only time I remember being uncomfortable about not wearing a bra was briefly in my mid-20s when I worked on a newspaper with a predominantly male staff.
Going into news conference to discuss the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, I was acutely aware of the appearance of my nipples drawing attention. The solution was not to wear a bra but to appear in a jacket or cardigan.
Alexandra calls Susana Lorena (pictured) the ‘bra whisperer’ because without a tape measure, only a few questions and a quick glance, she can find you the perfect bra
At the time, I had the usual complicated romantic life of a single young woman. I recall one period where I compared my love life to a plait, with three gentlemen visitors being woven in and out of the front door.
I don’t remember them paying much attention to whether I wore a bra. In general, men then seemed keener on what one wasn’t wearing.
But by 36, when I became pregnant, all this changed and so came an end to my bra-free state of affairs. I had to re-enter the bra world to deal with breasts that were becoming large shapeless appendages, unrecognisable to me.
Even amid the joy of having a son, I recall feeling resentful that I needed to wear a bra. And that remains, 27 years on, as my breasts never returned to their pre-child perkiness.
For me, there is a highly emotional aspect to bras. They say something about your identity and state of mind. There is a big contrast between a plain, seamless T-shirt bra and an ornate, wired construction. Not only do they look different but the wearer feels different. Knowing you are wearing a beautiful piece of kit that no one can see is one reason why so many women who wear uniforms splash out on underwear.
Now Alexandra (pictured) is the proud possessor of £200 worth of wireless bras, which ‘seem to support her without cutting into her flesh’
It’s why my friend, the late war correspondent Marie Colvin who was murdered in Syria, travelled with an arsenal of La Perla.
But shopping can be nightmarish. How many hours I have stood in a cubicle as I stare at myself in the mirror under unflattering light!
Am I really a 34 or is a 36 just more comfortable? Am I D or DD or E? Of course the answer can only be found in each bra because, as with a pair of jeans, there is little size uniformity within brands.
Then there are straps. My eye always turns to tiny rose-printed spaghetti straps, only to drag myself away to something more substantial if the bra is to give any support.
Somewhere in the early Noughties, bras became big business. They moved out of the lingerie department into booming High Street stores such as Top Shop and Gap.
For Alexandra, who expressed her distress at bra shopping, there is a highly emotional aspect to the clothing item
Young women who hadn’t paid much attention to bras were snapping up neon yellow padded numbers and cyclamen balconettes with skinny jeans and ballerina pumps.
Then came expensive shops on London’s Bond Street and Sloane Street such as Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer. These tried to make luxury underwear more fun and sexy than traditional corsetieres such as Rigby & Peller.
Some have floundered and there’s now a slew of online brands with more emphasis on comfort — such as Tanya Robertson’s Womanhood with its naturalistic images, or the more fun- loving The Pantry Underwear.
So shopping, with such choice, should surely be a breeze. Except a year ago, a tumour was found in my breast and I had a lumpectomy.
I was lucky not to lose the breast but, even so, it has a different shape to the other and there is an uncomfortable scar.
I was so relieved the tumour had been excised that I returned to bra business as usual, ignoring the surgeon’s suggestion that I wear sports-style bras for some time.
That was a mistake as underwiring irritates the scar — an obvious fact you might think, but it took the woman who founded my local lingerie Maison SL, in West London, to draw my attention to it.
I call Susana Lorena the ‘bra whisperer’ because without a tape measure, only a few questions and a quick glance, she can find you the perfect bra.
As she explains, fitting is a world apart from measurement as it takes into account the breasts’ shape and condition. And experience counts. She has had 25 years of sizing up women’s breasts.
Now I am the proud possessor of £200 worth of wireless bras, which seem to support me without cutting into my flesh and give a smooth outline that works with T-shirts and evening wear.
What’s more, Susana keeps her customers’ sizes on file so that menfolk buying them come birthdays don’t need to rifle through their other half’s drawers beforehand.
Which makes it easier than ever — not only to find The Perfect One, but to get him to pay for it, too.