November 23 2009
Erogenous zones come and go but this winter sees the strange case of the disappearing bosom. The most reliably revealed area of allure has been almost banished as fashion takes a severe, even demure, turn to shape and structure. On the catwalks, if necklines were lowered to a deep V they were often infilled with what can only be described as a “modesty” – a flash of red knit at Prada or a sparkly black lace bandeau at Balenciaga.
It could be current economic woes underlining a newly restrained mood where cleavages are too “in your face”, but the link is less direct. An understandable swing to more austere, classic design has coincided with new directions, none conducive to the cleavage. Modernist style is often high-necked and its geometry depends on straight lines, while 1980s-style draping needs a smooth fall; and shoulderpads, whether 1940s- or 1980s-inspired, draw attention to a different area with, as Kenya Cretegny, owner of Marylebone lingerie store Apartment C, points out, “two protuberances, so to have two more out front would be overkill”.
So no boom for the bust at present, with major consequences for lingerie. The padded, push-up and moulded bra styles that form the majority of sales in the £1bn-plus British market begin to look inappropriate, even vulgar. The most desirable designs now have fabric and trims taking centre stage, with just an underwire or soft shaping. Rarely has underwear been more gorgeous, with lace and retro satin the dominant fabrics in rich jewel or soft vintage shades, trimmed with ribbon and teamed with delicate silk, tiny floral prints, chiffon or tulle. It is a classic fashion contrast – as clothes become more severe and simple, we revel in the private pleasure of decorative lingerie, and the lack of padding makes these bras feel more delicate and sensuous.
Softer bras give a “more natural silhouette that makes current clothing shapes hang more elegantly”, says Selfridges’ lingerie buyer Helen Attwood. “And if they fit properly they accentuate the waistline.” However, many women wonder whether they will offer enough support. The almost-unstructured “triangle” bra usually goes only up to a C cup and seems almost an anachronism since women now need much larger cup sizes on back measurements as narrow as 30in. Reasons as varied as diet or oestrogen in the water have been put forward to explain this change, but part of the explanation appears to be better fitting techniques. “Women are more aware of the need to have every bra fitted but there are still misconceptions,” says Purminder Mondair of Triumph, whose number-one bestsellers have never been padded . “A bra that you cannot feel is too loose. You should be able to feel its support, but comfortably. The underband should be tighter for support while the cup should enclose all the breast tissue.”
Another misconception is that an unpadded bra cannot support a more generous bust. For evidence to the contrary, look across the Channel. In talking about new bra shapes with buyers from top lingerie-selling stores such as Selfridges, Fenwick, Rigby & Peller and Figleaves.com, the same French names came up as exemplars: Aubade (from £60), Simone Pérèle (from £40), Chantelle (from £36), Lejaby (about £4) and Princesse Tam-Tam (from £28.25), which all have unpadded, underwired, ravishingly pretty bras, up to an E cup. “We try to flatter and respect the female figure, not alter it,” says Pérèle’s Carole Launchbury.
“The French have never been into aggressive push-ups except perhaps with a low-cut evening dress,” says Véronique Bonard, corsetry expert at Chantelle. “We believe in a wardrobe of bras appropriate to the clothes worn over them, to give the most flattering outline.” The company, currently celebrating 60 years, finds unpadded sales in Britain now at about 50 per cent, according to UK MD Mary Cameron. Its fitting “boudoir” is open in Harrods until December 5; there, customers can try different styles. Could perfect underpinnings be the secret of French elegance?
Certainly the structure of upper-end French bras owes more to couture tradition than modern industrial processes, as illustrated in the last Dior haute couture collection, where outfits were shown déshabillées over equally exquisite lingerie to emphasise the latter’s importance and reflect the brand’s retro styles that, according to Harrods’ lingerie buyer Sarah Cohen, are top sellers. At ready-to-wear level, corsetry is also the root, linked to modern stretch fabric. “Correctly placed seaming on the cup provides natural-looking uplift,” says Nicky Clayton of Rigby & Peller. “A balconette bra, with wide-set straps, offers the most uplift without padding, gives a flattering, wide-set neckline and allows a delicate lace or silk upper cup. A full cup gives more traditional natural support, but with modern stretch lace is still light and pretty.”
Diane Houston, designer of Gilda & Pearl, has learned from the French tradition for her vintage-inspired, handmade, underwired and soft bras (from £65), which can be customised. “Balancing the fabric is important,” she says. “Silk may be too soft but layer over it crisper cotton lace and the structure supports the seaming, or I use two layers of silk in panels.”
The rise of softer shapes is helping smaller brands which do not depend on the industrial production of moulded forms. Rigby & Peller’s Clayton has picked up Elixir’s sheer lace with mesh support (from £55) and Prima Donna’s smooth satin microfibre lines (from £60.95). Apartment C has a clutch of labels, including Wundervoll’s superfine silk jersey with piping (£80), Clare Tough’s 1940s-style longline bras with elasticated panels (£220), Araks’ fine silk/cotton mix with mesh (£83) and Elise Aucouturier’s Grayson Perry Liberty prints (£130). “I call the look ‘future retro’,” Clayton says, “as it mixes the best natural fibres with techno. It’s delicate and romantic, yet hip and faintly tough; a good tension that’s a modern approach to sensuousness.”
In the same bracket, she puts Italian brand Cotton Club’s Seta bras (from about £100) with delicately ruched undercups, mesh uppers and burnished brass fastenings. Stella McCartney also does charming ruched undercups (Amber Chatting bra, £125), while Fenwick buyer Tanya Gibson rates Aubade, Simone Pérèle, the Danish brand Hoff by Hoff (“silk chiffon and ribbon”, £75) and Mimi Holliday’s tiny florals (about £45). These, says Figleaves.com’s buyer Denise Fraser, can be individualised with vintage Nottingham lace and she is also excited by Made by Niki’s classic mesh bra (£55). “Within the industry, materials are moving towards strength and uplift with great lightness,” she says. “Some have aloe vera moisturiser built in, a comfortable silicone underwire is in development and soon labels will be smoothly stamped, not sewn.”
Padding traditionally had the advantage for moulded “T-shirt” bras, which make up 58 per cent of the US market, says Cameron, “because working women are sensitive about nipple outlines. New fabrics now mean the moulding can be light but still camouflaging.” Styles are now softened, with lace overlay at Chantelle (about £44), a lace back at Triumph (from £24.50) and almost seamless by Jean Yu (from £280), while the gold standard is Erès’ smooth, unpadded, understated style in neutral shades (from £179).
For eveningwear, specialist Myla sees a move from “padding and push-up to the more sophisticated unpadded underwire [up to £99]”. “The balconette’s advantage,” says Mondair, “is it’s a good natural ‘cradle’ for day, while it’s also sexy with a lower neckline at night.” So pretty are the fabrics that many seem built for show. “I usually add a pretty edge so it’s glamorous if it shows,” says Houston, while Fraser says that contrasting or decorated straps on evening styles are worn to be seen.
For strapless bras, which hitherto relied on padding, there is now a visible solution. Lucy Morello pondered how to make lacy strapless bras wearable – her Brazelle is a pair of crystal-trimmed, gold-plated clips that fasten to a bra, with a fine silk-scarf halter to provide uplift as well as a hint of jewellery (£147). A plain version will follow shortly. It’s an interesting modern paradox: women don’t want to reveal a cleavage but we’re quite happy if our bra straps show.