Once upon a time in Mumbai, there were exactly 4.6 stores where you could get wearable lingerie. Even there, with the inch-thick straps, starched cotton and anatomically challenged styles, they just about ensured that women didn’t revolt against Juliet or whichever misguided Shakespearean-era manufacturer created them. If Jean Paul Gaultier had visited an Indian bra manufacturing unit, he would probably have been inspired to create Madonna’s conical bra much earlier than the 1990s.
Mumbai now has French, Italian and British lingerie labels and stores, but the
footfalls haven’t slowed down at some old stalwarts. Styles and selection have improved—it’s not a revolution but, at least, a start. At Khamisa, the oldest lingerie (say it the way they do—linger-ee) store in Mumbai, black, white and “skin colour” have given way to fuchsia and turquoise. Here, everything goes back generations. The Crawford Market store was started in 1910 by Abu Baker Khamisa. Today, his 31-year-old great grandson with the same name sits there, and says that his regular customers have started bringing their fourth generation to the store. Colaba’s Jadavji is now stocked mainly with Jockey and Lovable. It’s best-seller is an all-encompassing style called Encircle—a rather stolid-looking specimen in white cotton lace.
I, thankfully, had no experience with these old faithfuls—one of the advantages of being born in the 1980s. I grew up on the “fancy” lingerie stores, the next step in the evolution. Most of these stocked two types of bras—the ones that were made locally and the “imported” pieces. The locally made ones were in cardboard boxes with images of models you hoped you would never look like; the bras were almost never underwired and fit so badly that you had to opt for anything but them. If, by some chance, you found one that fit well, it would be unwise to come back next time and pick up that style without trying it on again—it would probably not be the same. Most of us didn’t wear underwired bras for the longest time because the locally produced pieces were like wearing a piece of armour that poked your skin.
Back then, one lingerie store rule which you found out only by trial and error was that if you asked for bras that were not white, black or beige, meant you wanted something fancy that: a) you could wear to a drag party, b) something that was see-through, c) a bra PETA might object to, not because it was made of real fur (it obviously wasn’t), but because the hide of handsome animals had been made to look so hideous.
Madonna, a lingerie store at Mahalaxmi, sometimes displayed fluorescent underthings that were one feather too tacky even if you were aiming for stripper style. The shopowners claimed they sourced them from Bangkok, but some of them looked like they were home-made by bored aunties—an edgier home industry compared to pickles and papad. These creations were stuffed into large plastic boxes, labelled by size and stocked next to long block-printed nightgowns and full-length “slips”.
After Madonna opened shop, Lady Care, an existing store a few doors down, also began sexifying its window. It seemed like a competition of sorts, but it couldn’t keep up with Madonna. Today, when a Tata Indicom outlet is to open in Madonna’s place, Lady Care is back to what it does best—boring nightgowns and fuddy bras.
There was one creation that was in Madonna’s window for months—a string bikini bra with furry round cups and a matching thong. It came in many colours, looked like it was made out of a recycled soft toy, but sold out as soon as it was in, the salesman told us. It created a furore when the tourist buses brought sightseers from small towns to the Mahalaxmi temple next door. They gawped and held up traffic, but they couldn’t be blamed, really. It was a sight worth gawping at.
Here, the pain of rummaging through a box of over-padded, badly fitting bras for a good half-hour was always eased by the fun of parrot green feather boas flapping about or discovering a G-string with sequinned embroidered lips. Equally entertaining was listening to the advice sales staff gave women who were stupid enough to ask for it. My all-time favourite is the definition I once heard of a push-up bra, which pegged it as a heavily padded bra that should be one size smaller than your regular cup size, to give the desired boosting effect.
It didn’t help reading about a Japanese bra that was designed to keep the wearer warm in winter, as the country was trying to save on energy costs, or the Hong Kong university that’s offering a degree in bra studies. There have also been inventions such as an instant-release bra clasp, an inflatable push-up bra, a bra with detachable straps that can be removed without taking your top off and an electromagnetic piece that claims to perk up droopy breasts. We weren’t even asking for any such avant-garde rocket science, just a simple, good bra. Or maybe a balconette with lace cups. But that was the extent of our demands.
Now, in the 100th year of the bra, we finally have salvation. There are stores in Mumbai where balconette, demi-cup and push-up are not terms the sales staff have never heard before. Here lace looks like lace, satin like satin and thongs are as tantalizing as Ditta Von Teese or vanilla like Gwyneth Paltrow. Dalbir Bains moved here from the UK and brought Rigby & Peller, Lejaby and Calvin Klein to her Juhu store Boudoir London. There, you can get a simple T-shirt bra that actually has no seams, or a fancy piece that can make you feel like the Juhu counterpart of Adriana at a Victoria’s Secret show. And if Bains is to be believed, everyone—even hefty homemakers—want to look Lima-like.
Canadian brand La Senza made lingerie shopping as easy as getting candy—and as colourful. It’s actually easy to find a thinly padded, underwired bra (with or without seams), or an elegant push-up. It’s both—a good bet for daily wear and the place to get bras you can wear with any kind of outfit. But this month, big momma arrives—La Perla, the luxury Italian lingerie and swimwear biggie, opens its first store in India. Bra shopping will never be the same, but all its erstwhile customers will always smile when they think of the feather boas at Madonna.