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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  A bra that fits?

A bra that fits?

Can modern brands really match the customization once offered by local tailors?

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

The context:

“What shape are your breasts?" asked the online lingerie site. Are they “well-rounded", or flatter on top extending down to a full bottom? Are they three finger-widths apart in the center and extending to the sides? Or are they “wide and low", a winning combination?

What is the normal shape of a breast, I asked out loud.

My husband paused mid-bite. The idli he was just about to pop into his mouth dropped on his plate. Of all the wifely questions that I had asked over the years, this one had clearly come from left-field. My husband had the look of someone who had fudged answers for dozens of years and was finally about to be caught. After all, the rest had been fairly straightforward.

“Am I fat?" No.

“Do I look good in this dress?" Yes.

And now this.

I studied my husband critically. Perhaps the question was too open-ended. I decided to help him.

“This is an online lingerie site," I explained. “It helps women figure out which type of bras work for them."


“Yup," I replied. “It asks questions about the shape of breasts. Like whether they are... mango or pear shaped, for example."

“Which one is better?" he asked in turn.

“Well, mango shaped ones are rounder, full on all sides. But that doesn’t mean that they look better. Pear-shaped ones are plumper at the bottom."

“Which type of mango?" asked this man, the mango connoisseur. “Do you mean Alphonso or Imam Pasand or Raspuri?"

“That’s not the point," I said. “There are at least 30 popular bra retailers. How do you pick the right bra for you? Is the cup shallow or full?"

“Which cup?" he asked, glancing at his tea.

We could have been discussing Erdogan and the situation in Turkey.

Used to be that you walked into the store, announced your size to the clerk and walked away with your inner garment. Not any more. Innerwear these days, and bras in particular, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is “demi", which does not refer to the actress. There are bralettes, T-shirt bras and push-ups. There are cleavage enhancers and nipple concealers. There is low-cut and high-cut, but what there isn’t is any shortcut. And now there are online bra retailers that size you up long distance through a “fit test".

True & Co.’s test put me through a bewildering array of questions that made the CAT seem like child’s play.

Ladies, I ask you: is your right breast bigger than your left breast or vice versa? Apparently 90% of us have differently shaped and sized breasts. Righties are those whose right breast is bigger and lefties are, well, you get the picture.


Mohammad tailor would have been in full concurrence with this hypothesis. “Master" as he was called (most head tailors are called master in India) had stitched bras for the women in my family for three generations.

Within the recesses of Parry’s Corner in Chennai, beyond the “Marwari" provision shops selling whole nutmeg, cloves, and piles of fragrant turmeric, cumin, and red chili powder, was a tiny shop inside a side street. This used to be the kingdom of Mohammad Master. In this tiny cramped space, Master, like a king, ruled over a variety of variously shaped Chennai matrons, who, I should add, could give every fruit, not just a mango or pear, a run for its money. Most of them looked like pineapples: prickly on the outside and bulbous to boot.

In the early 1980s, Mohammad Master was the king of lingerie. Into his shop crowded the women of Chennai, discussing strap lengths, elastic, fabric and hooks.

My maternal grandmother had discovered him as a young bride and the women in my family relied on him for innerwear ever since.

Like most of her ilk, my grandmother didn’t wear a bra. She wore what in Kerala was called a “mole kache" (a breast cover.) Later, when she started wearing the more modern version, she called it a “body" not a bra.

All her bras were stitched and looked somewhat like a sports bra. It was typically made with the softest cotton. You had to slip it on over your head and then my grandmother tied the bottom together into a fisherwoman’s knot. Were my grandmother’s breasts of a different size? Were my mother’s? Were mine? There was only one man who could answer all three questions.

“Master, can a woman have breasts of different sizes?" I once inquired.

“Every single breast is of a different size, Baby," he replied. “Like a fingerprint, each breast is unique."

He called me “baby", not in the romantic/sexual way but in the “I stitched your first bra and I can measure a woman’s size with my eyes closed" version.

I haven’t seen or spoken to Master in years. Last I heard, he had a couple of nieces assisting him in the bra-stitching business, even though he said that it was a dying art.

“This lady called Victoria has taken all my business," he complained when I last phoned him. “Every time I ask these young girls where they get their bras, they say ‘Victoria stitched it.’ Who is this Victoria?"

“Nobody important," I replied.

“Would you bring your daughter to me? Or would you go to that Victoria lady?" asked Mohammad. “They say that my designs are now old-fashioned."

“Of course they are not," I said loyally. “Your bras are so comfy."

“Remember the one with tiny violet and yellow flowers that we created for your mom?" he asked.

I remembered because I still had it. Other women may inherit baubles from the women in their family. I inherit bras.

The violet one in question made of soft, stretchable banian fabric. It had tiny violet and yellow flowers all over. Mohammed had trimmed it with some lace. My mother would wear it under her light yellow sari-blouse that was tailored as tight as a corset and fit like second skin on her body. The violet flowers in the bra would be ‘see through’ as he said.

“Your father liked it," my mother whispered on the day that she told me about the birds and the bees. Take that, Victoria’s Secret.

Master always knew what the newer lingerie brands are now touting: that breasts aren’t identical. Unlike the usual brands, Indian tailors, particularly those who customize like Mohammad, make allowances for the quirks of each breast.

“Your grandmother’s right breast was smaller than her left," Master pronounced one day. How did he know? I mean, it was not as if my demure grandmother would have allowed him to peek or stare at her boobs, let alone take a measure of them.

The history of bras in India is very short. Till a century ago, Indian women didn’t wear a blouse, or, for that matter, a bra. Innerwear called kanchuka appears only in the Vijayanagara period. Until then, Indians like ancient Egyptians went bra-less. Prudish predilections like the petticoat and bra came with the Victorians. Even today, the Indian countryside is full of women who eschew innerwear. They merely wear loose saris sans top, perfectly suited for our tropical climate.

In cities however, lingerie retail is thriving. Online sites such as Clovia, Zivame, Enamor, Lovable and Amante offer a variety of bras in eye-popping colours. Will their service equal Mohammad Master’s customization and practised eye? I don’t know but I hesitate to find out.

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Published: 13 May 2017, 11:33 PM IST
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