The Cups Runneth Over

The New York Times

By Jessica Seigel

Want to know Victoria's Secret? I'll tell you.

It might be especially interesting to men shopping for Valentine's Day gifts, like those widely promoted push-up bras. You know them from the ads showing skinny models with spherical breasts that appear to float in skimpy lace cups. With their shoulder straps thin as ribbon and narrow back bands, the cleavage-baring bras resemble two clam-shell halves looped together with string (similar to what the heroine wears in "The Little Mermaid").

So what's the secret? It's all a sham. The bra is useless for supporting anything of amplitude for more than a few minutes. The breasts are fake -- buoyed from within by implants -- because women without enough fat for hips or behinds also don't have much in breasts.

Freud once noted that men don't know what women really want, and that holds true in underthings. After all, 50 percent of lingerie is returned compared with 30 percent for other kinds of clothing, according to Marshal Cohen, senior analyst at the market research firm NPD Fashionworld. "Some guys haven't seen their wife's intimate clothing in quite a while," Mr. Cohen says. "The longer the relationship, the bigger the disconnect."

But don't blame men. They're responding to what lingerie companies are selling. In the last decade, manufacturers that once sold sturdy, supportive "foundations" reconceived lingerie as fashion, increasing their advertising while cutting back on basic fit and function (like linings under scratchy lace). Breasts ballooned. Bras shrank.

With our foundations pulled from under us, women turned to implants. They paid for 225,818 augmentations in 2002, according to American Society of Plastic Surgeons member reporting. Demand for breast implants and lifts rose 584 percent in the last decade -- a higher increase than any other cosmetic surgery, ahead even of slimming procedures like liposuction (up 333 percent) and tummy tucks (up 392 percent).

Now we are so accustomed to stick-thin celebrities, models, beauty queens and our neighbors displaying orb-like breasts that it's difficult to believe (or remember) that this shape is rarely found in nature. But the drastic changes in the feminine silhouette in the last 100 years tell the story.

In the latter 19th century, women's most important undergarment was the corset, which cinched the waist but did little to support the breasts. Instead women had a low-hanging monobosom, as documented in histories like "Uplift: The Bra in America" by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau.

According to their research, the first American patent for a prototypical bra was granted in 1863, but breasts got a life of their own only when bras became de rigueur for the fashionable in the 1930's. The new lift and separation evolved into the torpedo shape of the 1940's, which went nuclear with underwire in the 1950's, when the war's end freed metal for domestic use.

The struggle to buttress what is naturally low-lying has produced its own mythology, like the legend that in the 1940's Howard Hughes used airplane technology to build a better bra for Jane Russell in "The Outlaw." As Miss Russell, the queen of sweater girls, explained in her 1985 autobiography, the "ridiculous" contraption hurt so much that she wore it only a few minutes. Then she secretly slipped back into her old bra, tightened the shoulder straps, and returned to the set. The famed bra ended up in a Hollywood museum -- a false witness to the push-up myth.

The battle between push-up and comfort continues today. A British engineering professor, John Tyrer of Loughborough University, risked professional ridicule when he applied science to the brassiere. Using laser tools, he measured how the current minimalist underwire styles unnecessarily shift the full breast load onto the front chest wall, causing pain and discomfort, and even "wire rash," in larger women.

It took a rocket scientist to prove what women complain about in private, but don't act on, believing, or hoping, that a comfortable yet uplifting bra is just another shopping trip away. Two rebel groups -- older women and teenagers -- are switching to more comfortable jogging bras or undershirts, according to Ms. Gau's research. Other women, inspired by the more supportive designs of yesteryear, report altering, padding and lining the minimal underwire styles available today. And some give up: women around the world have donated castoffs to the 1,800-pound "Braball" sculpture by a San Francisco artist, Emily Duffy.

If a woman can't find what she wants, how is a man going to find it? What can a Romeo do for Valentine's Day? They say the brain is the sexiest part of the body -- so just ask Juliet what she wants. Then do it.