"May I?" says the lady who has stepped into the little room with me. She wants to put her hands in my bra. When I let her, she scoops and lifts and pushes and tucks. Somehow, I think I have Angelina Jolie to thank for all this.
The movie star who made her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy public last month not only raised awareness of the cancer risk of carrying the BRCA gene mutation, but also gave expression to the modern mammary zeitgeist. Breasts, it seems, are no longer just men's toys or convenient baby feeders. They're integral parts of our bodies, and we can make decisions about them, discuss them openly and have other people size them up (and handle them) like melons in a supermarket.
Forget feminist initiatives like Take Back The Night. We're in an undergarment moment you could call Take Back Your, well, I'm thinking here of a word that rhymes with Bits.
The bra, in particular, is a fraught piece of clothing that has been seen as many things in its history, from an instrument of bondage, restriction and concealment that second-wave feminists set ablaze to demonstrate their freedom to a heightened expression of confident, post-feminist sexual display à la Victoria's Secret's $15-million Red Hot Fantasy Bra in 2000. But now it's having a more sober symbolic moment as a garment that supports and hugs you perfectly, just like an accommodating househusband.
"Now, this is the right size for you," Eva, the saleslady in the little changing room, informs me sternly, as she adjusts the straps of the bra. They're all called Eva or Hilda, these matronly, middle-aged bra fitters in high-end "bra boutiques" that specialize in helping customers find the exact size and style to fit their frontage. This is mildly reassuring. It's better to have someone who looks as though life has required her to wrestle far more challenging things than breast tissue into a piece of fabric. It would be kind of off-putting to have a hot-looking 20-year-old called Tiffany touch your breasts.
Eva steps back to take in my bosom. We take to discussing the merits of the bra's details, fabric and fit. I feel like a piece of furniture whose cushions have been readjusted and reupholstered for all to admire.
Bra sizing matters more than ever, according to research and fashion experts. "There has been a huge gap in the market because most bras are mass-produced in standard sizes that don't actually closely fit most people," Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, tells me on the phone, adding that consumers are "more conscious of fit now because fashion has become a spectator sport. There is more information online, so things that only small numbers of people thought about before are now more generally discussed."
Last month, Jockey International announced "another step in the evolution of the modern brassiere" with the introduction of its "Volumetric Fit Kit System." It took eight years of research with 800 women to figure out a measuring system that would result in a better fit with the new Jockey Bra. (And we think getting to Mars is tricky.) A series of cups and a colour-coded measuring tape, the process takes into account the shape of a woman's breasts as well as the size. The old familiar numbers – 32 B, 34C, 36D – are replaced with a coding system that sounds like a computer program: 1-30, 9-42. "You wouldn't measure a pitcher of water with a tape measure, would you?" Jockey asks on its website. "Why do the same to measure your bra size?" The pitcher analogy was good. One of the biggest problems women have with their bras is "spillage," according to market research. Still, the use of the word "pitcher" was a tad demure. It would have far more in keeping with the forthright ethos of public breast discussion to have gone ahead and called them jugs of water.
According to some of those market studies, nearly 85 per cent of women are wearing the wrong size of bra – a statistic that doesn't come as much surprise. In the past, it may have been a rite of passage to go to a department store with your mom or your girlfriend to pick out that first bra, but it was more about strapping the thing on as a badge – or should that be bradge? – of honour than finding the right fit. The bra was not a shoe. It was a sign of womanhood. It didn't matter if it pinched and pulled. It was a psychological garment more than anything.
Now, though, the breast is hanging out there, as it were, in the realm of public discourse, and there's nothing unmentionable about brassieres any more. We know, for instance, that the Duchess of Cambridge likes the maternity lingerie of the British label Lorna Drew. And Rigby + Peller, the supplier of the Queen's underwear (yes, we're even privy to her skivvies) has recently launched the biggest bra size ever, N. (Since 1996, the average bra size has gone up three sizes, from 34B to 36DD.)
The only thing that R + P has neglected to inform the public about was the size Her Majesty wears. It's likely a custom fit: QE11?