"I think it'll push mine up," says a wistful Catherine Mustain.
"When it arrived in Cincinnati two weeks ago I tried to get one," says Linda Meyer, who lives in Ohio. "I didn't go until the second day, and then I couldn't get my size."
It's September 1, and Meyer and Mustain are among a handful of women gathering outside Carson's for the Chicago debut of the Wonderbra. They were drawn by ads in the dailies that read, "Come early and get yours while supplies last" and "No mail or phone orders will be accepted." It's just happy coincidence that Meyer, in town visiting her sister, is getting a second chance to find her size.
There's a nervous energy in the air; a whirlwind of hype seems to accompany the Wonderbra wherever it goes.
The British-made push-up bra that's inspired dozens of copycats has been available in Europe for decades, but it just arrived in New York in May, complete with armored trucks and guards. Since then it's been slowly working its way across the country.
At roughly 9:45 AM a trolley "officially" delivering the Wonderbras pulls up outside Carson's. A trio of graying and mustachioed musicians play a Dixieland jazz version of "Chicago, That Toddling Town" as leggy young models in low-cut sweaters jump off the trolley, posing and smiling. A few men gather to watch the models giggle and flaunt their cleavage. Then the models and the band lead their entourage, which numbers about two dozen by now, to the lingerie department for a frenzy of uplifting shopping.
"I'm getting them for my daughter. She's been waiting for them. I guess they have them in France," yells Marianne McGreevy. It's tough to hear her talk over the musicians, who are playing banjo, tuba, and horn amid the racks of underwear.
Clutching a few bras, McGreevy makes her way to the register. She is among the first to actually buy the bra, which costs $28.28 including tax. "I think this is great. I wish they'd had these when I was 23. I think the French women are way ahead of American women, don't you?" she asks. "They do say the British version, the Gossard, is more comfortable, but how would I know? I'm a 42 triple D." The Wonderbra only fits sizes up to 38 C.
Back in the Wonderbra section, cameras are clicking and news crews are taping while a steady stream of women, and an occasional man, are being helped by an equal number of Wonderbra saleswomen. They even help in the fitting room, giving pointers on getting every inch of flesh stuffed into those cups. Though the Wonderbra looks like an ordinary push-up bra, its manufacturers claim it has 54 separate parts. They also like to talk about the bra's "engineering," which must refer to the way its sides angle sharply downward, pushing everything in between in and up.
"It's better than Victoria's Secret," says Cheryl Hennessey as she emerges from a dressing room. Hennessey is one of the few young women shopping. Most shoppers are near or beyond their 40s.
Linda Meyer is luckier in Chicago than she was in Cincinnati. She's found her size, and now she and her sister are hunting for Wonderbras for their friends.
But it seems they're not the only ones shopping for their "friends." "I've got four ladies who need four bras," says a thin older man, searching frantically for help. When asked why he's buying so many, he answers, "It's kind of a joke. They're always complaining about their breast size. There are a lot of women waiting to push everything up."
Are any of the shoppers struggling with feminist questions? Does the bra reinforce the stereotype--while reinforcing cleavage--that a woman is only an object?
"At one time, during the 70s, I didn't wear a bra. But then gravity takes over," explains Meyer.
"I have no problem with it. I hope it does what it promises," says Lisa Rivera as she leaves with her purchase.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.