Full Cup, an Alexandria Bra Boutique, Aims to Give Every Customer a Perfect Fit

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

I stand, topless and self-consciously hunched over in the dressing room, avoiding at all costs any eye contact with either of the two full-length mirrors, edged in gold and black. I feel exposed and a little silly and ready to just leave.

If I close my eyes I am a teenager again. I can hear my mother's voice whispering apologetically to the saleslady on the other side of the curtain, "She was always such an athletic child. We don't know what happened to her," as the saleslady steeled herself to begin wrestling heavy-duty bras onto my overweight, stretch-marked 15-year-old frame.

These were the kind of bras, four or five granny hooks in the back, with mortifying double-letter cup sizes that could -- and did -- set off airport metal detectors. They were like old Soviet architecture: drab, massive, with complicated steel framing. I still remember my high school voice teacher poking what she thought was my diaphragm to get me to sing louder, hitting the communist latticework and pronouncing admiringly: "My, what a well-developed muscle."

It was in dressing rooms like this where you experienced the kind of naked humiliation that made you wear the thing for years, until the underwire was sharp and twisted and threatened to pierce deadly holes in your rib cage. Anything but to have to go back to that shame-filled little dressing room.

Maggie Nicoletti opens the black curtain, slips in and closes it again. I take a wary breath. She hands me a red bra with black lace and black velvet straps with little black bows. Yeah right, I think. It looks like a G-string.

"Put your girls in," she says matter-of-factly, holding it out to me.

She places the palm of her hand under my left armpit and scoops. She gently tugs and pulls, swoops and tucks things into place. With her index fingers, she performs the "windshield wiper" move across the top. "The girls need to be talking over the fence."

She steps back.

"That works," she says in her soft, understated voice. "It fits you beautifully."

I take her word. She's been the manager at the Full Cup lingerie boutique in Alexandria since it opened two years ago. It's one of the few places in the area that specialize in the art, the science, the mystery and the often-delicate psychology of the properly fitting bra.

For the next 45 minutes, Nicoletti and another expert fitter hand me close to 20 bras in every color and style imaginable. They take copious notes. They won't tell me what size, because it's the fit, they insist, not the numbers, that matter.

"It should fit like this, see?" Franchesca Carrasquillo, the owner's daughter, lifts up her shirt to show me her own blue number.

They reject everything else I try on. They say they won't let me buy anything but perfect. And that, they insist, is this racy red number that is so Monte Carlo cigarette girl instead of the usual Moscow dowager cleaning woman.

If anyone knows what works, Nicoletti knows. By her own reckoning, she handles about 5,000 pairs of boobs a year. That's 10,000 breasts. "No two are alike," she says. "I've seen them all." Pears. Watermelons. Lemon slices. Silicon-enhanced. Reconstructed after cancer surgery. They're all outlined in a big black binder to train her fitters. Her customers, whom she sees by appointment only, range in age from 14 to 83, from size A to K.

In Europe, some men are master fitters. But here, in the land of "hooters" and "highbeams," "jugs" and "knockers," where the men she meets invariably ask her, upon discovering her line of work, if she needs any help with . . . quality control, heh heh heh, the store is a haven for women only. Here, amid the sparse racks of lingerie, the deep red walls decorated with the poetry of Maya Angelou and the black-and-white photos of the fitters' mothers and grandmothers, Nicoletti has created a sanctuary. And she likes to think of her work as a ministry.

We women come in dissatisfied, she says. We're too short. Too tall. Too fat. Too skinny. Our breasts are too big, too saggy, too small. We have flashbacks, like Scrooge, like me, to the ghost of mortifying fittings past. Nothing is ever right. Maybe once we've finally lost that 10 pounds. Ours is a society so titillated with a woman's mammary glands, there's even a Web site dedicated to 99 names for breasts. What women need, she says, is a refuge from the knowing late-night jokes, a place where breasts can just be breasts.

Nicoletti's clients look despairingly at the luminous photos of perfect models in lingerie displayed around the store. Nicoletti waves her hand dismissively. "It's all Photoshop and spray tan," she says. "They have cellulite, too."

My friend Wendy Moniz was the one who told me I had to come here. She herself went only at the urging of a friend who heard on Oprah that 80-some percent of women wear bras that don't fit.

"These women are on a mission to make your girls look good, and they are excited about it," she told me. When she goes, it's like having a party in the dressing room. And after suffering years of embarrassment and dread, "it does make you feel better."

Amelia Bennett, who owns a shop downstairs in their out-of-the-way cluster of stores in Old Town, was their first customer and remains their most loyal one. After she bought her first bra from Full Cup, she went home and asked her husband if he noticed anything different. "Well," she remembers him musing, "you seem to be standing up much straighter."

I take the bra to the register. Nicoletti wraps the Monte Carlo-ish bra and puts it in a bright red bag. The bra even has a name: the Antoinette. I don't flinch at the steep price tag. After 46 years in the gray gulag, I figure I'm allowed.

Behind the counter, a gorgeous black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe looks down at me. "The photo was taken at a time when she seemed to have everything. Beauty. Fame. But she was still so unhappy," Full Cup owner Frances Crespo explained to me later. "The point of having it there is, I want women to accept themselves. To be happy with who they are exactly where they are."

The answer to one of life's stickier questions resolved in an old photo and a golden dressing room? For today at least, I'm in.

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