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Vamp up your bra

A little embellishment can liven up the most boring bra.

bra close-up

Purple with frustration recently at the awfulness of my bras, I decided to embellish them and see if I could improve matters. I have to confess, I am quite pleased with the results.

These bras, I should point out, are modelled on my mannequin, Isabella, and stuffed with old socks...

In deciding which embellishments to choose, I logged onto Figleaves and tried to define what I liked about certain bras. Apart from more embroidery on the top cups (something I'll try later using appliques), I noticed that pretty bras usually have the following:

* bows at the bottom of the front straps

* sometimes bows up the straps themselves

* a strong central motif between the cups

* embroidery outlining the cups

* pretty straps

* interest on the bra band

* a pretty back

* occasionally,  sequins on the cups

Some of these ideas can't easily be copied - there is a little you can do, for instance, to prettify a back band because that would affect its elasticity. The same applies to the straps, though I will try, at a future date, to applique a narrow lingerie ribbon on top of the thunderingly wide straps of the Doreen. But I decided to give some of the other ideas a try. 

black braThe bras shown are all Doreens by Triumph. A Doreen bra, though fabulously supportive and shaping, generally has little in the way of adornment other than a small central bow, though the Luxury variety also has prettier lace on the top cups, satin fabric, and picot edging on the cups and straps, which the other types lack. 

On the black Luxury Doreen (right) I added scattered gold sequins in the centres of the flowers, a little gold cross pendant (more Madonna than 'the Madonna', I hope) and embroidery round the cups in gold floss. This is very easy to do - you just use a large-eyed crewel needle and push it through the fabric, weaving in and out of the lace, then tie a knot at the back (take care not to pull the thread tight, as you'll reduce the cup size!). If you keep the sequins to the top half of the cups, you can sew right through the outer layer and inner lining but it won't irritate your nipples, or you can take more care and keep the stitching to the front layer only. The bra looks pink underneath, btw, because of my pink sports socks!

Red gold braThis red Doreen (left) is the standard model, which has quite rough, opaque lace. I added a red and gold pendant as its central motif, and the same gold floss embroidery as the black bra. The little red bows at the base of the straps (see close-up at top left) came from the old central motif of both this bra and the other red one shown and are held on with a gold bead, while the gold braid around the bra band is - believe it or not - off a posh chocolate box. 

red jade braAnd finally this red bra is my favourite. The upper cups are liberally sprinkled with irridescent sequins, and the central rhinestone motif is taken from a broken bracelet, as are the rhinestone bars at the bottom of the straps. The jade embroidery floss is actually knitting silk. The more embellishments the better, I think and I like this belly-dancer's-top result: the key is keep it tonal - all these embellishments are in the pink/jade range, which matches well with the red fabric.

Because I sew and make jewellery, I tend to have sequins, thread and findings hanging around the place, but if you want to try this idea yourself, the bits and bobs are readily available - lingerie bows, lingerie roses, applique lace and rhinestones can be had from any haberdashery or craft shop - I even found lingerie bows in a office supply shop.

Keep the embellishments flat and smooth for the best results. Curiously, though, I found that the cheaper and gaudier the ornament, the better it looks - real gold chain and silver don't work nearly so well.

I'll post some more pictures later, when I've embellished some others. 



Ten top lingerie tips

If you're a male buying lingerie for a female for Valentine's, here's some food for thought

lingerieFollowing on from my pre-Christmas blog on buying lingerie for your girlfriend, a male reader recently asked if I had any further advice for Valentine's Day.

The original tips were:

* Look in your partner's underwear drawer to get an idea of what colour she normally wears.

* Think about what style she - as opposed to you - likes.

* Think about her skin tone. 

* Know her size.

And here, after a bit of a think, are 10 more tips.

* 1 Buy something else instead. Lingerie is a very personal thing and most women have two sorts: everyday stretch stuff in black, white and flesh colour, and sexy stuff. If you buy her the former, she'll think it's boring, and if you buy her the latter, you're telling her how to express her sexuality, which is a no-no.  Instead, get her a beautiful nightgown or dressing gown or scarf, or chocolates, or dinner out, perfume etc. (And if you get perfume, don't get her what your ex used to wear just because you liked it). 

* 2 Never, never, never buy a woman shapewear of any kind unless she specifically asks for it. 

black print lingerie* 3 Camisoles and slips are nearly foolproof and so are nighties (except baby dolls) - most women will appreciate a pretty camisole, a slip or a nightie with a matching negligee. Unless it's see-through - in which case, you've boobed again. All of the slips shown on this page are from Figleaves and are sexy without being sleazy. Buying this kind of clothing also mean you don't have to worry so much about bra size or degree of push-up - she wears the same size in a slip or nightie as she does in a dress.

* 4 Buy silk lingerie. Many women don't treat themselves to this kind of luxury.

* 5 Listen to her. Does she complain that thongs cut her in half? Does she complain that lace itches? Not much point in buying her a lacy thong then, is there?

pink lingerie* 6 Buy her a voucher to spend at Figleaves, Victoria's Secret, Agent Provocateur or somesuch. The thought really counts, and you're not telling her what to get. If their prices make you wince, try British Home Stores - it has a fantastic lingerie department.

* 7 Leave lingerie advertising lying around and see what she says. Or, gazing at an Aubade ad, say whether you like it and see what her reaction is. PS: don't try this trick with Playboy...

* 8 Note what she wears on her top half, especially colour and transparency. There's no point at all in buying a coloured bra for a woman who lives in white blouses. 

* 9 Buy something she can wear outside the bedroom. If she can't, it's really a present for you...

* 10 Take it down a notch. If you like her in red, buy rose pink. If you like her in black, buy silver grey.  If you like see-through, buy something with lots of lace. Above all, buy a print - hookers don't wear prints.


Knicker tips for the clueless

Peter Jones has set up a men-only section in its lingerie department to help the guys sort the boyshorts from the thongs

Did you know that every major lingerie range brings out a black and red bra for Christmas?

No, neither did I. 

The customers they're aiming at, apparently, are clueless men, who at this time of year, high-tail it to the department stores at the last minute to get something for the wife or girlfriend. 

A red bra, points out Peter Jones saleswoman in this promo video on the Guardian site, will be worn by very few women, as it's not a practical colour.

I must be an exception here, though, because most of my bras are brightly coloured. Living, as I do, a rather grubby life, constantly covered in mud, soot and dog hair, my outer clothes all have to be dark or they're completely ruined in five minutes. I pretty much live in black, chocolate brown, khaki and various shades of taupe, beige and denim blue.

But to make up for it, my bra drawer is zinging, with bras in red, yellow, green, coral, shocking pink, black, white, lemon, sugar pink and lilac. They all go perfectly well under a black t-shirt, if you ask me - a white blouse is something in my dim and distant past...

The Guardian video highlights the Peter Jones department store, which has set up a men-only section this Christmas, where - it is hoped - men will not feel intimidated and can get some advice. The saleswoman featured says men get three things wrong:

* Size

* Colour

* Level of sleaze. 

So here's a clue, guys: crotchless knickers, boned basques, Santa Outfits and knickers with cartoon characters aren't generally women's cup of tea.

She then adds several tips:

* Look in your partner's undie drawer to get an idea of what colour she normally wears.

* Think about what style of undies she - as opposed to you - likes.

* Think about her skin tone. 

* Know her size.

Happy shopping, fellas. Still one day left to get it right. 



Boobed again

Every year I look for a pretty bra that is also supportive - and as usual, I'm straight back to my trusty favourites...

I am feeling deserted by fashion this week.

One reason is that I'm still clumping around like Quasimodo after my foot op last week. As soon as I had finally managed to get on a pair of trainers rather than Crocs, I had to have my second op (on mole number three), so am back into Crocs again for at least a few more days of shuffling. 

But it's also that I'm squaring up to that hideous annual routine of trying to find a decent bra. 

Doreen FleurIt's the same every year. My Doreens (by Triumph) give fantastic support and comfort, but they are not what you'd call the sexiest bra in the world. Therefore, once a year, the routine is this: I yearn for something prettier. I order something girly from some online vendor or another. It arrives, I try it on, and I send it back because it just doesn't give enough support. This year it was the Helena bra by Fantasie and the Provence from Pour Moi? Beautiful, both of them, but hopelessly unsupportive. 

Every year I end up tearing my hair out in frustration. The problem is that once you hit 40, you start to notice that everything in life, including your tits, is heading south. I have a low-slung bust to start with, courtesy of my Irish grandmother, but from the age of 11 to about 44, my boobs could hold their own for firmness without needing too much in the way of uplift, and a Wonderbra was all I needed to put someone's eye out. 

No more, however. These days I need a little more help: a good bra is about structure and my bras have to tick all the following boxes:

* Deep bra band with the cups properly set into it, not separate cups only joined in the middle.

* Leotard back.

* Two or three-hook back closure.

* Three-section cup or an internal sling.

* Wide straps.

The Doreen ticks every box. When I bought my first one five years ago, I was amazed at how it hoicked the girls back into place - it takes 10 years off you, along with 10 pounds. Not only that, it's so comfortable that I don't even know I'm wearing it. And those are not things with which I'm willing to part. But God, I wish it was prettier to look at.

I do not, I should perhaps point out, have big boobs - and that, indeed, is one of the problems. I'm only a 34B or 34C, depending on the time of the month, but good support details such as support slings are not generally included in bras under a D cup. Freya, Fantasie, Goddess and Elila are all wonderful makes that hardly ever produce anything in my size - if I had huge knockers, I'd be better catered for.

Miss Mary of Sweden braOther than the Doreen, the only bras I can find that fit my bill are Glamorise (Magic Lift), Playtex (cross your heart), Miss Mary of Sweden and the Grace bra by Royce, and most of them come in at about £39 per pop. Also, most of them are quite unattractive and are available in white only. I've found this one by Miss Mary of Sweden, with some nice embroidery on the cups, but once again, it doesn't quite come in my size - I would have to risk a 36B.

So, I turn back, once again, to the Doreen. Triumph has brought out this bra in standard, luxury, cotton-rich and 'fleur' jacquard satin finishes, all of which are very nice (especially the luxury finish), but you try getting it in colours other than black, white, nude and (very occasionally) pale pink. I am not a schoolgirl and I long for a dash of colour, and some lace edging or prettier straps.Lace on the top cups, or edging the straps or the band would be so welcome, rather than this plain edge, which makes the bra's construction so visible.

Doreen blueColour is also important when you can't change the style of your bra, and you're stuck with an over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder design. It is just a leetle something that makes you feel more feminine.  So thank heavens for Ebay, where I have now picked up limited-edition Doreens in dark red, coral and lilac, though the search is still on for blue and aqua (available, evidently, but not in my size).

But when will Triumph put its money where its mouth is and acknowledge that the Doreen is the best-selling bra in the world? When will it come with some lacy trim on the straps or the band, or in royal purple with black lace, or emerald green satin with red bows? When will it have sparkly fabric or contrast lace, or something - anything - to make it feel a tad less matronly? It is a fantastic construction, with about 48 or 50 parts, so surely just a few of those could be changed, to - for instance - have a nude lining to the lace on the upper cups?

Not only is Doreen the biggest-selling bra in the world, it sells to the biggest bra-buying market of all - 55-65 year olds, who have plenty of money to spend on lingerie and would still like to look sexy as well as supported.

Oh la. Well, I can see that customisation is the name of the game here and that I shall have to get out the sewing machine and the haberdashery basket, with roses, little bows and rhinestones galore.

And I have bought another Grace bra, which has pure cotton cups, and I will be dyeing it myself to see what I come up with. Watch this space. 


Bra savvy part four - shopping checklist

What to look for next time you buy a bra - a quick guide

Fundamentally, there are only half a dozen criteria for finding a great, supportive bra, so take this list with you the next time you go shopping:

Look for:

* Cups with 3-4 sections.

* Full cups that cover the top part of the breast.

* Tough fabric with little stretch.

* Wide shoulder straps.

* Underwires and/or side boning.

* A deep back band with three hooks.


* Balconnet styles.

* Bras that come in sizes bigger than your own.

In more detail:

blog imageSections. Count the number of sections in the cup to see how supportive the bra is going to be. You should be looking at a 3- or even 4-section cup for maximum support. The absolute best bra I've seen, but don't own, is this one by Freya. At $80, this would be a serious investment for me, but this bra has a three-section lower cup, plus a top section - at four sections, it should offer fantastic support. It also has an underwire, which I like.

blog imageFull cups. IE: a cup that covers the top part of the breast, as in this wireless bra by Miss Mary of Sweden. Cup shapes other than full cup leave you at risk of either falling out or packing yourself in too tight and flattening your breasts rather than uplifting them - sadly this means that mature women generally have to live without demi-cup styles or deep-plunge style bras. In particular, demi-cup bras do not have a large enough underwire to support larger breasts effectively.

Sturdy fabric. Many canny bra manufacturers make the top section and straps from lace, to give the design some visual lightness and make it less like 'corsetry', but the lower sections should be made from tough fabric with little stretch.

Wide shoulder straps. Although bra straps are only designed to carry 10 per cent of the weight of your breasts, they need to be firm and not too stretchy to do even that much. Look for straps half an inch wide or more and pass on any that you can stretch very far - bra elastic should be firm and resistant.

blog imageUnderwires. All designers will tell you that to be truly supportive, a bra needs an underwire, but I feel it is largely a matter of preference. Underwires do give a more rounded shape to the breast, as in the Jewels bra by Pour Moi (left) but if you find underwires uncomfortable, there are many well-designed bras that don't have them. The Doreen design by Triumph - the best-selling bra in the UK - does not have an underwire, and nor do some designs by Miss Mary of Sweden. If you buy a bra without an underwire, look out for side boning to give the bra some structure.

blog imageA deep bra band. The bra band should be about 2.5 inches deep between the breasts, have the cups set into it, and should have at least three hooks at the back. The bra band does the major support job of the bra, so this part of the bra is crucial. This Empreinte bra by Thalia disguises the sturdy bra band very effectively with lace.

Side boning. Especially important if the bra has no underwire, such as the Doreen bra by Triumph - vertical boning under the armpit prevents the side strap from rolling. Side boning, and quite deep sides of 2.5in or more will help prevent 'fat back'. If fat back is a real problem for you, consider a bra with deeper sides, or even a mid-line or long-line bra, which will give you a tiny midriff. In black or red, this kind of bra is really quite sexy.

blog imageSome deep-sided bras also come in front-fastening, which makes them a lot easier to put on, such as this front-loader from Glamorise. Front-fastening means you can undo the bra a notch or two if you wear a low-cut top, so it gives you some flexibility with necklines, but note that the straps on a front-fastener are not generally adjustable so you must be very careful to get the right size.

blog imageBalconnet styles. Balconnet styles suit most women and are especially useful for larger chests. They also enable you to wear a lowish, scooped neckline in place of a plunge top. Panache's balconnet bra gets rave reviews from buyers, while this pink 'Passion' balconnet bra by Ballet offers tremendous support without losing any femininity in the process.

Size. Look to see if the bra you fancy comes in sizes bigger than your size - if it's designed to support watermelons, it should deal with your honeydews with relative ease.


Bra savvy part three - what to avoid

As you get older you need a good, supportive bra - here's what to look for and what to avoid

Bra savvy part two - design basics

As you get older, you need your bra to do more for you - but do you know what to look for? Here we'll look at bra anatomy

Bra savvy part one

As you get older, you need your bra to work harder, but do you really know what to look for?

When a woman has small or firm breasts she doesn't generally give the design of her bra much thought - she simply chooses styles, materials and colours that she enjoys wearing. But when you hit 40 and your breasts begin to lose their firmness, the structure of a bra is what becomes all-important, not the colour or the trim.

The denial of Doreen

Not long ago it was the 40th anniversary of Doreen, the best-selling bra in the UK.

I had never heard of Doreen, which surprised me. I've always loved clothes, and underwear, was a big fan of Janet Reger, Rigby and Peller et al. But I find that my ignorance is not surprising. The reason? Doreen is never advertised.