BROOKLINE — Bra-wise, Donna Morton has seen it all. The owner of the lingerie boutique called Lulabelle in Hanover — with a new satellite location in Brookline — claims to be able to size women up at a glance, “from 20 feet away,” she says.
This is no small accomplishment since she’s looking at customers fully clothed.
Bra shopping, as any woman can tell you, is an ordeal. It’s not like trying on a top or pants. There is no avoiding the fact that you have to strip down to your waist. But Morton thinks she can ease the pain.
“I will make you feel so beautiful and so good in your clothes,” she says at her shop-within-a-shop at The Studio women’s clothing store, which opened this summer. “Give me 10 minutes.”
She did, in fact, give 10 minutes to a Newton therapist who was shopping at the store and decided to wander over to the corner where Morton was holding forth to get a fitting. Morton told the customer she was “too far East-West.” Her bra was creating a shelf that made her top boxy-looking.
Michelle Martino-Overholt, a Kingston resident who goes to Morton’s Hanover shop, describes getting fitted by Morton as “a whole new world.” She left the shop feeling sexy.
Studio co-owner Marcie Brawer calls Morton “the bra whisperer.” With bras, fit is everything. Morton does not do what bra specialists did for generations (before they almost disappeared as a species): Stick a hand inside your bra cup and lift your breast so it sits where it should. (This happened to me when I was fitted at age 16; the saleswoman was about 85.) Instead, Morton instructs customers in a do-it-yourself approach — “swoop and scoop” she tells them, “opposite hand to opposite breast.”
She insists that many of her customers have been fitted incorrectly elsewhere, or are just guessing what to buy. “Eighty percent of women are wearing the wrong size,” she claims. Martino-Overholt has had that experience in a popular underwear chain. “It doesn’t fit right and they don’t seem to care,” she says.
A bad fit means that underwires are digging into you, straps fall off your shoulders, or the back is hiked way up while the front hangs down.
The source of most fit problems is American manufacturers’ sizing system. They typically associate small breasts with small backs. “Tiny cup, tiny band,” says Morton, meaning the part of the bra that goes around your back. “Large cup, large band.”
The sizing doesn’t account for small women who are ample or large women who are not. Two women with otherwise similar physiques can both wear a D cup but look dramatically different, one with breasts like “tea cups,” the other like “cantaloupes,” says Morton, turning sideways and moving the bra cup further and further from her own chest to demonstrate her point.
Lulabelle bras are all top European brands; prices start at $89 and Morton says to think of it as an investment, like buying good shoes. To care for this lingerie, skip the machine, says the Bra Whisperer. She recommends Soak, a product from Canada that requires 15 minutes in the sink and no rinsing.
“When you wear a European bra you have the best lift and separation,” she says. “And, if fitted properly by a very experienced fitter, you will look a bit smaller, more in proportion to the rest of your body and will generally look as though you’ve lost 10 pounds because of the side shaping that occurs.”
Morton resorts to colorful language in describing what can go wrong in the bra department. Ladies, you do not want to be guilty of displaying “quadraboobs” (also known as “the double bubble”), her shorthand for the flesh that your undersize cups can’t contain so you pour out the top (Studio co-owner Brawer calls this “spillage”), creating the illusion of a second pair of breasts.
There’s more to worry about. Perhaps when you fasten your bra you’ve noticed little pockets of excess skin outside the cups near your underarms. This is armpit fat that Studio co-owner Sandy Gradman calls your “puppies.” Or you’ve got flesh bulging over the back band. Or your cleavage forms two straight vertical lines, which means half your tissue isn’t in the cups. Or your breasts are “heading south,” so the front of the bra falls forward while the back rides up. Or maybe you have what Morton calls a uniboob, a shelf made by wrapping yourself in a sports bra that you shouldn’t own.
Morton may not plunge her hands directly into your cups, but she’s perfectly willing to unbutton her own shirt and show a visitor her turquoise, lace-topped bra, which she insists isn’t itchy because it’s high-quality European lace made in one piece with some give. She announces that she’s a size 36G (that’s not a typo; she puts customers in A through K) because she gained 32 pounds when she had chemotherapy for breast cancer two years ago. Besides, she says, “I have nursed four children. These things” — pointing to her breasts — “are somewhere around my navel.”
She should be wearing a full-cup bra but she doesn’t think it’s the right silhouette for her. Instead she wears a balconette, which is more rounded and has a lower decollete, she says. At 53, she feels younger and a bit sexier in it.
The Bra Whisperer first became interested in intimate apparel while traveling to Europe from San Francisco for Levi Strauss & Co., where she worked as design director. She moved to Boston for a job as executive creative director of Stride Rite Corp. The Hull resident is a single mother of four children ranging in age from 12 to 23. After she left corporate life, which involved a routine of getting on early planes to New York and arriving home late at night, she became a stay-at-home mom.
In 2010, thinking about getting back into the work force, she had a phone interview for a job at Pottery Barn that didn’t go well. After the call, she drove by a store for lease in North Scituate and decided to call the landlord and open a lingerie store.
She had always liked the shops in Europe and everything she bought there. She told five close friends what she was up to. “They all said I was crazy.”
Lulabelle — her mother uses the name for both of Morton’s daughters — took off. She moved the store to a larger spot in the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham, and was doing well enough to think about expanding to the western suburbs in 2014, when she was diagnosed with cancer. “Everything fell apart,” she says. Now located in Hanover, she can close Sundays and nights, which is fine with her. “Lingerie isn’t a night purchase.”
She also thinks bras shouldn’t be an Internet purchase, though you can find plenty of sizing charts online. It demands customer service, she says, which even the best online store cannot provide. Each of her bras comes in at least 32 band/cup combinations and many come in five colors. She is sensitive to the women who need nursing bras, prosthetic bras, and swimwear with pockets for mastectomies.
All of her lingerie is meant to be worn every day. For one customer who decided that her new bras should be saved for special occasions, and she would “wear the old ones to garden,” Morton had this advice: “The bras wear like iron. Go garden. Plow the back 40.”
Lulabelle at The Studio, 233 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-5091 or email@example.com (The Studio is closed through Aug. 12); and Lulabelle, 222 Webster St., Hanover, 781-421-3754, mylulabelle.com.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org