As a costume designer, I’ve had hundreds of fittings with performers who are unhappy with their everyday bra, and it’s my job to find one that actually works. For those with smaller busts, I’ll stack a costume fitting with a wide range of bra options: It may be a bralette or a triangle bra that does the trick. Perhaps they prefer a lightly lined bra or a padded bra, or a bra with a contour cup. Or maybe it’s a strapless, a bandeau, a sticky backless, a push-up, or nipple covers. (It could even be a bra as a shirt — cue: Sue Ellen Mischke — or no bra at all.)
But it’s not so simple for women with bigger busts. When it comes to D cups and larger, there’s often a compromise to be made — find a nice-looking bra that doesn’t function, or buy a bra that holds you up but feels like a punishment for having breasts. For many years, I searched in vain for a bra that could handle a D-plus cup, smoothed out the back, didn’t dig into shoulders, and actually looked appealing (rather than resembling, as so many of them do, a straitjacket for your boobs).
And then I found the PrimaDonna Madison Bra. A full cup underwire bra, it comes in sizing from 34B to 44I and is available in eight colors. It has a touch of lace and minimal frills, and provides the poise that comes from wearing a bra which supports you, both physically and psychologically. I first discovered PrimaDonna when I popped into Town Shop on the Upper West Side to buy bras for an opera singer’s fitting. The very knowledgeable saleswoman suggested the PrimaDonna Madison, but she was so reluctant to sell me a bra without the soprano trying it on that, in order to appease her, I let her fit me. The Madison is the only bra I have worn since. (And, as it turned out, the soprano loved it, too.)
The beauty is in the construction of the bra’s cup. There is a lined (but not padded) section that cradles the bottom of your breast and extends above the nipple. The double layer of fabric helps mitigate headlights without adding any inches to your bustline. Above it, a lace panel spans the top of the cup and extends seamlessly to your skin, preventing any spillover from the top of your breast. The third panel runs from the bottom of the cup all the way to the strap, along the armpit edge of the bra. As the center gore tacks firmly to your chest, these side panels hold your breasts forward, and prevent your boobs from creeping into your back. The diagonal seam across the top of the bust recalls vintage brassieres; it’s like a much more comfortable descendant of the 1950s bullet bra, simultaneously feminine and powerful.
So many D-plus cup bras close with a veritable wall of hooks, like a girdle, but the Madison’s closure has just two hooks. It can be flicked off with one hand and minimal fuss. One concession to function the Madison does make is that the straps are wide — just under three-quarters-of-an-inch — to help carry the weight on your shoulders. But while they are thicker than many other bra straps, they are elegantly disguised by a scalloped lace edge, making them feel a little sexy (and not like suspenders).
While the engineering is undeniably successful, what has ultimately made the Madison such a hit in so many of my fittings is that it seems to work for everyone. I can put it on an ingenue, I can put it on a grandma. Actors have worn it on-camera with vintage dresses, as well as under ratty pajamas. It’s held up under business suits on procedurals, and it’s played well under evening gowns in theatrical dramas. In my career, it’s become the Commando thong of bras — I always have it on hand, and it never lets me down. And, as I’ve learned, I’m not the only costume designer to swear by it. I’ve since found the bra at Bra Tenders, the not-so-secret go-to undergarment shop for costume departments in NYC.
With prices upward of $100, it is an investment, but the Madison lasts and lasts. I personally own two, and they have easily survived five or six years of daily use, including some accidental machine wash and dry cycles. (Generally I hand-wash them with Woolite and lay them flat to dry). Like most bras, there are three sets of hooks at the center back to adjust the width around your rib cage. If you start with a bra that fits while using the largest clasp, as the elastic stretches over time you can prolong the life of your bra by using the middle and eventually smallest hook.
Finally, there was a reason the sales associate at Town Shop was so reluctant to sell me a bra for someone else. Fit really is everything, so if you can get fitted for a bra, get fitted for a bra. But if you can’t — which, given the state of the universe, may very truly be impossible at this time — PrimaDonna offers all sorts of advice for finding your fit (and if all else fails, there’s also free returns).
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