When I started working at the headquarters of a global lingerie brand, my boss' first words to me were, "get comfortable." It was like a regular office building on a corporate campus but with bras and girdles everywhere. I initially wondered how much of this swag people take home with them, it seemed like there was so much underwear lying around people had no regard for it. Their drawers were probably overflowing, I figured.
Probably the best part about my tenure as a lingerie archivist was the responses I'd get from people when I told them what I did for a living. Like, "Oh, wow, so you're, like, in a room with bras from the 1970s?" from a college kid to "Let me know if they have a suggestion box, hon, I'd be glad to give you some ideas," from my dad to "Are they hiring?" from dudes quick on their feet at parties.
It wasn't hard to adjust to seeing undergarments everywhere, suggestive posters and costumes from throughout the company's 91-year history, and even a framed poster of a model on a bearskin rug in a thong that remained an integral part of the décor in Shipping and Receiving.
When I had to get my timecard signed during a model fitting, I walked into a veritable fitting room of All Sizes getting their bra game on. It was easy to relate to people and have a very open atmosphere, though we still had a strict dress code of no sandals or spaghetti straps; which is kind of funny when there are boobs on the computer desktop background and company stationary.
Not only does the company have a fascinating history, with the large majority of their archives donated to The Smithsonian and an illustrious US Patent on the adjustable bra strap, they are constantly innovating today. I might gander that some of you are wearing their bras as you read this, or you at least own one.
I worked right next to designers and engineers, and mere feet from one of two ultrasonic welding machines of its kind in the country (Victoria's Secret does all their shit in China).
I can't take credit for this metaphor, but a former Vice President said, building a bra is a lot like building a suspension bridge; you have to adjust for movement and give. There are on average 40 parts that compose a bra and it takes months to come up with one ready for market, with a lot of back-and-forth with offshore plants in the meantime.
The way archiving works is that typically a company waits to have a huge backlog of material before hiring an archivist. My first day, I was introduced to a corridor full of boxes from the past year. Boxes equivalent to the size of a refrigerator arrive daily with new shipments from overseas, so it was quite a load.
These were full of underwear, bras, and shapewear from the company’s various brands from the past year. They sell everywhere from Wal-Mart to Nordstrom’s, and even brand name re-retailers TJ Maxx and Marshall’s.
There are mainly two types of garments that are archived for storage, the production models and the pre-production models. The real prototypes, the designer-approved samples, and the pattern checks are all made in-house by our team of samplemakers.
The designer samples are kept in-house as reference materials, for pattern checking, newfound inspiration, and to take up mad closet space. I’m not really sure what the deal is in other office buildings but in the dead space in the center of the building, in the rooms with no windows away from the jumble of cubicles, there is a lingerie jungle on every floor. I don’t know what else offices could use that space for, apart from day fucking obviously, or corporate hamster nests.
My day-to-day involved arriving a few minutes past 8 am, thermos of coffee to sip all morn’, chatting with co-worker babes, greeting delivery folk, and endless boxes. Every box in the corridor, and subsequent rooms, I disassembled piecemeal.
The garments are a pair of one that is unwashed, from the factory with the sizing and one that is washed. They exist in little plastic bags with a little packing slip courtesy of Quality Control with its specs, some Chinese characters, and whether or not the style’s been approved or rejected. I created a handwritten tag for each one with the date of its arrival, plant number, style number, size, fit model, and color. And the tags would be different colors depending on their type, if they were pre-production (PPA, orange) for mass production (FOP, sky blue) or washed (white).
As I went along I would write up an inventory list and then finally, press really hard and write a packing slip for those puppies. I averaged 9 boxes a day and by the end of my time there had done 500 boxes. A lot of my co-workers would ask if I was bored, or if I hated my job. Actually, I was rarely bored, I loved my job, I thought the second was a trick question for a while but someone pointed out to me that people said that because I made a lot less money than them, which I had never considered.
One thing I can say about bras, and after sharing hundreds of bras with friends, family and acquaintances, is that from low to high end, design will vary as will quality, but there’s no telling which bra may be comfortable to whom. Finding that comfy bra is a personal journey.
Some styles of Wal-Mart bras are made at the same plant in China as all of the Victoria’s Secret ish. There is also a lot of stubbornness surrounding bras that has to stem from the fact that 8 out of 10 women wear the wrong size bra. What most people don’t realize is the cup size gradation that exists. The actual size of the cup varies with the band size. A 32DD is the same size cup as a 36C, a 30D is a 34B cup, a 34DD is a 38C cup and so on.
Me? A 34C that thought she was a 34B. Also sometimes, you can get different sized bras to fit when they’re free. Just get measured at the store, already. Or just give me 10 seconds because now I have the ability to size up anyone, unless they’re already wearing a bra that fits them really poorly, or a bulky sweater.
What I’ll remember most about my time there were my colleagues who I bonded intergenerationally and cross-culturally. We were all collaborative, sometimes we would have missions, like a wireless bra for a 32D who worked in the diamond department at Macy's and needed to pass through the metal detectors or a size Medium upstairs who needed a corset to help a backache.
I still may be a little too exuberant about bras in public, dumping them on tables at a bestie’s birthday party, and then a conference table at an alumnae committee at my alma mater.
This whole share thing has culminated in a huge trash bag under my dining room table full of product. I’m the underwear pusher. When my girls get all tipsy I sometimes see the fruits of my labor right on corporal bounties of my proud female friends. I’m desensitized to the point of European with breasts at this point but it warms my heart just to think how I’ve spread the goodness around, and of how thankful they are because it’s something useful and fairly expensive otherwise.
Bras are like anything you use everyday but don’t really think about. I would say shoes but those are visible to everyone’s eye, whereas lingerie has a special place under clothes and close to the heart. It’s for the people you love to see you naked, or for the people who’d love to see you naked.
Chances are you don’t leave the house most days without a bra. The bra is there for all important aspects of your life: the training bra, the bra that makes you confident, the bridal night, the maternity bra, the special occasion bra. Bras wore especially to be seen, bras to disappear under clothes. This job cut my chops in the garment industry, gave me goodies for everybody, and tons of life lessons besides. I prioritized it as long as I could until I was given my notice. Not everyone can work a menial wage job forever but here’s to hoping it’s as saucy as you wanna be.