The time is coming when I must pay a visit to Rigby & Peller. It's around five years since I last went – in the days when walking into such a 'posh' shop, in posh Mayfair, was still an intimidatory experience.
Rigby & Peller are no less than the royal corsetieres. The company, founded by a Mrs Rigby and a Mrs Peller in 1939, received its royal warrant in 1960.
They're famed for their quality, to be sure, but they're perhaps best known for the fact that they do not measure customers with a tape, but judge size simply by looking.
It's impossible not to wonder how this process came about – perhaps because the royal boobies must not be touched?
My boobies, on the other hand, have been touched many times by supposedly trained staff, in Selfridges and John Lewis in particular, in my eternal search for a bra that managed to combine comfort and support.
There is nothing worse than an uncomfortable bra. Okay – ill-fitting shoes are bad too. And I utterly loathe underwiring, but received wisdom always seems to be that the larger bosom requires such scaffolding.
I have vague memories of that awful experience that every girl undergoes as a sort of rite of physical passage: the trip to buy the first 'training' bra. I didn't have much to train at the time and found the whole thing embarrassing – followed by the realization that the discomfort of being strapped into something that felt simply restrictive was going to be a life sentence.
As my boobs grew, so did the embarrassment. In my early twenties, I did a bit of running, and tried to restrict it to night time so that I could decrease the number of 'be careful – you don't give yourself a black eye!' comments from passing motorists. I hated them – not the motorists, but my own tits. I very seriously considered trying to get a reduction done.
When I was playing scheming, predatory tart Janey Jenkins in Walter Greenwood’s wonderful Lancashire comedy, The Cure for Love, our director (a former regimental sergeant major) found himself having to regularly boom at me: "If you've got it, flaunt it!” Such an attitude was not second nature for me.
Later, he used to say that that production was his greatest achievement: getting a Methodist minister's daughter and a male nurse to present reasonable facsimiles of a tart and a soldier.
It's a mystery why, in those days, I was cast so often in strumpetty roles. Another memorable occasion saw me play Constanze, Mozart's wife, in an award-winning production of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus. Every night, after being strapped into a corset that took my cleavage to new heights, I faced a scene where I attempted to win work for hubby by offering myself to the court’s favourite composer, Salieri. I sat on a chair, untied the ribbons at the top of my low-cut dress, and spread my legs suggestively.
Salieri nearly gives in to temptation, then refuses. Constanze leaps up and goes to slap his face, only to be pushed away, falling to the floor, where she stays, stock still, while he addresses the audience.
Only after the production ended was I told that, every night, without fail, I fell out of that corset. And then, when I got to my feet, fell back in – hence my never realising what was happening. But a photograph, taken at dress rehearsal, proved quite clearly that nobody was kidding me. The audience never laughed either – I’m proud to say that the scene was far too dramatically intense for that.
My father's objections to my theatrical ambitions were primarily because he was convinced that 'actress' was a synonym for 'whore'. My mother was less against the idea, but would ask, with a worried expression, as if I were contemplating crime: "What would you do if you were asked to do ... nudity?" After all, is there anything worse?
Well, Mother – unconsciously perhaps, but been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Well, got the picture at any rate.
Mind, my mother’s ideas about nudity mean that she finds it astonishing that I can quite comfortably go into a communal shower in the altogether – even in women-only environments – without being struck down by total mortification. It’s an example of the total illogicality of the obsessive British fear of the human body.
But I digress: back to the subject of the purchase of over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders.
I tried the lingerie departments in both Selfridges and John Lewis a number of times over the years. If you want mortification, that was it. Snooty, unpleasant women poking and pulling at you and then instructing you in what you required. I wonder if the attitude was jealousy?
I spent a small fortune trying to find something that offered support AND comfort. To little avail. And then, at one point when I was reasonably in funds, I remembered Rigby & Peller from a programme I’d seen at some point.
I swallowed hard, summoned up some courage, and headed to Mayfair.
It was a revelatory experience. First, it was relaxed and friendly (does one do “relaxed and friendly” with the Queen when one’s fitting her for a brassiere, I wonder?). It’s strange to be ‘measured’ by a visual assessment alone – but goodness, it worked.
And after you reach a certain size, the whole underwired thing ceases to have any great impact.
I ended up with bras that were comfortable, actually gave me superb support and looked good.
It wasn’t cheap. But at almost five years since that visit, the four bras that have given me brilliant service have worked out as far better value for money than those that were purchased over the years – and then thrown out because the underwiring snapped or because they were just uncomfortable.
The fear that I might require something so vast that I couldn’t wear low-cut tops was also misplaced. Now I can do some serious décolletage – and love the impact.
Only a short while after that first purchase, I was striding confidently down a street, wearing a rather low-cut top, as a man on a bike cycled toward me. Women have better peripheral vision than men, apparently. It certainly makes unseen lechery rather easier. This cyclist couldn’t take his eyes off my chest, head swiveling as his angle of sight changed.
I was tickled pink. Thank goodness I never gave in and had surgery!
Some years ago, TV makeover duo, Trinny and Susannah (who are generally pretty unbearable) took on comic Jo Brand for charity. The first thing they did was cart her to Rigby & Peller.
Since I went there, I’ve met other women who have ‘given in’ (which is how it feels initially) and tried them. Not one has regretted becoming an R&P woman. And a return visit will be a pleasure in itself.