Sonja Winfield works in the trenches--the pink, lacy trenches of the Joslins Intimate Apparel department. What goes on here, though, is neither rakishly romantic nor deliciously self-indulgent. Most of the time, it's not even fun.
"It's a good thing I like -ologies," says Sonja, the chain's expert bra fitter. "Psychology, biology, that kind of stuff, because fitting a bra is a several-stage process. A series of checks and balances. I like it, personally. But I get tremendous satisfaction from solving problems."
And when it comes to women and their bodies, there are enough problems to last a bra fitter several lifetimes. As for solutions, Intimate Apparel at the Westminster Joslins is so crammed with them that shoppers have to bushwhack their way from the Calvin Klein display to the far reaches of the service counter. Tags rattle in a jungle of specialized terms: backless, strapless, minimizer, instant shaping, suddenly smooth, push-up, comfort-plus, for the fuller size, double-ply-underwire, seamless, reduces bust projection...
"Complicated? Oh, yeah, it is," Sonja admits. "I'm a genius."
Of course, there are some who don't need Sonja or any other genius. They are the rarefied few known as "easy to fit," Sonja says. "In which case you go out and buy a beautiful Warner's bra, and that's the end of that." But the rest of us need guidance.
To begin with, all breasts are either much smaller or much bigger than the women who own them think they are. Learning the truth can be a shock, but Sonja knows how to soften it. She will search and search and search--and it could take hours--until she finds your pre-destined bra. Then she will look at you, listen to you kvetch, and finally tell you that you look fine.
"I'm good at this because I'm from New York," she explains. "I may be a little more forward, a little more interested. Everybody has a story. I listen."
As Joslins' head fitter, Sonja rotates between eleven Front Range stores, north to Cheyenne and south to Colorado Springs, listening, fitting and teaching the permanent staff in each Intimate Apparel department how to meet the challenge. "First of all, the denial," she muses. "And the disappointment. Just when you think, oh, great, my weight's gone down, you're visited by that evil fairy who takes your breasts away. Of course, the saddest thing is all the people with breast-augmentation surgery who think, great, now they can wear all those cute bras. I'm sorry, but there's no such thing as a cute D bra with three hooks in back."
The fitting room, the place where a customer contemplates all this unwelcome news, is pink, quiet and mirrored, so that even as Sonja is out on the floor picking out problem-solving bras, the woman inside is forced to confront the various observations Sonja has made in her not-unkind tone of voice. Her posture could be better. Her waist is thick and high or her back is narrow. Has weight been gained? In all cases, whatever bra the woman wore into the store now looks weak, helpless, amazingly dirty and very, very wrong.
In these circumstances, the best thing to do is sit down. The bench provided is wide and sturdy, equipped with the kind of chrome handrails you see in handicapped bathroom stalls. The carpet is oddly nautical in theme, but maybe not as odd as all that, because the voices emanating from neighboring cubicles sound as if they come from women who are, on some level, drowning.
"Well, I used to be a 38 B; I don't know what's happened..."
"I'm nursing--maybe that's the problem. They're usually both the same size..."
"What about those Wonderbras? Can't they help? The women at this party are all going to be so young..."
There is a discreet knock. Enter Sonja with a Maidenform #9819 All-the-Time Bra. "Now, look," she says, "because I won't always be here with you. Here is the kind of fit you are looking for, and I want you to lift that breast and put it, yes, right there, and then we adjust these straps." She steps back to gauge the effect. "It's a good bra," she decides. "It's shaped. It's lifted."
Too lifted. Suddenly, breasts resemble snouts. "True," Sonja admits. "What a shame. For a while, this was one of my favorites. But ever since Maidenform came out of Chapter 11, they have gone back to their roots. You know, young girls. Maidens. That's how they started out, and they're thinking, okay, it could work again."
Sonja disappears, in search of something less...maidenly, then returns with five options. Over the next hour, as breasts are moved and straps adjusted, you learn the latest bra theories according to Sonja, who is constantly clued in to developments by the major manufacturers. Yet she owes allegiance to none. To a Lily of France sports bra, for instance, she says: "It costs $16 and you get a free pair of panties? You get what you pay for." The $59 Wacoal minimizer model may have become famous as Oprah's bra of choice, but it is not necessarily Sonja's. "It's the bra of a rich man's wife," she says. "It has many threads per inch, and the company travels all over taking the measurements of the women of the world. This bra costs $59 and it's worth it, but not everyone has $59." Vanity Fair, Jockey for Her, Olga--all have their good points, but none have invented the perfect bra, because it can't be done.
"Oh, they rack their brains. For instance, with every bra, you either see a nipple or you see a seam. There's no way around it. Personally, I prefer the nipple. I'm a woman, I have nipples, what's the big deal?" she asks, in a voice that sounds uncannily like Joan Rivers, with whom she shares New York roots.
"No, please," she says. "I thought I sounded like Princess Di."
Well, okay. It is possible that Sonja has a certain amount of British reserve mixed in with her East Coast tendency to tell it like it is.
"You have to do certain things," she agrees. "You knock before entering the fitting room. You ask, 'Can I measure you?' before you whip out the tape. You be careful and tactful. You read people. You can see who they are, but you don't always let them know that."
Still, Sonja didn't need an -ology degree to get this job. She didn't even need prior experience. "They just asked if I was comfortable with various stages of undress," she recalls. "And then they put me in lingerie. I started at May D&F, went to Joslins, and they recruited me for this head fitter job, and I took it because it's the best.
"The people," she says. "The problems."
An unsolvable problem of her own led Sonja to Intimate Apparel. Nearly thirty years ago, just after her family moved to Denver, Sonja's husband was involved in a serious automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic. Sonja, who had had different plans, some involving "the lure of the mountains," spent the next twenty years raising two daughters and taking care of her husband. "I was home until he died," she relates. "Then I knew it was time to get a job. So I did what every other unemployable housewife does. Go to a department store."
The lingerie department was a perfect fit. After being "certified"--an idiosyncratic process that varies from store to store and from fitter to fitter--she found she liked underwear and the people who shopped for it. She studied her craft in fitting rooms and at manufacturer's seminars, at which fellow fitters learned the new breakthroughs and commiserated about the unfittable. A generalist, she taught herself the basics of underpants--"it's the length of the waist to crotch that matters"--and even dabbled in girdles when necessary. "But I'm not big on girdles," she admits. "I mean, where does the fat go? Does it get sucked into their internal organs magically?"
Whatever garment she was demystifying, it turned out Sonja Winfield had an aptitude for dealing with the undressed.
"Every single woman says: 'I hate my body. I hate all this fat.' Even the seventy-year-olds," she says. "I'm obsessive about the weight thing myself, but at seventy? Can't they give it a rest?"
No. So Sonja listens, replying in the language of uplift and support. To those who yearn for glamour, she'll explain the difference between regular bras and date bras. "You need both, even if you're married," she says. "Trust me." She'll dispense the occasional Wonderbra. ("I have one. It fits.") She will sometimes hop the escalator down to the workout-wear section, where someone, unaccountably, has decided to keep the sports bras. "And, I'm sorry, but they don't know how to fit bras down there."
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This could be just another on-the-job annoyance or the beginning of the changes that are sure to come when Joslins is taken over by Dillard's this year. "This could happen any time, and I'm not sure I'll even have a job," Sonja says. "It's the saddest thing. We have always enjoyed such autonomy." But that can't last. How cost-effective can it be to have a fitter spend two hours with each customer?
Nothing may change more than the prosthesis room, which, at most of the eleven Joslins stores, is three times bigger than the other fitting rooms and occupies its own wing. At the Westminster store, it has a homey, scattered feel, with cardboard boxes leaning in precarious towers. Sonja is always interested in the contents of these boxes--artificial breast technology has a way of making sudden leaps, she says, and there is an endless stream of clients who want to hear all about it.
"My favorite are the long-term survivors," she says, "because they could care less. You get them into a bra, off they go. Some are young, and I'm so grateful when they come back a year later. Quite a few doctors send them in, the women with their new mastectomies. Sometimes I have to wait outside while they try on the prosthesis, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I tell them what I think about mastectomy, which is this: We all started out flat, and it wasn't all bad, was it? We didn't, for instance, have to think about boys. It's not that bad, I say, is it?"
Sometimes, though, it is. At that point Sonja looks at the woman in the bra and says, You look fine. "No one thinks the less of you, I might say. And I mean it," she insists. "And they do look fine. All of them.