As a young teenager I was a tomboy, so getting my first bra wasn’t something I looked forward to. When the fateful day came my mum took me to a long established Sydney department store for a proper fitting. There we were looked after by a woman with an enormous shelf-like bust. On this rested a chain attached to eye glasses propped onto the end of her nose, framed by a measuring tape draped around her neck. Instructing me to take off my T-shirt she quickly whipped the tape around me, all the while commenting to my mum about youth, size and perkiness, punctuated by intermittent laughter. Already feeling mortified, I remember just wanting to die when she helped me put on the bra by popping her hands into the cups to ensure I had it on properly, lifting and plumping up my adolescent breasts in the process.
Fast forward some twenty years later to Kayseri, central Turkey, where I discovered men and not women working in Turkish underwear shops. Despite the fact I wasn’t brave enough to venture into any of the shops I saw, those intense feelings of embarrassment immediately came flooding right back. They increased even more when I learnt the men just had to scrutinize you closely to determine your size. If budget was an issue, you could always buy a bra at most weekly outdoor markets, where the procedure was very similar only with a much larger audience. Even today whole stalls are dedicated to underwear, with white cottontails forming neat rows next to see-through lace thongs drowning in bells and bows, framed by super hero boxer shorts on one side and Disney princess panties on the other. All the bras on offer are pegged onto a rope forming an arc overhead, organized according to the lingerie rainbow of red satin, yellow, green or blue polyester, white broderie anglaise bridal, black lace, leopard or tiger skin print bedroom. Two or three men stand behind the counter, eager to bag your selection, take your money, or correct you on your choice of size. No matter the professional face they present in these transactions, I still don’t feel comfortable buying underwear from them.
You can discover what happened when I moved to Istanbul and went to buy more Turkish underwear by reading the complete version of “Shopping for Unmentionables” in the 2nd edition of my collection Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City. I’ll give you a hint, there was embarrassment involved.