It needn't be this way, because bras are better than ever. Breakthroughs in ''brachitecture" have come, not coincidentally, with women taking over the industry.
Linda Wachner is chief executive officer at Warnaco, which makes Olga, Warner's, Valentino and Victoria's Secret. Bea Coleman heads Maidenform, as did her mother before her. Joya Paterson, a former bra model, is in charge at S&S Industries, which makes the newer plastic-coated wire that has brought comfort to underwire bras.
Here's what you need to know before you hoist yourself into your next brassiere:
HOW DO I GET ONE THAT FITS? You'll need at least an hour, according to Louetta Wilson, a professional fitter at Strawbridge's. With a bra on, measure straight around the rib cage, just underneath the breasts. Then add five inches - that's for the stick-out factor - to get your bra size. If you're in between, go up a size; 35 inches becomes 36.
To get your cup size, measure straight around the chest, crossing the nipples. If the difference is 1 inch greater than your bra size, you're an A cup; 2 inches, you're a B; 3 inches, a C; 4 inches, a D.
Once you've determined your size, decide what kind of bra you want - underwire or soft cup - and start trying them on.
Wilson always recommends underwires, especially for fuller figures. "It lifts you up and holds you better, and it looks nicer under clothes," she said.
HOW DO I TRY IT ON? This may seem self-evident, but Wilson gently informed this reporter she was doing it all wrong.
Slip the straps over your shoulders, lean forward and ease your breasts into place. Then, still leaning over, Wilson instructed, "shake and shimmy." This little maneuver gets the wrinkles out and distributes the breast tissue properly.
Before straightening up, hitch the back on the tightest hook. Straps too narrow or too tight will cut into the shoulders; a too-tight band underneath the bust will pinch the rib cage. Once again, an underwire can alleviate most of these problems, because it distributes the breast's weight throughout the semicircle.
CAN UNDERWIRES CAUSE CANCER? Not unless they have plutonium in them; check the label.
The new wires are metal but coated with nylon that is heat-set. The process, used in Velcro and zippers, permits the nylon to be flexible enough to be tied in a knot while retaining a memory of its original shape. This
keeps your new underwire from looking like a bent coat hanger when it comes out of the washer and digging a hole in your lymph nodes.
WHY CAN'T YOU TEST-DRIVE IN A BRA, LIKE YOU CAN A CAR? Because they're not $10,000, and you don't need insurance on them. Wilson always advises her customers to take the bras home and try them on under whatever they want to wear with them. Underwear is returnable; the state Health Department revoked that rule years ago.
DO BRA DESIGNERS NEED TO STUDY AERONAUTICAL ENGINEERING? "That's a good question," said Patrick Hennessy at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The answer is no, but maybe they should.
WHO INVENTED THIS THING, ANYWAY? The first movement to liberate women from their wearable torture chambers began in 1880, when the Rational Dress Society was formed to demand dress reform. Its goal was modest: The total weight of a woman's underwear should not exceed 7 pounds.
A New York debutante named Mary Phelps Jacob invented the bra as we know it in 1907, after throwing a fit over her whalebone corset. She and her maid fashioned a bone-free brassiere out of two handkerchiefs and a length of ribbon. She got a patent in 1914 and sold it to Warner's for $1,500.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGHS IN BRA-MAKING? That's easy, said Walter Osband, metro sales manager for Warnaco. "Lycra has definitely revolutionized bra manufacturing, and the molding process."
A bra cup starts out as a plain piece of flat fabric, sewn onto the bra. ''And then we have a patented heat process. Two torpedoes come down and mold it at our factory in Stratford, Conn. If you've never seen it happen, it definitely is bizarre. That lets the bra retain its shape and also retain its pliability."
WHAT IS THE AVERAGE BRA SIZE? Once it was 34A. Today it's 36C. Hormones in the chicken, or something.
WHAT IS THE BEST-SELLING BRA? The seamless, molded, stretch underwire bra with Lycra.
WHY DO BRA-MAKERS DISCONTINUE YOUR BELOVED STYLE, SENDING YOU OVER THE EDGE? "We discontinue styles because they don't sell," Osband said. "We always get lots of complaints. We're honest; we tell them their bra didn't sell. And then we always try to have a substitute that is mostly like the one we discontinued."
Once in a great while, the collective hollering of the American woman gets results. When this reporter whined to Strawbridge's Wilson about her dear, departed bra, which she loved even though it had the silly name of Sizzles, she learned that in the fall, Warner's is actually bringing this bra back!
"Sizzles was the No. 1 bra in the industry. It was seamless, stretch, molded, sheer, durable and lightweight. It was the best-fitting bra of all time," Osband said. "Or so I've been told.
"All of a sudden, women were concerned with opacity. We just don't know why. We believe it had to do with outerwear, more blouses becoming more sheer. But now the cycle is coming back around, and sheerness is in fashion again."