My Secret Shame: Custom-Fitted Ladies’ Undergarments

When I was a young tween, my mom starting selling bras out of a suitcase. It was not my proudest period. Too young to leave at home, I was often whisked along as she made house-calls for women who needed–a little more support than that afforded by the under-garments sold at the local mall. Or so went the sales pitch anyway.

These were Norvell bras. I can still see–and smell–the dark blue, pleather suitcase which housed her inventory. It had a silk-screened, white outlined face of a generic woman on the outside. It was almost as large as me at the time and it didn’t have wheels.

It was my job to bring it in from the car, while my mom rang the doorbell and exchanged pleasantries with the “client” — always the “client.”

My mom was actually my stepmom and she and I were closer in age than she and my dad; my adopted dad to be more precise. A few years earlier, he and my adopted mom split after only a couple of years together, post-adoption, and my dad–always a sucker for a sad luck story–befriended my now-step-mom, who worked with him and who was going through a rough patch of her own. That marriage would last 14 years in total and end in divorce the very year I left home for the military. My father should have seen it coming–I saw it coming–but the suddenness and certainty of it rattled him and he never quite got over it.

But, suddenly at home, still young, and saddled with two young boys, my new, young step-mom no-doubt sought a little bit of independence in what was likely one of the original “independent sales representative” companies, even before Avon was a thing.

What made Norvell different, apparently, was both the quality of the craftsmanship of the garments, but also that they were custom-fitted.

Here’s where it gets weird for a tween boy.

After I had half-dragged, half-toted the oversized suitcase full of bras into the prospective customer’s home, my step-mom and the “client” would disappear off into a room and close the door where, presumably, the client would remove her top for my step-mom to measure her bust using a long, cloth measuring tape. The tape measure was blue and it remained in use in our home for years, long after the Norvell days were past. I could never see it lying there in the junk drawer in the kitchen and not pick it up, wondering in its softness so unlike my father’s unyieldingly stiff, and often painful, Stanley measuring tapes. And I could never NOT think about the hours I spent just outside the door of what was many a young boy’s fantasy.

As a boy about to hit puberty, my mind went on some pretty imaginative trips while waiting on the “custom fitting” to complete. Just a few feet from me were women, in the next room, taking their clothes off. And these were not usually old women either. No, they were 30’s-ish moms, usually from our church, who had the kind of money available  to spend $35 or $40 dollars on a custom-fit garment in the 70s and early 80s.

I had always been aware of girls. In fact, I became more shy as I got older, so even as a young boy, I appreciated the female form most definitely. And, most of these ladies were, at least moderately, attractive. Oh, if only the door was cracked just a little, or what if someone inadvertently stepped out of the room to get something and I saw…but no. That never happened.

Inevitably the fitting would conclude, usually in about thirty minutes. I’m not sure my step-mom ever didn’t make a sale. These business models almost guarantee sales anytime a customer is put in a position to feel that they owe the representative something and didn’t they owe my step-mom the purchase of at least one bra after she and her young son had come all the way out on a fine, warm summer morning to her home? Of course, they did. But, I suspect there were few follow-up orders, which explains why this was a fairly short-lived endeavor for my step-mother.

Eventually, the in-home custom fittings grew less and less, and the orders dried up. But, I still remember my mom keeping the blue suitcase full of bras. And I remember her telling me how well made they were and that I was to never, ever put them in the dryer when I was transferring laundry from the washer. And so, I remember so clearly pulling out these off-white bras, twisted and damp from the washing machine. And I would look at them and think, “They don’t look like much.”

But, for a time, they were a symbol of something for many. An independence they felt they needed in a time where women’s roles were just beginning to shift from Suzy-homemaker to the Power Pant-Suit. And clearly, something about this ritual left its mark on me, else I wouldn’t remember it so vividly now.

An internet search for Norvell yields a generic page listing its business model and a website link that returns a 404 error. Seemingly, Norvell is no more.

Long live custom-fitted women’s undergarments.

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