The intelligent consumer: If the cup fits wear it

Margaret Ann Miles can't see why D-cups should be denied black lace bustiers. Annalisa Barbieri reports
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It was a terrifically good ham sandwich and most welcome, packed with a shiny apple in a paper bag. But the offer of a Penguin biscuit was refused. After hours of talking about bras, of feeling qualities of lace, discussing underwiring, thermals, stockings, and good, old-fashioned stays, I was hungry and Margaret Ann, the "underpinnings lady" made sure I didn't go home with a rumbling tummy.

Margaret Ann makes a lot of women happy. Working mostly from home by appointment, she deals in every possible type of underwear, swimwear, nightwear and hosiery in just about any size, sourced from all over the world - from the modern and gorgeous, through serious corsetry, to mastectomy and nursing. Brands include Fantasie, Rigby and Peller, Anita, Jonathan Aston, Felina, Pastunette, Silhouette, Prima Donna, Goddess and, just launched, her own label, which is also available mail order. Oh God, I could go on, but there's not that much space here.

Although Margaret Ann can, and does, cater for the first bra teenager, it is the women who are "too big" to find what they want in conventional stores that invariably seek her out and find they smile again. Despite mankind being able to construct bridges spanning large expanses of water, somehow bras in anything over an E cup are still considered "specialist". When you can find them (and it is getting better, although slowly) it's usually only in white - as though black or, heaven forbid, red, is too naughty for big girls. It's different at Margaret Ann's.

In her living room in the Wiltshire countryside, Margaret Ann welcomes her clients. You go in, have a cup of tea, talk, then go to what she calls her "glory hole", select and try on. "I like to give new clients not less than an hour and a half," she explains. Every size she can get a bra, basque, swimsuit or whatever in is kept in stock, maybe not in every colour, but she can get it, ringing the manufacturer or agent direct. There is no pressure to buy and there is no one else there, save for the two of you. This privacy and discretion is especially important for the post- mastectomy women who form part of her clientele. Margaret Ann is trained not only in bra fitting, but also mastectomy fitting. She can get pockets fitted into certain types of "normal" bras and swimsuits so that the prosthesis can fit into it. That way a woman can have more choice, and carry on wearing her favourite bathing costume or bra. "They end up comfortable, happy and mentally secure - and that's what it's all about."

Margaret Ann Miles was born in Oxford into an army family, one of four daughters, both sets of twins. "I had a very academic background and I wanted to go into fashion at an early age but wasn't allowed to. I was given the choice of being a nurse, a teacher or going into the armed services." She became a teacher, got married at 22 and moved to Wiltshire. Nine years ago, she decided to set up the business. "I wasn't trying to compete with the big stores. I wanted to cater to the niche that wasn't catered for, especially not in 1989 - the very big-busted ladies," she explains.

While a teacher, Margaret Ann spent a lot of time with the less able children. "I had a terrible stammer as a child and I know what it's like to have a problem. And so it was with the business. It was the people with problems, either through size or post-surgical, that I wanted to provide for." Being well endowed herself, she knew the difficulties women had finding pretty, proper-fitting bras.

To complement the appointment service, Margaret Ann launched a mail- order catalogue last October. She used a plus-size model in it but the response was negative, which is why the newly released catalogue features a size 12 model. The garments in the catalogue are superb. Black basques (sadly only up to a D cup - because of the support needed, you generally don't get basques above an E cup) with exquisite lace, none of that scratchy rubbish. Cami tops, French knickers, teddies... all in gorgeous silk with proper, posh, lacy trim, high-quality polysatin and good old cotton.

As well as the Margaret Ann own label, there are designs by a few, select others. Sizes will range from six to 30, with the bespoke option (which will cost extra because a pattern needs to be cut) available on some garments if the standard sizes don't fit. "I've tried to take the personal service into the mail order so if there's a query on sizing or fabrics, or colours, I'll still be on the end of the telephone."

For a catalogue or an appointment call Margaret Ann Miles on 01985 840520.