Doreen: The bra that conquered the world

It's not modern - and it's certainly not sexy. But unlikely as it seems, this prosaically named style is a global best-seller. Stephanie King finds out what lifts and separates it from the competition

It's boom and bust in the lingerie world; boom time because, according to market research company Mintel's retail lingerie report, between 1998 and 2004 UK retail sales of women's bras and pants are estimated to have grown by 34 per cent to £1.14bn. And bust because chest sizes are on the up. Yesterday a German gynaecologist, Thomas Gent, issued a health warning on skimpy knickers, blaming thongs for many genital irritations. And while big pants may become the new wave, big bras have secretly been the mainstay.

It's boom and bust in the lingerie world; boom time because, according to market research company Mintel's retail lingerie report, between 1998 and 2004 UK retail sales of women's bras and pants are estimated to have grown by 34 per cent to £1.14bn. And bust because chest sizes are on the up. Yesterday a German gynaecologist, Thomas Gent, issued a health warning on skimpy knickers, blaming thongs for many genital irritations. And while big pants may become the new wave, big bras have secretly been the mainstay.

Hard to believe if you follow lingerie ads - those pert-figured women in sporty, cute or coquettish undies - but the world's best-selling bra is far from itsy bitsy: it's an average size 36D. And you won't find it splashed on billboards. Its manufacturer is reluctant to even mention its home-baked name - Doreen.

In the world of spin there is a reverse psychology that zero access to a person or product creates mystery and intrigue; resulting in hype and subsequent hefty column inches. As far as Triumph - makers of Doreen - are concerned, they genuinely don't want to talk about Doreen and the last thing they want is coverage of any kind. "We're part of an international set-up and we've been told not to get involved with anything to do with Doreen because we're doing so much work in a younger and more fashionable market at the moment. That's the directive we've been given," relays Triumph's sales and marketing manager Tony Jarvis.

But best-selling bra in the world? That's a pretty impressive mantle not to want to shout about. And already intrigue has set in. What is this globally dominant bra like and just who is buying it in such copious quantities?

Online retailer Figleaves has started selling the Doreen and went on a mission to find Doreen wearers in a national call-out, via regional newspapers. They offered a free Doreen bra to Doreen wearers who were themselves actually called Doreen.

Within a week, 50 Doreens (with passport proof of their name) had contacted Figleaves. And it turns out that the Doreen Massive is the baby boomers aged late 50s and up, which came as no surprise to Figleaves' buyer, Clare Turner, who has 18 years experience in the lingerie trade.

"If you mention the Triumph Doreen to any bra specialist, be it in M&S, John Lewis or an independent shop, they'll know exactly what you are talking about," says Turner. It's the equivalent of the Kenwood of mixers or the Hoover of Hoovers - the Dyson would be too mod-con. And for a generation that was brought up to be brand loyal, Doreen is the bra that hoists and holds in place an ample chest without lacerating the shoulder.

"I've worn the Doreen for 10 or 15 years," affirms 58-year-old retiree and grandmother Doreen Whittaker from Darlington. "I'm a lifelong weight-watcher, so my chest can go from a 36 to a 40E and every time I get fitted the assistant always brings me the Doreen. It's very comfortable and the straps don't dig in. And once you've found something that fits you well, you stick with it."

Doreen Gould, a market researcher from Edgware, is another Doreen loyalist. "I've been wearing the Doreen for 20 years. I didn't just buy it because it's my name - it's truly a good bra. It washes nicely, the straps are comfy and it keeps its shape which is important if you're big."

"With lingerie, people tend to be creatures of habit," says Turner. "And this generation is used to that original Fifties style, although the Doreen was brought out in 1967. It does the most amazing uplift job and the three-seamed cup automatically allows more volume in the bust space. The extra seam makes all the difference. It's like a couture dress - the more seams you have the more opportunity you have to shape the body."

However, if we're calling a spade a spade, the Doreen looks more safety harness than fancifully intricate couture creation. "It's because it doesn't have an underwire," says Turner of Doreen's ungainly appearance - heavyweight straps, wide wingspan and serious structural surrounding seams; all vital to its function of providing support.

The Doreen is a cross-your-heart style bra but without the warhead missile cups that used to be around in the Sixties. "Now they're more rounded like melons," says Turner, adding more seriously: "A lot of development work in terms of the fabric and construction has gone into the Doreen. The front section is rigid so it's not going to allow the chest to jump about and the 'modulus' in the wingspan is strictly controlled so that it will really support the back and therefore help balance the front. There's so much engineering gone into the bra to allow it to provide comfort and support, and to fit a huge spectrum of people." Turner says she remembers a similar-shaped bra being one of the best-selling styles at M&S when she worked there.

Doreen isn't attractive to look at. It's the equivalent of Bridget Jones' huge pants - not exactly the sort of thing you'd plump for when trying to look sexy or alluring in a state of near undress. "That's why Triumph don't want to talk about it," says Turner. "They've been trying to update their image for the past 20 years and if they keep talking about the Doreen, the younger generation won't buy from them."

While most established underwear companies are ditching this older bra style for fear of looking too dowdy in the race to latch on to the coat-tails of the recent fashion-led undies explosion, they're actually missing out on a lucrative market. Triumph on the other hand are savvily having their fruit scone and eating it. While trumpeting their new fashion focus they are continuing (albeit covertly) to produce a bra that few others still make and for an audience that is far from waning.

"People are getting older and living longer and if you look at the lingerie market split by age I think the biggest part of it is something like 55 to 65," says Turner - a fact backed by Mintel's report which targets the 55-64 age bracket as a growth opportunity in lingerie and an age segment estimated to grow 11 per cent by 2007.

Plus it makes sense for Figleaves to bring the Doreen onboard and online because, as Turner says: "So many people like my mother-in-law who is retired, are computer literate; she's buying from John Lewis all the time on the internet, so why shouldn't she buy things like this as well."

John Lewis, incidentally, is testament to the projected growth in the Doreen market. Their sales figures - Doreen is one of the chain's best-selling bras - show sales of the Doreen up 10 per cent on last year. "I personally think, of the support bras, Doreen is the best," says John Lewis Edinburgh's lingerie fitter, Muriel Hynds. "The Doreen is good for elderly ladies - they don't like the wires; also for pregnant ladies who are a bit larger as well. And I fitted the Doreen on a lady this morning who'd had a mastectomy - it's very good at holding the prosthesis in."

Hynds admits that it's not the sort of bra that younger women go for. "But people will always be having babies, won't they, and the Doreen is great for them because it's so comfortable," says Hynds. And Figleaves are cock-a-hoop about bringing the Doreen aboard their younger, label-led website. "Whether you're six months pregnant, or a 60-year-old wanting your Triumph Doreen, or you want the new, young, funky thing, we can give you it," says Figleaves' chief executive Michael Ross. "Selfridges is increasingly very sexy and M&S very basic and we're saying we're here and appealing to everyone."

Homing in on the grey pound is a canny move on Figleaves' part but it's not just the baby boomers that are well-endowed. In all Hynds' years as a bra fitter, she says increased bust size is the marked change. "Five or 10 years ago it would have been 34 and 36B, now my regular fittings are more like 34DD and 36D. Even on young girls; I fit 10 and 11-year-olds in D cups."

Turner agrees with Hynds. She cites three recent developments in lingerie retailing. "The introduction of Lycra, fashion lingerie, and the third and most obvious change is the larger chest size," says Turner. "I don't know whether people are just more aware of their sizes and getting fitted properly but shapes have changed and smaller backs with larger cup sizes is the growing trend." In fact, of Figleaves' 220 brands which account for a stonking 4,000 products and 37,000 individual items (although the stronghold is cutesy designer labels) the best-selling bra is a larger size brand, which is why Turner says: "The larger chest size is definitely a side we're going to develop."

This is in line with Mintel's report which states that bust sizes are on the up. Statistics from 1,018 women aged 15-plus also showed that the increased chest size appears in younger consumers as well as older and is not limited to those who are overweight.

As a result, Mintel acknowledges that although large sizes aren't regarded by retailers as especially attractive to display, they are becoming increasingly important, which is why manufacturers are looking into not only increasing their size ranges - the average bra only has 36 size options whereas Doreen has 67, going up to a 46J - they are also trying to make them more aesthetically appealing.

With the change in generations and younger people looking for bigger cup sizes, Turner says that if this market is to be targeted properly they'll have to source more feminine styles.

Turner and Hynds both agree that unfortunately there's no getting away from wide bra straps for those ample (or "blessed" as some would say) of chest because "they are needed for support". But manufacturers are responding to this new younger market that wouldn't look twice at a boulder-holding Doreen.

"Twin rouleaux straps with two spaghetti straps instead of one," is Turner's suggestion for those looking for a less-hefty strap look. "If you want really fancy go to Rigby &Peller; for something quite sexy, try Freya and Fantasie does pretty but simple," says Turner (confiding that all three makes are from one parent company) when relaying her choice of good-looking bras for the bigger bust.

So while the picket-fence, post-war optimists, who will be around for some time, are loyally buying into their beloved Doreen, the good news for those abundant of bust and under 50 is that when it comes to bras, German shot-putter style is definitely not the last word.

Key moments in bra history

1913

The first modern bra is invented by New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, made from silk handkerchiefs and pink ribbons.

1943

One of the most celebrated bras in history is created by Howard Hughes for Hollywood star Jane Russell to wear in The Outlaw.

1968

Feminists burn their bras to demonstrate their new-found liberation at a Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.

1977

The first sports bra is created by Hinda Miller, Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, who sew two jockstraps together and name it the Jogbra.

1981

Marilyn Monroe's pink mesh bra, size 36D, is sold at Sotheby's, with an evening bag and gloves, for £520.

1990

Madonna's bullet bra becomes the sensation of her Blonde Ambition tour. Designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and based on an antique breastplate worn by Italian soldiers, the bra later fetches £14,100 at auction.

1994

Hello, boys. Gossard Wonderbra posters featuring Eva Herzigova create a storm of controversy. They are ruled decent by the Advertising Complaints Authority - but condemned by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents for causing crashes as male drivers find themselves distracted. Girls are big fans too, with Macy's in New York selling 3,000 every day.

2000

Engineers who built the wobble-plagued Millennium Bridge help to create the Charnos Bioform bra, designed using stress analysis studies. Costing £2m to develop, Marks and Spencer describes it as "probably the most important development in the history of women's underwear".

Genevieve Roberts

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