Down to the (under)wire
By Valerie Nieman
Gentlemen, avert your eyes from the area beneath those lavender walls. Safer not to approach the temple of the mysteries. Just consider stories about those unfortunate Greek fellas who wandered into the precincts.
On the lower level at Belk in Friendly Center, the presiding priestess of intimate apparel is a native New Yorker, Bette Ann Fugmann. She stands under a sign for “customer service,” and here, that means more than handing over a debit card and getting “have a nice day” along with the plastic bag. Bette has been fitting women at Belk for a dozen years, leading the uninitiated through the intricacies of finding a comfortable home for the girls, one that will not pinch, ride up, slip down, bind, rub or collapse.
She took me under her wing oh, five years ago. Like a lot of women of that certain age, my introduction to bra shopping had been a few shelves of white cotton models in boxes. Choices were limited. Maidenform’s advertisements offered fantasy — “I dreamed I was wanted/Venus de Milo/opening the World Series in my Maidenform bra.” Playtex, of 18 hours fame, notably crafted Neil Armstrong’s moon suit.
“I was trained to fit bras and it’s been very rewarding,” Bette says, her no-nonsense voice like a stream running over gravel. “Women walk into an intimate apparel department, regardless of the store, and it’s very overwhelming. They have no idea of their size, just arbitrarily grab something and go to the dressing room.”
Sounds familiar. What about that lime green number with the black lace? Bette knows better.
“It’s so important to go to a retail store where there is someone certified to fit. You would be surprised what a big difference it makes, and what size you actually are.”
With her short-clipped white hair, fashionable glasses and “statement” jewelry, she could be middle management, which she was. Her husband’s company transferred him to North Carolina in the mid-’70s. “In 1975, few women worked, but my mother took care of my girls,” Bette explains. “I was offered a job at Western Electric, but I didn’t want to work at the same facility as my husband.”
Instead, the Hofstra graduate says she walked into a small dress shop in Burlington and came out with a job. That turned into ownership. Ten years later, when it looked like husband Mike would be transferred, she sold the shop, regretfully. The transfer fell through and Bette says she went back into human resources with Belk at Carolina Circle Mall, Kayser-Roth Hosiery, then Moses Cone. Downsizing brought her to Belk at Friendly Center “for a short time” that has lasted. She and Mike, parents of two daughters, still live in Alamance County, where Bette indulges her passion for movies. “Any movie, I like anything,” says the woman who was named for Bette Davis after her mother — you got it — saw a movie.
Bette imparts secrets, sotto voce, as she proffers this model or that in the dressing room. “The key is getting the correct band size — it has to be very tight so you don’t come out the bottom.” And then the art of the cup size, which can vary, and the style. “Contour may not fit a middle-aged or older woman,” she explained. The flesh heads south. Thanks, gravity.
“I see women I would like to go up to and say, please, come see me. I don’t do it. My daughter gets aggravated with me when I mention it to her — you just know how things should look.”
Her pet peeve? Customers who ignore her advice. “If I measure you and you argue with me while we’re in the dressing room — when I am trying to tell you what is right — then I just say take what you wish. Eight out of 10 will bring it back.”
The other two are probably too timid to meet the blue eyes of the bra priestess.
Bette is not, it goes without saying, sold on virtual shopping. “You cannot order a bra online unless you have been fitted and you know the vendor. This generation, they like to order online, even rugs they order!”
One last bit of arcana is imparted as she hands me a model the color of raspberry sherbet: “With this brand, neutrals never go on sale.” OH
A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, Valerie Nieman teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. In addition to publishing volumes of poetry and short fiction, she has a fourth novel appearing in 2019.