On the weekend before Valentine’s Day, the Orchard Corset Center was crowded with customers looking to get fitted for bras, bridal bustiers and corsets. The Lower East Side relic hasn’t attracted nearly as much recent media attention as American Apparel’s lingerie mannequins have around the corner, but it has this much going for it: authenticity beyond displays of fake pubic hair. Oh, and Peggy Bergstein, who owns the tiny storefront with her husband Ralph, claims she can tell a customer’s bra size just by looking at her bust.
Ralph’s mother Magda Bergstein, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, bought the corset shop at 157 Orchard Street in 1968 and began selling intimate apparel with help from her late husband Sam. Her sizing skills were so impressive, they eventually inspired a documentary, “A Good Uplift.”
Magda is now in her 90s. But in the early ’80s, before she retired, she trained her daughter-in-law, Peggy, to gauge bra sizes without measuring tape. “We look at you and we don’t need to measure you,” Peggy said, using the royal “we” (her husband doesn’t do any fitting, though he sometimes uses his mother’s old Singer sewing machine to create prototypes of his patterns to send to factories).
“We can see what type of bra is good for you. It’s an art, a talent.” Sizes available range from 28 to 56, with cup size from Triple A to N. Peggy makes the patterns for nursing and sports bras. Ralph, a robustly built Orthodox Jew in his 50s, makes patterns for girdles and corsets, mostly. “A lot of men come in for corsets,” he said, noting that some are cross dressers who arrive “by appointment.”
Has Peggy ever made a mistake in declaring a bra size? She shrugged, noting she is human after all, but claimed none of her customers have complained. “We have people coming here from all over the world,” she said, adding that some want items like waist cinchers “and they want to get fitted by Peggy.”
Business always picks up around Valentine’s Day, Peggy said. On Wednesday, she was lacing 19-year-old Rachel Enduisi into a black underbust corset. Enduisi, a pre-med student at Pace University, flashed a joyous smile on seeing the finished result. “I love it!” she exclaimed, and made a $30 layaway payment on a $95 purchase. “This is a great price. I’ve seen these for $300 and $195 online.”
The Bergsteins no longer call themselves a discount store, but they advertise their products as “affordable.” They also purchase brand-name lingerie from wholesalers and other companies, and run a separate online and shipping business.
Peggy said that Victorian and Edwardian-era corsets were made with whalebone and could cause people to become breathless and in pain. “Those could hurt. Ours don’t. Ours are [boned] with steel that’s called busk bone. Some people buy our corsets to improve their posture.” Many, she said, want waist training corsets.
When Enduisi was asked about the political implications of wearing a corset like Southern belles in Gone With The Wind, her answer was, in effect, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
“I think it’s ok,” she said. “People have been doing this for years and they must have been doing something right. I’m doing this just for me.”