Barolo and Brassieres

Robert Joseph takes a sideways look at the parallels between underwear and wine.

Credit: Heather Ford on Unsplash
Credit: Heather Ford on Unsplash

Okay, here a few very personal questions. What kind of underwear are you wearing right now. How did you choose it and what did it cost?

I have never worn a bra, or had to buy one, even if the extra kilos I’ve put on during Covid lockdowns might suggest otherwise. And, when it comes to my own underwear, like many men, I’ve never put much thought or expenditure into the exercise. But for some people, these clothes that - literally - rarely see the light of day, are worth spending surprisingly large amounts of money on. A La Perla bra, for example might set you back $250.

Underwear is not quite like wine; the proportion of the population that happily sees no need for it is obviously far smaller. Even so, I think there are some interesting parallels.

First, there’s the gulf between industrially-produced, cheap and functional; and artisanal luxury that sells for astronomical prices. And, as with wine, some people exclusively buy one of these, while others want to be able to choose between the two, depending on the circumstances.

And, without wanting to explore this aspect too deeply, those circumstances may involve other people - just like the impression one might want to make by choosing a particular wine.

(For some reason, my mind turned to Renée Zelweger’s absurdly large schoolgirl knickers in the movie of Bridget Jones’ Diary; yours may have strayed elsewhere).

While most underwear is almost certainly manufactured wherever the costs are lowest, brand nationality and target markets play a part too. Calvin Klein strikes me as quintessentially American. It is also very precisely aimed at unmarried, well-off 15-30 year-old males and females who will be influenced by the behaviour of their favourite celebrities. Another US brand, Victoria’s Secret, until quite recently seemed to be focusing on selling its wares to a rather different, slightly older audience. Men were more likely to buy one of its lingerie items as a - probably poorly-judged - valentine’s day gift than one from CK. But, unless they enjoyed wearing women’s clothing, they were unlikely to buy a Victoria’s Secret item for themselves.

Underwear manufacturers, like sophisticated wine brands, know who they want to talk to. And they don’t waste their money on people who are unlikely ever to become their customers. If you are happy to buy your bras and knickers from your local discount store, you probably aren’t very interesting to the ones that care about their brands.

Italians buy a lot of their underwear from various brands belonging to a €2bn-turnover business called Calzedonia. Intimissimi is one you may have noticed if you’ve visited that country or leafed through a women’s magazine. Since 2012, Calzedonia has also owned a chain of wine-shop-cum-wine-bars called Signorvino. There are now 19 of these, one of which, in a prime site next to a great stone arch in the heart of Verona, is a firm favourite with the mass of professionals who pile into the city every year for Vinitaly, OperaWine or the Wine2Wine events. 

Behind the scenes, however, the chain, whose range of 1,500 wines is exclusively Italian, also runs something called the Signorvino-Nomisma Observatory which publishes a report every six months on trends within the Italian wine industry. So, maybe my linking underwear and wine wasn’t quite as fanciful as you may have supposed.

But I started this piece with bras, and that was not accidental. According to a recent fascinating BBC programme called More or Less, around 80% of women are apparently wearing bras that don’t fit them properly. Having their chests measured by an expert should, it seems, be a rite of passage for half of the human population. The fact that this doesn’t happen lies behind significant incidence of back pain - for an unfortunate few. But four out of every five women are unaware of this, or don’t care. How many women do you hear complaining that bra manufacturers routinely use different descriptors for the same cup sizes? Most rely on trial and error to find something that feels comfortable enough. And sometimes, possibly when having to wear one of those Victoria Secret Valentine's Day gifts, they may have to grit their teeth.

Given that approximate context, how bothered are those same women - and indeed men - about less than perfect food-and-wine-matching, or indeed the fact that they regularly find themselves drinking wine that isn’t precisely what they enjoy?

I cannot answer that question, but I think it’s one that anyone who thinks that choosing precisely the ‘right’ wine matters might want to consider, just as they may want to consider the way that some people see an item of underwear, or a bottle of wine, as a functional purchase, while others view it as a luxury.

Robert Joseph

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