Pad Girls! Attack of the 21st-Century Falsies

“Wrong attention,” Ms. Gindrey finally said quietly, adding that here, attention can be a form of aggression. “While in France, if a man gives a look, I might think, ‘Oh, I must look good today!’” she laughed.

Ms. Bohonos added that many of today’s residents of New York are interested in luxury living and “trading up,” contributing to the general feeling of conformity, including the breast. Think of it as the W hotelization of the decolletage.

Protesting the Padding

But thankfully, New York City still has corners—and cleavage—that gentrification has yet to reach.

In her basement studio-showroom on West 15th Street, surrounded by hanging lace bras and garter belts in fluorescent colors, amid the sounds of sewing machines churning away, rebel lingerie designer Deborah Marquit reflected on her philosophy of simply decorating a woman’s figure and her outright rejection of designing a padded bra.

“I love making lacy, sexy bras for a 32A chest,” Ms. Marquit said. “I see the woman say, ‘I love it. I never thought I could wear a bra like this!’ There is something about flaws—having a little cellulite, wrinkles, being a little fat, it’s way more sexy. Do I think all breasts are beautiful? Honestly, no. But you can beautify what you have.”

Ms. Marquit, 53, a native New Yorker, has been designing lingerie for 23 years, and her collections have sold at Barneys, among other high-end stores. She said that the proliferation of padded bras has to do with cheap manufacturing costs—they are almost all made in China—but suggested also that it’s a reflection of the current state of our culture.“My feeling is that these days, rather than someone like Janis Joplin being revered, idolized, it’s more about the shoe or the bag of the moment,” she said. “It’s about labels, names, branding. Everyone has their hair straightened, the perfect jeans, the right cellphone and accessories. It’s almost like New York is turning into L.A.; there is a lack of acceptance of natural self.” Though New York women do not appear to be embracing surgical implants with the same zeal as their sisters in the West … yet?

“I see a lot of women’s bodies; there was this one beautiful woman here recently, and she wanted implants,” said Ms. Marquit, dressed in all black, with unruly red hair. “I told her not to come back if she got them.”

Holly Copeland, a former Rockette who’s now a stylist, has asked her models to take their padded bras off when styling fashion shoots. “But when I’ve worked with celebrities, I always have to have one on hand,” she said. “It’s almost taboo to have any of that showing.” Moreover, she remarked, “everyone wants to have bigger boobs. Victoria’s Secret makes it easy to get big boobs without surgery.”

But on the front lines of bra sales at La Petite Coquette, the downtown lingerie shop with a loyal following, a recent, hopeful shift has been felt by the sales staff. “Women are tired of looking like everyone else,” said proprietor Rebecca Apsan in a husky voice. She was surrounded by lacy bras, panties, silken robes, and boudoir-like props.“There is a decline now,” in the padded bra, Ms. Apsan added, “because women want to be more natural. Women are doing something underneath that makes them feel feminine.”

“We’re still selling them,” conceded store manager Martina Solej, “but I find lately, women want to be sexier. It’s changing little by little.” Ms. Solej recounted a client she had earlier that day, barely able to contain her joy. A businesswoman had renounced her padded bra, literally throwing it out in the garbage. The client made huge waves in the store when, according to Ms. Solej and many of the saleswomen, she declared, “‘Screw it! Give me a lacy bra. I’m going to let them see that, yeah, I might be the only woman here, and I’m professional—and I’m wearing a lace bra!’”