For Proust, it was the madeleine; for me, the braless breast. I was 15, it was late August and, even at 4am, the French motorway service-area restroom was sweltering. I was finishing my ablutions when a young woman walked in. Paying me no heed, she went to the sink, peeled off her top, revealing her naked, braless torso, and in nonchalant fashion, she began to splash water over her tanned breasts, luxuriating in the relief afforded by the cool water.
In my world, you cowered under your towel to undress, even on the beach, lest you expose even a hint of erogenous zone; this blase baring of breasts was a revelation. In an instant, this woman unknowingly taught me the meaning of the word erotic.
Such is the power of the braless breast. Which is why, despite Jean-Denis Rouillon, of the French university of Besancon, concluding, after a 15-year study, that "bras are a false necessity", we women must not jettison our brassieres. Our unfettered breasts are simply too damn sexy.
A case in point: Marilyn Monroe, 1962. On the night she sang Happy Birthday in her sweet, breathy voice to JFK, the movie goddess chose her outfit well: a flesh-coloured dress, reportedly sewn on to her, embellished with 2,500 rhinestones that shimmered in the spotlights. Underneath, she was naked, and the harsh glare outlined the full, fleshy curves of her dynamite chest, with her nipples clearly visible in the grainy footage that survives. If anyone had doubts she was sleeping with the Prez, you can be sure that Marilyn's breasts set disbelieving onlookers straight that night. Had she worn an over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder I doubt, somehow, the effect would have been the same.
Back in 1968, feminists at the Miss America pageant burned bras, dubbing them 'instruments of torture", and it seems they were right. Dr Rouillon's study found that, contrary to popular belief, bras actually contribute to breast sagging and back pain. Scientists discovered that when women ditched their bras, their nipples lifted, "on average, seven centimetres" and back pain was relieved. However, a woman's relationship to her bra cannot be condensed down to gravity's effects and lumbar discomfort.
The bra provides that most alluring of qualities: mystery. It enhances what is God-given, or, where the Almighty has been over generous, it can minimise. It provides that thing all women seek: support. Dr Rouillon may claim that when it comes to breasts, gravity acts in reverse, but, as someone once said, you "cannae change the laws of physics", and I, for one, am keeping my brassiere on.
Unless, perhaps, I find myself in France, a la recherche du temps perdu.