Fitness at 40+
Beauty & Fashion
Yes, Virginia, There is a Bra That Fits
Too big? Too small? Our guide to finding a bra that's just right
Do your bra straps fall down your shoulders? Does the back strap of your bra ride up? Do you have “muffin top” above the top edge of your bra cup?
If so, you are among the majority of women who are not wearing the right bra for their body.
Finding a bra that fits well should be simple. Instructions for measuring how to determine your bra size are posted everywhere online.
The Elements of Fit
One method is self-measuring. Grab a flexible tape measure and put on your best-fitting bra. To determine your band size, measure the circumference of your body around your rib cage, immediately below your breasts. The tape measure should be snug. If you get an odd number, round up to the nearest whole even number.
Next, measure your bust size by keeping the tape level across the fullest part of your bust and around your back. Your bust size is theoretically the result of the equation of subtracting your band size from your bust size. For example, if your band size is 36” and your bust size is 40”, your result is 4” which translates to a D cup — in US, European, and UK cup sizes.
But this is not easy.
I dare you to keep that tape measure level around your body while measuring yourself. Now, say your band size is 36” and your bust size is 43”, then your cup size is DDDD/G in US sizing. That translates to a G-cup in European sizing and an F-cup in UK sizing. But don’t be deceived. Even among brands designed in the same country, a bra size from one label can fit differently than the same size from another due to the actual construction of the bra, the fabric used, and where it was manufactured.
Let’s throw some “sister-sizing” in the mix to make things extra fun. The concept of sister-sizing relates to the volume of a cup’s size relative to the band with the idea that cup volume stays the same though the band size and cup letter changes. Thus, if you are a 34 C but the band feels snug, you can sister-size up to a 36 B. Alternatively, if the band feels loose, you can sister-size down to a 32 D. But again, this is not an exact science and you’ll still be better off trying on the bras rather than assuming that sister-sizing will result in the best fit for you.
There are so many factors working against your chances of finding the right fitting bra, it’s a wonder that any of us succeed at all.
“Measuring under the bust and across the bust, then counting off the difference to get your cup size, or some such self-measuring system, is so absurdly crude as to be useless. It has no accounting for breast shape, where the bust is set on the torso, how close or wide the breasts are set, or how firm the breast tissue is,” bemoans Jenette Goldstein, the owner of Jenette Bras, a three-store company in the Los Angeles area specializing in D-K cup sizes.
Key to Success: Get Fitted in Person
For that reason, lingerie experts say the only true way to find the right bra is to get fitted in person, and to get fitted every six months. Many independent lingerie stores have expert fitters, including the legendary Town Shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or Jenette Bras in LA. Dan Koch, the fourth-generation Town Shop owner, notes that more independent stores are opening, increasing the availability of professional fitters across the US.
Department stores often have fitters who are not part of the same staff as the people who make the sales. At Neiman Marcus you can make an appointment with a bra fitter, as you would with a personal shopper, free of charge. Prepare ahead of time, says intimate apparel buyer Ashley Allcorn, by providing information on what brand you currently wear and in what size, or problems you want to resolve. Depending on where you live, find out what specialty retailers or stores with serious lingerie departments are around you and go.
Try High Tech at Soma
If you are uncomfortable having your naked body measured with a tape measure or having your torso visually scrutinized sans tape measure, as practiced by the expert fitters at Town Shop or Jenette Bras, then head to Soma or www.soma.com, the brick and mortar and online retailer that has just launched the SomaInnofit smart bra. This item, available to use for free in stores, or for $59 to have shipped home to you, is shaped kind of like a sports bra. Using Bluetooth technology, it is connected to an app, and its technical seams sewn in copper take the key measurements to determine a proper fitting bra. (Soma offers a discount on a lingerie purchase after a customer buys a SomaInnofit for home use). But even Soma executive Cathy Devine, vice-president of innovation, says that nothing beats an in-store consult. In Soma’s case, a bra fitter can make sure that you put on the smart bra correctly.
Hidden History of Issues With Fit
The modern-day bra dates to the late 1800s, when Herminie Cadolle of Paris offered one as part of a two-piece undergarment in her corset catalog. The idea was to lend women support while eliminating the full-torso constraints of a corset. Today, the bra is a highly engineered product with at least six components: cups, band, center panel, wings, hooks, and straps. To this mix you can add underwire, padding, seams for contouring, different kinds of fabric, etc., offering different levels of support. This also impacts size and fit.
In addition to the conundrum of measuring, breast shape, and manufacture, achieving proper bra fit can be foiled by women who have preconceived ideas of what bra size they should be wearing. They’ll rely on the size that worked three years ago or can even be scared off by large cup sizes, as if a double-D is racy or taboo, as this size was once perceived to be in the past. Also, women forget that breast size can change frequently due to hormonal fluctuations, weight gain or loss, among other factors.
“What tends to happen is a woman finds a bra they like, she tries it on in a few sizes and ‘settles’ with the option she thinks works,” explains Neiman’s Allcorn. She adds that with the increasingly busy and time-pressured lives women lead, they don’t think they need to give bra fitting a great deal of time.
Online VS. Offline
The retail landscape for lingerie doesn’t make things easy for women either.
If you do not have an independent lingerie shop near you, chances are you have a big-box department store where you’re greeted with a tsunami of beige items that look alike but offer a severely limited size range; this is due to stocking space constraints. Thus, you might go shopping, not find your correct size because it’s not on the sales floor and buy from what’s available, putting aside your need for proper fit, observes Tracy Freno, manager of customer service at online intimate apparel and swimwear retailer BareNecessities. Online retailers can offer a wider range of options than a brick and mortar store — such as a wealth of information about fit, and often, fit advisors. BareNecessities serves up band sizes from 28-56 and cup sizes from AA-O.
“Did you even know that was an option? Neither do most women. There are plenty of people whose true size does not fall in the narrow assortment that a department store or brick and mortar retailer can offer,” says Freno.
This is where internet upstart Thirdlove is trying to make a play by offering half-cup sizes. Thirdlove would not respond to requests for comment. Industry executives, however, say that by offering half-cup sizes, Thirdlove is only further confusing a muddled marketplace, making it even harder for women to find their right size.
“Shoes have half-sizes, bras are not shoes,” explains Freno, echoing the sentiment of those interviewed for this story. “Women are confused enough when it comes to shopping for bras and we should be striving to find the perfect combination of band and cup size that will actually work, not some concocted notion of ‘half sizes’ in a garment where there are no half sizes.”
Plus, “It’s hard enough to fit someone when they come in the store!” notes The Town Shop’s Koch.
The Boob-Brain Connection
Bra size can also be a quasi-psychological issue. Once a 34 B, always a 34 B. Personally, during pregnancy my rib cage expanded because my babies were so big in the womb. I would never again be a 34-something after childbirth.
“Sometimes women can get locked into a size whether or not that size is relevant anymore,” says Koch. “They may have gotten measured years ago and stuck with that number.”
Wearing the wrong size bra can make you miserable. If it’s too small, or too tight, it can actually hurt, observes Ellen Jacobson, the founder and owner of Elila, a plus-size lingerie brand. “It affects your mental day,” she adds.
Of course, no amount of measuring or trying things on will work if you don’t know how your bra should fit. Many in the industry refer to “stoop, scoop and swoop” method, or any version thereof. With your bra on, bend forward and allow your breasts to fall into the cup. Scoop each breast forward, notably in front of any underwire, from the back and bottom using the opposite hand and smooth the breast tissue out. If you’ve chosen a bra with an underwire, make sure the underwire holds all your breast tissue. The underwire might seem like it’s reaching back into your armpit to hold the entirety of your breast but that might be where it’s supposed to land in order to embrace the entire breast. And if you want to make sure your bra will fit you for a while, handwashing and air drying is your only option as the heat and bustle of washing machines and dryers can distort shape permanently.
The Bra Plays a Role in Your Well-Being
Kimmay Caldwell, a lingerie consultant, expert fitter, and founder of Hurray Kimmay, feels that a properly-fitting bra is an essential part of one’s well-being. This notion is being embraced by the industry as well.
She observes that many women have bad, shameful memories of getting their first bras.
“Most of us learn how to wear undergarments from [our] mothers but often mothers were misinformed. I was so embarrassed to talk about this, I wouldn’t let my mom come into the changing room,” observes Caldwell.
Caldwell had a terrible self-image that was transformed thanks to years working as a fitter at one of New York City’s top lingerie stores, a job that put her through college as a musical theater major. At school, Caldwell says, everything seemed to focus on appearance. She didn’t think she was pretty enough or thin enough and thought she wasn’t getting cast for productions because of her looks. Something about being a fitter — seeing people in a highly intimate setting and finding them the right bra — caused a change in perception.
“Everyone said something negative while looking at the mirror. But I could tell people in the dressing room to love and enjoy themselves,” Kimmay recalls. “If I could help someone get into a bra that fit well, along with some knowledge about their body — shoulders back! Chest out! Heart leading the way! — that’s the person I want to send out in the world.”