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Imagine walking into a Victoria’s Secret. The lights are dim and the air smells like a few flowers recently exploded. Shimmering pink radiates from the walls, from the signs, and from the shopping bags. On tables and in drawers are the bras: striped and polka-dotted, push-up and T-shirt, racerback and strapless, lace and silk — endless varieties of ways to support and show off. Maybe a bra is $40. Maybe you treat yourself and buy two.
This is a completely foreign experience to any woman who wears a size outside of what is considered “standard.” For a woman whose breasts — or rib cage — are too big or too small, there might not be any bras at all.
I remember trying on bras as a teen inside a Macy’s where an older woman strung a tape measure around me and sucked her teeth. “Let me see if we have something,” she said, shaking her head. She came back with two bras, both with straps that felt like the size of bungee cords and what seemed like a yard of taupe fabric between them. I put it on in the privacy of the changing room, and felt 100 years old.
I wanted to wear the polka dot bras, the cute lace bralettes, the kinds of bras women ostensibly buy for others but actually buy for themselves. Early on, I thought they just didn’t exist in my size. But later, when I found them (in brands like Freya, Panache, Cleo, and Curvy Kate), they weren’t cheap. Sometimes, spending $65 on a bra felt just as prohibitive as no bras existing in the first place.
Beautiful lingerie isn’t just hard to find for women with big busts, either. Major lingerie retailers like Victoria’s Secret usually keep their specialty bras and lingerie in a standard B-DD range, which means that anyone outside of that — “too big” or “too small” — is plum out of luck. But why? How hard can it possibly be to build bras in a variety of sizes? Turns out, pretty hard.
Sizing is an inexact science in any form. Most clothing was custom-made up until the 20th century. According to Dr. Lynn M. Boorady, a professor of fashion and textile technology at Buffalo State, retailers started selling clothing for children by age and for adult women by bust size right after the turn of the 20th century.
The Catalog Manufacturers of America asked the US Department of Commerce to do a study of American women to get a good grasp on their sizes. The group consisted of more than 10,000 women, but it included only low- and middle-class white women, making it not at all representative of the entire population. Since then, the calculating of average sizes hasn’t really changed. There have been a few updates to the size charts, but no kind of massive repollings to understand how truly varied American women really are.
This becomes particularly problematic when talking about bra sizes because, according to Cora Harrington of The Lingerie Addict, “It’s really hard to get a sense of what the average bra size is. I wear a 34C, but I could also wear a 32D or a 36B.” Because each person can technically fit into several sizes, it’s difficult to get a handle on what an “average” bra size really is.
That’s because (most) bra sizes are calculated by taking the rib cage size, which gives you the band size (32 inches, 36 inches, 40 inches), and then the cup size is calculated by how many inches difference there is between the circumference of the rib cage and the bust. So a 34B is someone with a 34-inch ribcage and a 36-inch bust.
On top of that already confusing sizing system, those numbers don’t acknowledge breast shape at all, which can determine how well a woman fills up the cup she’s putting on. Some newer lingerie brands like True & Co. and ThirdLove have started introducing some guidelines on breast shape, but in general there’s very little acknowledgement of half sizes or breast shape differences.
Somewhere in the history of standardized sizing, bra companies developed a range they assumed would fit most women. “It’s really hard to be good at making bras for every single person. No one can do all the things and stay competitive,” Harrington told me. So instead, brands specialize in what Harrington calls “core sizes,” mainly 32 through 38, B through D. Those “core sizes” weren’t really created off a history of massive polling, but rather measurements from limited surveying that led researchers to believe these were the most common sizes. They were just kind of inferred.
“Working within common sizing is generally easier from a design and production standpoint, but lingerie that caters to larger or smaller sizes is underrepresented,” Colleen Hill, the curator of costume and accessories at Museum at FIT, told me. “There seems to be great opportunity to provide women with better and more diverse options in that area.”
On both sides of the spectrum, large and small, we fail to fit women in bras properly, in the band and in the cup. And part of that is because the more specialized a bra becomes, the more expensive it is. “I think people are under the impression that bras, because they have less fabric, must be cheaper to produce,” Harrington says. “Lingerie has to use higher quality materials, and those materials have to be expertly produced.”
Harrington contrasted the creation of a bra to the creation of a coat. No matter what size woman a coat is made for, a coat is still a coat. It doesn’t need to do anything other than button in the front and keep a person warm. But a bra has a different duty entirely — it has to lift breasts up and support them against gravity and activity. It has to be engineered, and that engineering is highly dependent on the size of the breasts the bra is intended to support. “If you’re taking a bra that supports a 34B, that 36G breast is going to be a lot bigger and probably a lot denser,” Harrington says. “The materials you use, the design you use, has to be different.”
On top of all that, lingerie is still made by hand. “Because the garments are complicated to make, they can’t be made by machines,” Harrington says. “If the bra is off by a few centimeters, it’s off, nobody can wear it. We don’t have machines that can do that kind of detail that are affordable.” That means the underwear you buy at Target is made by hand, and the robe you buy from Agent Provocateur is also made by hand.
A company like Victoria’s Secret, which sells a lot of other things besides bras, might be able to afford to slash the price of their bras beneath wholesale, but most companies simply can’t afford to do so, given the cost required to make a bra in the first place. (We reached out to Victoria’s Secret for comment on this story, but did not hear back.)
For a lot of women, major lingerie chains are one of the few local options available. (Think about it: how many lingerie stores exist in your hometown mall? One? Maybe two? Now compare that to the amount of clothing stores.) The retailer covers almost two-thirds of the lingerie market in the United States, which means for many, it’s just where you go.
“We don’t have a strong lingerie boutique country [in America]. Sometimes, the closest bra boutique might be 100 miles away,” Harrington said. “If I wanted something cute, it was going to be Victoria’s Secret. They've effectively built a moat around their business. For millions of people, they're the only lingerie store in town.”
“You can still find old-fashioned bra shops in some major cities. There are women, of course, who know,” Dr. Boorady told me. “We have one here in Buffalo, but you have to know about it, though. It doesn’t have great advertising. It mostly spreads by word-of-mouth.”
Because most major brands focus on limited sizes, a wide range of smaller companies have been popping up in the last decade to focus on expanded bra sizes. Retailers like Le Petit Coquette sell beautiful intimates for women with small breasts, while brands like Freya and Panache are catering to larger-busted women. Most of these specialty brands sell mainly through e-commerce stores like Bravissimo and Figleaves. (Some labels, like Lonely Lingerie, have extended sizes on both sides of what’s considered standard.)
All of these bras, though, because of their specialty sizes and the cost of their materials, are pretty expensive, and not anywhere close to as accessible as a bra from Target or Victoria’s Secret.
Harrington told me that there are a few reasons the United States hasn’t established the same number of small lingerie stores or specialty lingerie brands. The most prohibitive factor is cost. “Full bust bras — i.e. DD+ cups, which is what Panache and Freya specialize in — have tremendously high [research and development] costs. It can literally take three years before a new full bust bra is ready for market... and people might hate it anyway,” Harrington told me via email. “And the price point for those brands is higher than what the average American consumer typically wants to pay.”
Small strides have been made in the petite sphere, though; Victoria’s Secret opened a store for bralettes in December 2016 catering to women with smaller breasts. But bralettes, like any bra, don’t necessarily work for everyone.
Bras may be worn to feel sexy or to maintain modesty, but they also change the way a garment fits on top. “I think any foundation garment is absolutely important for the fitting of clothing. We keep working on the fitting of clothing, but we aren’t working as hard on the foundation garments,” Dr. Boorady told me. “It’s not the women. It’s the companies.”
Even though everyone wants women to wear bras that fit, there’s no simple fix to creating bras that fit as wide a range of women’s bodies as exist in the world. The bras cost too much to make, and consumers aren’t willing to pay that cost. On top of that, retail establishments don’t even know the scope of the number of women not being served by the current offerings. It’s a problem that can’t be easily solved because it requires a complete cultural and mental shift.
Brands have to approach the women they are designing for, and women have to change the way they look at the cost of bras.