Since the age of 13, when my breasts really started to show me who was boss around here, I've felt like they were more of a hassle than they were worth. Breasts take up a lot of space, make finding the perfect button-down shirt near impossible, and turn exercise into a scientific endeavor. And then, of course, there's the unwanted attention from the opposite sex -- but that's an entirely different story altogether.
Easily, though, the worst thing about breasts is having to wear a bra. Seriously. I mean, bras can be really pretty and fun, but mostly they're just a pain in the ass, and finding one that actually fits damn near impossible; in fact, eight in 10 women are said to be wearing the wrong size. Shopping for a bra when you need one has to be one of the worst shopping experiences, which is why many women -- like myself -- use bras way past their prime. You know what I'm talking about.
"It's a very personal experience," says Claire Chambers, CEO of lingerie retailer Journelle. "There isn't anything you shop for other than maybe a bathing suit where you are so exposed, and you're standing there virtually naked in bad lighting confronted with just yourself, in a sense, and having to share that experience with a stranger makes that nerve-wracking, even for people comfortable in their own skin."
Though the industry has long been dominated by a certain retail giant -- let's just say it rhymes with Schmictoria's Schmecret and be done with it -- many niche brands and start-up companies are trying to step up into the space to offer alternatives to the pink, pushed-up megastore. I spoke to two, True&Co and ThirdLove. I also tried out their services, and popped by a Journelle boutique for a traditional fitting, to see how it all stacked up.
Michelle Lam founded True&Co after a particularly awful fitting experience. Believing she could create a better shopping environment for women, she started the online boutique based around survey responses from thousands of women, separating out the data to create profiles of size and body types, and found that a lot of the product out there doesn't work for most women.
"This is basically a market where we test every bra before we carry it, and 86 percent of the bras out there we can't figure out who they're meant for," Lam says. "There's a lot of bad product in this marketplace."
The Method: True&Co uses a quiz to determine your size. You answer questions about how your current bra fits -- whether you're having issues with the straps or the cups, etc. -- and questions about your body. True&Co then uses that to assign you a size and a body type in its "True Spectrum."
It might seem questionable that women are responsible for self-reporting; after all, so many of us are getting it wrong. But Lam has trust that women won't skew their answers based on vanity. "We believe women are the best self-reporters of their own body," she says. "Women are very smart, they know what works for them and they know what doesn't -- they're not reporting to their friends, they're trying to find a garment that works for them."
How it worked for me: The quiz determined that I was a 36DD -- the size I was wearing going into this -- and that I'm a "Vermillion," which means I am a full, "bottom happy" breast type (along with 19 percent of other women). I picked out two True&Co branded styles and two outside brands.
I wore the three bras True&Co sent (the two from True&Co's in-house line and one third-party brand) for a day apiece, and each was gaping at the cup and the band had stretched out too much by day's end. Since my older bras were also starting to gape, which I had initially chalked up to age, I imagine this is the flaw in self-reporting. Lam says that the company successfully fits eight out of 10 women, so I must be one of the two in 10.
Like Lam, Heidi Zak got the idea for ThirdLove after a disastrous bra shopping experience. "I wanted to start my own brand but I wanted to do it in a category where there was a lot of opportunity to create a better experience," she says. "If you're going to create a brand today from scratch, you also have to create a reason why people want to shop with you -- you have to create a better shopping experience."
Zak worked to develop seven patents, with four more pending, on the fitting technology behind ThirdLove. Since many women fall in between sizes, the brand has also developed a unique half-size system for cups. Thanks to her unique business plan -- and great location in Silicon Valley -- she was able to raise $5.6 million from investors and launched in November 2013.
The Method: ThirdLove has an app you download onto your iPhone that serves as both the fitting method and the shopping experience. You take two photos of yourself, one front-facing and one side-facing, in a mirror. You can wear a tank top or just your bra.
"How the algorithm works is that we calculate the size of your chest and your body in relationship to the iPhone itself," Zak explains. "It's the standard unit of measure."
The downside? It currently only works with iPhones.
How it worked for me: I decided to do it just in my bra for best results, and honestly, taking basically naked photos of yourself in a mirror will never not be awkward. For some reason, it wouldn't work with the mirror mounted to my wall, so I used the one mounted to my dresser which could have potentially skewed results. After tinkering a bit with the angle, both photos were in and I was given my new size: 34DD.
I picked two bras: a demi-cup and a strapless bra, which I each wore for a day. The demi-cup cut into my chest and I had to adjust at a few points throughout the day because I was getting quadruple boob -- not the best fit. The brand also sent me its new 24/7 bra. Because I picked my size before the fitting, however, I chose a 36DD which was a bit too large.
Unsurprisingly, Journelle's founder was also frustrated by conventional shopping experiences. For her, bra-fitting is an art form, not a science, for which her associates receive hours of hands-on training.
"Really, it was a personal love for lingerie, and the other side of that was a personal frustration shopping for lingerie," Chambers says of starting Journelle. "I really felt like the space was ripe for trying to change that and to make it more pleasant and easy shopping experience."
The Method: I went to a Journelle boutique for a traditional fitting, where a very lovely and knowledgable associate ushered me to a fitting room and took my measurements.
"We perform the fitting and we let the customer know what technical size she is," Chambers says. "But the most important thing that we do is make sure that our sales associates are skilled in translation, which means taking that number and taking other details about the client which aren't a number but, say, her breast shape, and then translating that by using detailed knowledge about all of the brands and making recommendations."
How it worked for me: Chambers recommended allocating an hour's worth of time and to come by during low-traffic hours for the sizing. I was there for about 40 minutes; about 20 were spent tweaking the sizes I was trying on post-measurement.
Though the associate initially said 34G was my size, the bras in that sized gapped, so we sized down to a 34F (the same as a 34DDD). Then I spent some time wandering around finding styles in that size -- no easy feat, trust me -- and trying them on. I ended up finding one I really liked that was very flattering and, maybe not surprisingly, the best fitting one from this experiment.
The bottom line
Honestly, the best method for getting a well-fitting bra is still the tried-and-true in-store fitting; bras are incredibly tricky garments and they can vary in size even within brands, so having an expert on hand to guide you through the process is enormously helpful.
That's not to say, however, that the technology isn't getting there. ThirdLove got pretty damn close to the right size, and that it missed the mark may have just been due to an error on my part. Had I known that I was wearing the wrong size when I took the True&Co fitting, I might have self-reported differently as well.
What is perhaps most interesting is that, technically speaking, 34F and 36DD are meant to be somewhat interchangeable in terms of sizing, and yet I still ended up with a handful of ill-fitting bras. That's what's so hard to replace about the in-store experience: Different style bras, even in the same sizes, fit so differently that actually putting them on the body is almost the only way to know for sure that they will work for you.
What is nice about these services is that they each narrow down their offerings only to show the styles that would work for your size and fit, which makes the process less overwhelming; you're not sifting through product that doesn't even come in your size. And the product that I received from both was definitely on par with more established brands in terms of quality; in the right fit, they would be great in regular rotation.
Finally, as someone who used to bra fit for a job in college, I was kind of shocked to learn at the end of all this that I was one of the eight in ten women wearing the wrong bra size. Which is why no matter which way you do it, it's always worth getting re-fit once a year or so.