When it comes to unpleasant shopping experiences, finding a bra has got to be up at the top of the list, right next to swimsuits and shapewear. After all, finding something to support your breasts can be an incredibly intimate endeavor. "When you're naked in the fitting room, women are going to talk about their body and how they feel about it, their sexuality, their work — your life just comes out," says Lyn Lewis, the CEO of Journelle.
When you're a woman with a larger breast size looking to find something, it's a completely different ball game. As I have previously attested to on this very website, finding a bra outside the 32-36/A-D range is frustrating beyond belief: Many brands don't venture beyond the early alphabet, and many that do aren't able to do it correctly, offering no support in flimsy, cheaply made bras. That results in a lot of settling. You've probably heard the highly-quoted statistic — that 80 percent of women are wearing the wrong bra size — which Oprah made popular. That's likely due to a lot of this frustrated compromising. "The most common problem, typically, is that women are wearing too large of a band size, but not deep enough of a cup size," says Sara Mitzner, creative director of Swimsuitsforall. "So what's happening is that they're not getting really the lift and the support that they could be getting if they were wearing just a deeper cup, but a smaller band size."
Friends, it doesn't have to be this way. I chatted with a number of experts from brands and retailers who really know their stuff when it comes to finding a bra for bigger busts and distilled their tips and tricks for you to use the next time you need to go shopping. Just remember: You're buying lingerie! It's okay to have a little fun with it.
Go to a brick-and-mortar store for a proper fitting.
I spent an hour with Alondra Clabaguera, an expert fitter at Journelle in Soho, and while it certainly wasn't easy — besides Victoria's Secret Angels, who wants to look at their half-naked body for an hour in the mirror? — it did change the game. Clabaguera guided me to a handful of bras that worked for me and made me feel sexy (a rarity in the big-bust game where so many styles verge on granny territory), the sizes of which varied. I spent another hour with Claire Cros, senior merchandise expert at Chantelle, who found a number of styles for me after tweaking her original measurements by looking at my body in the bras. That's because bra-fitting is much more of an art than a science.
While there have been a lot of advancements in technology from companies like ThirdLove and True & Co, the fact of the matter is, for bigger bust sizes, in-person fitting is still king. Each hour I spent with Clabaguera and with Cros — and, yes, planning to dedicate at least an hour to the task is part of the process — was invaluable. They were able to evaluate the actual shape of my breast and bring me the brands or styles they knew would work best; it's the kind of hands-on experience algorithms can't replace.
"We train people in bra fitting on pretty much their first day," says Lewis. "It does take time to develop a sense about the shape of the breast as well and our lingerie collection — what different bras or different shapes are better for any given person — and we encourage all our women to continue that training by trying on all the bras themselves and through talking to other people."
If you don't have access to a top-tier bra specialist like the aforementioned, Journelle's online customer service agents also work in the stores part time, which means they have all that same experience at their fingertips. And Chantelle says it sends agents to the retailers nationwide that stock the brand to be sure there's always an expert on hand.
Going it alone? Here's how a bra should properly fit: Put one finger between your back and the band to be sure it fits correctly. If you can't get your finger in, it's too snug; if you can fit more than one, it's too loose. Getting this right is the most essential part of finding the right bra — in fact, if you have someone helping who is only adjusting the straps (which will give you the illusion of lift and support in the fitting room), be wary. "The band really carries about 90 percent of the support of the bra," says Cathy Devine, vice president of merchandising at Soma. "A lot of women think they need these big straps to hold things up, but the straps are really there more decoratively; they shouldn't be carrying the load." At the front, you (obviously!) don't want quadruple-boob, which means your breasts shouldn't be spilling over the cups; if there's excess fabric or room in the cup, size down in the cup. The center gore — that thing that connects the two cups — should sit flat against your sternum.
When you have the bra on, move around — lift and lower your arms, bend over, shake 'em around a little bit — to make sure it stays in place when you're living your life outside of a fitting room. The bra should fit best with the band on the furthest set of hooks to the end, not the closest; that way, as the bra ages and stretches out, you can continue to tighten up the band to extend its lifespan.
Look at the engineering.
The most important part of a bra is how it's engineered. Chantelle emphasizes a four-part cup system, with a vertical seam that lifts the breasts and a seam on the side to center them. Many will also come with an invisible sling sewn into the outer parts of the cup for extra support. Non-molded styles often offer better support for bigger sizes than their molded-cup counterparts, but many brands now offer specialized fabrications with memory foam-like technology. (Those options never worked particularly well for me, but that may be due to my own breast shape).
Find companies that specialize in offering a wide range of sizes. Chantelle tests its bras on its own employees of all sizes before they ever hit stores; Soma starts its fitting process on a size 38DD fit model. Brands that offer wide size ranges have typically already selected a fabric that will work across all sizes.
The bra style really matters.
Where your breast shape really comes into play is in choosing a cup style. As someone with "shallow" breasts, full-coverage styles often left gapping fabric at the top, which means I benefitted much more from demi or balconette styles. On the other hand, someone with fuller breasts might find something like a plunge too revealing. Play around with styles in the same brands to find one that works for you.
Mitzner has a fit test she calls the "windshield wiper": "You take where the bra is on and it's fitting your breast, and you can basically take a finger from the center of your cleavage and windshield wipe it all the way out to your armpit."
Be prepared to spend more money.
Unlike ladies who can just pick up a bra at H&M or Target, you're looking for something with substantial support, and that isn't going to come cheaply. Expect to spend anywhere from $50 up to hundreds of dollars for bras that will work. This has more to do with construction than material.
Consider these investments in your wardrobe: With the right bra, your clothes will look and fit better. And they should be cared for as such, which means handwashing and line drying. Too lazy to hand wash? (Same.) You can put bras into the washing machine — bonus points if you throw them into a lingerie bag or a pillowcase! — but under no circumstances should you put them in the dryer. They will wear out much faster. Also, try alternating bras so you're not wearing the same one every day, which will cut down on wear.
Apply these same rules to swimwear.
If finding a bra that works for a bigger bust is hard, finding a swimsuit that works is damn near impossible. That's changing as brands are catching on that not every woman wants a tiny triangle bikini, and many now offer bathing suits in bra sizing to make things even easier. It may seem counterintuitive, but Mitzner says you want to look for adjustability, which means that things which tie in the back could be a better option than a hook-and-eye closure.
You're going to have to settle on strapless bras.
It doesn't seem like the technology has quite caught up in this arena, because many of the options I tried were close, but not perfect. The most important thing to get right is the band size, and then hope for the best. Bummer!
Get refitted every six months.
Yea, sorry, you should really redo this whole process every six months. That's just good advice for anyone wearing bras, as your breast size and shape can change with time for any reason from weight loss or gain to pregnancy to aging. You could probably extend this to a year, if you haven't experienced any major physical changes, but even if it's just a quick 15-minute confirmation that, yep, your boobs are the same, a fitting is always worth it.
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