“Can you tell me what bra size I am?”
It’s a common request for me as a custom bra maker. The short answer is, no, I can’t. The long answer is...the rest of this post!
How Retail Bra Sizes Work (or don’t)
In North America, retail bra sizes generally consist of a number and a letter.
Number = Rib cage measurement + 0, or 2, or 3, or 4
Letter = one letter for each each difference between the Rib cage measurement and the full bust measurement
Let’s deal with the number first.
Whether or not a company uses your “true measurement” (adds 0) or adds another amount (3 or 4, depending on whether you are an odd or even number measurement) is entirely dependent on the company - there isn’t a standard in the industry. So you need to ask, or the person fitting you needs to know, how each brand sizes its bras.
The letter is the cup size, and one inch per letter is pretty standard from A to D. Some companies use 1 inch = 1 letter, and others use 1 1/4 inch equals one letter...and others use different amounts. Basically, that scale changes for some companies once you get larger than a DD cup. Again, the person fitting you should know how the company does this.
Materials, Style and Volume matter too
The letter and the number tell you nothing about the volume, shape and diameter of your breasts - and those three things are essential to finding a good fit. Different styles fit certain breast shapes better, as do different wire shapes and lengths. A knowledgeable staff person will be able to point you to brands or styles that are suited to your shape.
Not only do our bodies change over time, but so do bra making materials and supplies. Even if your body doesn’t change, you can’t assume that buying the same size bra from the same manufacturer will fit the same way. If they’ve changed their elastics or materials, it may fit completely differently, even if it’s the same style.
Many of us end up frustrated, resentful, and full of self-loathing after a lingerie shopping trip, but it doesn’t have to be that way - at all. It is not your body’s fault - it is the way the retail shops sell, and the bras are manufactured that set us up for failure.
So how can you shop smarter?
- Go shopping without the expectation that you are a certain number or cup size, because it is completely arbitrary. The goal is to get you a bra that fits, not to fit into a certain size.
- Know the job you’re asking the bra to do before you buy it. If you are looking for an everyday bra to wear to work, don’t fall for bras that are designed for lounging or sports. Tell the salesperson what purpose the bra will be serving.
- Know your rib cage and full bust measurements. Ask how the bras you are trying on are sized (if there is any amount added to the band number.) That way if you are a 42 band measurement and they try to fit you in a 36 or a 48, you know something’s up.
- Start by shopping somewhere that will have a size in your range. If you take your measurements and, using the simple calculation above, you are a DD cup or above, look for stores that carry larger cup sizes. Many chain stores don’t carry above a DD cup, so look for a specialty retailer or independent store.
- Know what a properly fitted bra is supposed to look and feel like. Sign up for our mailing list and download our free fit guide!
- Fit the band first. Fit the band first. Fit the band first. Once isn’t enough to say this!! In an underwire bra, the band should carry almost all the weight of the breasts, and if it doesn’t fit right, you’re going to be uncomfortable. Once you find a band that fits properly, try on different cup sizes until the cup volume and wire fit are correct. Don’t let the salesperson fool you with a larger band size and smaller cup volume.
Knowing your body, the ins and outs of its shapes and changes, is something a lot of us have lost because we no longer make our own clothes. When clothing built for averages and models doesn’t fit us, then, we feel abnormal. What is abnormal is that we settle for clothing that doesn’t fit, and that manufacturers get away with it! This particularly applies to bras, which are tightly fit to our bodies and are under a lot of stress. They are more engineering workhorse than fashion piece, and are one of the most complex garments to make and fit correctly because our bodies are so different.
If you can’t find a bra that fits you from a large scale manufacturer, you still aren’t abnormal - you simply have a body that doesn’t conform to their myths and assumptions. That’s where I can help, or other specialty manufacturers may help. People that have omega shaped breasts, have had breast surgery, or are small rib cage/large breasts and large rib cage/small breasts are often left unserved by large bra manufacturers.