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How to Choose the Right Bra Size and Style

Last updated on : October 18 2017

choosing a bra size

Contents



Introduction

Choosing a bra is like shopping for a car - frustrating but satisfying. The right bra can increase your cup size, craft abundant cleavage, and provide the perfect fit for your favorite sexy styles.

Which bras do you need and which ones are optional? In this full bra size and style guide, we cover the topic in depth. And consult bra and lingerie experts to help us along.

A Brief History of the Bra

Over the years bras have evolved from simple polyester covers to methods of support, style, and definition. As women have become more sophisticated, bra's have changed to match. The history of bras and the role of women is connected.  

The first recorded and recognized bras were corsets in the 14th century. Corsets pushed and lifted women's breasts to provide bountiful mounds and cleavage. They also cinched the waistline which gave bustlines the appearance of being fuller.

By the 19th century, various alternatives began to appear. Simple bras gained popularity because they relieved women of the discomfort of a corset. Bras with straps provided comfortable and reliable support and started to pop up in retail stores around the 1930s. 

Today, bras come in an array of styles, colors, designs, and construction. Whether you need a strapless bra to wear with a sexy sweetheart bandage dress or a deep plunge bra to pull off a draped dress, you have unlimited options.

Your choice matters. Many companies try to educate women on the purpose, proper fit, and intention of bras. However, most fail to touch on issues that real women face. We aim to change that. 

Finding the Perfect Bra

We consulted with bra expert Erica Windle, co-founder of A Sophisticated Pair. Her lingerie boutique is located at St. Mark's Church Road, Burlington, NC. We asked her a few questions.

Erica, what would you say is the most critical type of bra for women today?

I'd say “a bra that fits comfortably.” Comfort is the most critical and challenging aspect of being a bra fitter.

Some women have no problem finding comfortable styles that work. However, others struggle to find the best mix of comfort, style, and shape. Especially those in sizes outside the mainstream.

We receive many requests for smooth cup bras which disappear under thin or sheer fabrics but still provide discreet nipple protection. While these bras serve a purpose, they often don't offer the right levels of comfort or shape.

For me, I would prefer to show a seam than being uncomfortable with the wrong shape. Being comfortable is the advice we give.

Beyond a proper fit, I think t-shirt bras have become essential for most women.  

We sell a ton of strapless dresses. What is the key to wearing a strapless bra and getting the support you need?

The bad news is that strapless bras don't work for many women, especially those with larger cup sizes. You can find strapless bras in US H cup and above. However, for bigger cup sizes, bra construction struggles to maintain shape and support. 

With a regular bra, you receive about 80 percent of the support from the band and the remaining 20 from the straps. Remove the straps, and the bra can fail to give the lift and shape needed. This lack of support can be troublesome for all cup sizes.  

With that in mind, there are some key factors to consider when shopping for a strapless bra: 

  • If you don't have a silicone allergy look for bras with silicone gel lining the interior, especially the upper cup. The gel grips the skin and keeps the bra in place as you move.
  • Side stays on the wings are also helpful to keep breasts lifted and the bra anchored. Other nice features include detachable straps, padded cradles (the part of the bra surrounding the underwires), and a less rigid molded cup for better shaping. 
  • Consider the necklines and fabrics of your dresses and tops. If you wear a lot of low cut clothing, you’ll need a strapless bra with a plunge shape to ensure it does not show.
  • Some strapless bras use boning in the cup or seams to give a better fit. Choose a smooth cup bra instead of one with boning when wearing thinner knits. 
  • Examine the top of the cup. Softer, bottom-heavy tissue, will create fit issues in an open cup. If you have full on top breasts, a strapless bra with a closed cup may create overflow no matter the size.  
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss the issue with a dressmaker familiar with intimates. Sometimes a bra that may fit you well is only available in a sister size. A good dressmaker can tighten the band for you or add darts to change the cup shape. If you want to wear a strapless bra, alterations can make it possible.

strapless bandage dresses

We sell a ton of strapless dresses at The Kewl Shop

In your expert opinion Erica, how many bras should a woman have in her closet?

I recommend a minimum of two bras to rotate. Having this minimum will preserve their shape and longevity. Beyond those two, it’s up to the person’s taste and budget.  

The more everyday bras you have in rotation, the longer they last. I prefer to have at least four to give me adequate time to wear and wash them.

You will want some specialty bras in addition to your everyday styles. Depending on your needs these will be strapless bras, sports bras, or leisure bras. I don’t like to give any hard and fast rules because everyone has different needs and budgets.  

Top Bra Myths

Bra myths abound, and with the help of Erica, we present the top eight.

bra myths infographic

Underwires cause cancer

The 1995 book Dressed to Kill claimed that underwire bras correlate with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.  

According to their hypothesis, underwires trapped lymphatic drainage in the breast tissue, leading to cancer. The claims are not scientifically proven, because the study failed to exclude other risk factors for women, such as hereditary and weight. 

However, the damage was done, with many women permanently swearing off underwire bras for fear of developing cancer later in life. 

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Every woman needs a beige, black, and white bra

This myth is a throwback to a time when basic colored bras were the only ones available. Modern shoppers don't need to stock up on neutrals unless it suits their personal preferences.  

If you wear light-colored clothing and want your bra to be discreet, choose one colored close to your skin tone. However, think outside the traditional neutral trinity. Look for a range of colors like blush pink, cappuccino, mocha or even less traditional ones like lavender, eggplant, and olive.

For mid-tone and darker tops, nearly anything works underneath so let your tastes run wild!

Bras should disappear underneath clothing

Modern "underwear as outerwear" fashion trends show off your favorite lingerie pieces, including bras. The idea that you cannot have a seam or strap showing underneath your tops is old fashioned.

Customers should feel free to buy the bras that fit them best. Those that make them feel confident and not worried about being judged.

The T-Shirt Bra frequently promoted by style gurus can be plagued by fit problems and is available in a limited range of sizes. Expecting everyone to find one with a perfect fit and hidden under their t-shirt is not going to happen, and it isn't a problem. 

A DD cup is HUGE!

Whenever a customer sees their new size, most are incredulous that they need a cup size higher than a D or DD, but it’s quite common.

The media and more than a few memes have perpetuated this idea that cup sizes correlate to an actual breast size. In fact, cup sizes mean nothing without a band size. 

A 30D and a 38D are in no way the same size, so it’s impossible to use the cup size letter to indicate how big or small breasts are.

Bra straps provide support for the breasts

The bulk of the support for the breasts comes from the bra band, not its straps. 

Tightening bra straps to increase support can lead to long-term shoulder problems including permanent grooves and nerve damage. The straps should be adjusted to pull the cup of the bra against the breast without digging or pulling too tightly. 

If you let the band of the bra do the bulk of the work, then the tissue is lifted from the bottom rather than pulled up from the top. It’s more comfortable for your shoulders and your back.

Buy a bra on the middle set of hooks

You might buy a bra on the middle set of hooks to move a notch tighter or looser depending on how you feel that day.  

However, over time, bands stretch and lose elasticity leaving you with fewer hooks to tighten when this happens. Buying a bra on the tightest hooks is worse.

If you start on the loosest set of hooks, you typically have at least two more notches to go down as the band loses elasticity. If you are between band sizes, we recommend trying a smaller band size with a short extender. An extender will give the band time to break in without sacrificing months of wear.

There is only one right way to measure for a bra

Bra fitting can be a contentious issue with many advocating different sets of measurement methods and techniques.

However, Erica says, no single measuring technique always works. When I work with clients, I ask questions about their current bra and fit preferences. I find that’s a better place to start than with a tape measure.  

Some clients prefer a firm band and will buy bras in the size their ribcage measures while others need a looser fit and size up for comfort.

You need to find the size which feels best for you. Don't be bought in by someones ideal measurement technique, especially if it leaves you with an uncomfortable bra.

Bras must always fit perfectly

When I first opened my store, I was adamant about a perfect fit. However, I now realize that the perfect fit is not always possible, and in some cases, isn’t completely necessary.

If a bra doesn't fit perfectly to standard but is comfortable, looks good and provides the right amount of support, then that's ok.

I know this flies in the face of what most bra fitters will tell you. Don't be dissuaded from buying a bra you love if the fit is less than perfect. Furthermore, medical issues like sore ribs, hernias, and spinal problems might necessitate a more relaxed fit, go with it! 

Finding the Perfect Bra - Summary

The key to finding the perfect bra is stocking up on the intimates that give you the support, shape, and definition you need. Don't be too constrained by ideal fit and measurement techniques. 

Buy a few comfortable fitting bras and remember to rotate them regularly to protect the elasticity of each. Supplement with sports bras, strapless bras or t-shirt bras to accommodate your lifestyle and day to day activities.

How to Measure for a Bra

bra size infographic

If your bra is “too tight” or “digs in” then check your measurements before deciding on a new size or style. Measuring with a body tape measure (the soft vinyl type) gives you a good starting point for your size.

There are two steps. The first, measure yourself with a tape measure and the second, check for comfort. We call this latter step our bra size and fit checklist.

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Step 1 - Take your Measurements with a Tape Measure

There are a few ways to measure yourself. Most bra experts recommend that you get sized from a local bra specialist. However, if one is not available, this is how to do it yourself.

Take three measurements to work out your bra size, two for your band and one for your cup.

  • To measure the first band location wrap the tape around you and tuck it under your arms. Measure at the middle of your chest.
  • The next band measurement is at the bottom of your bust. Wrap the tape around your body and across the top of your ribcage to complete it. This measure is the size of the bra band you need.   
  • If you land an odd number for either measurement, then round it up to the nearest even number.
  • Discovering your cup size is a bit more exciting. Measure loosely around your bust. Be sure to place the measuring tape around the fullest part of your breasts.
  • Subtract the first band measurement (the one under your arm) from your bust measurement. The difference between these measures gives your cup size - each inch represents a cup size.
  • So if I measured 34 inches in my band and 38 inches in my bust, then I’m a D cup.

Step 2 - Complete the Bra Size & Fit Checklist

Once you have your measurements, try on bras in different styles for comfort. Each bra style and type will cover, cup, and lift differently, so you need to check a few.

These are the points you should check: straps, coverage, fit, gaps, digging, and back.

Straps slipping off shoulders

Straps slipping off the shoulders can be a sign of too broad a band. Check if a smaller one with a looser setting works better instead.

Otherwise, check for shape incompatibility. Many balconette styles have wide set straps as an example.  

Excess spillage from the cups

If you're spilling from the cups, try a bigger cup size or a style with different coverage.

Check that the center clasp or panel of the bra lies flat against your chest between your breasts. A flat center clasp indicates a good fit. If it is on top of your breast tissue on either side, go up a size.

Gap between breasts and bra

If you see a difference between your breasts and the bra look for a smaller cup size. Similarly, fabric that wrinkles, looks baggy, or folds is a sign that you need to size down.

Check the back band

Use a mirror to check if the back of your bra fits as well as the front. The band should be horizontal and at the same level as the front.

A band that rises at the back indicates a size too big. Try to slide two fingers underneath. If they don't fit, either loosen the bra or choose a bigger size.

Check the underwire fit

Underwires improve the support and lift of your bra. However, make sure they don't dig into your breasts or poke you anywhere. Underwires should lie flat against your body and be barely noticeable during wear.

Overall you must be comfortable in your bra

Ali Cudby, CEO of Fab Foundations and founder of the largest global bra fit training and certification program in the nation hits it head-on. He says "If you’re not comfortable or contained, then your bra doesn’t fit. And you deserve better."

He advises trying this test.

"Reach behind you and pull your bra band away from your back. Does it come away more than one or, at most, two inches? Can you feel resistance against your hand? If not, your band is too big, and your bra doesn’t fit. It will never give you the support you need as a large-busted woman. Period."

Some further tips

Some further tips for finding your bra size courtesy of Grace from The Petite Collegiate

  • Measure yourself every three months to determine your size. Measuring yourself at home is easier and faster. And it removes any chance of a fitter altering your size result to push you into one they sell. This way you take control of your sizing!
  • Don’t freak out if you’re well above a D cup. D cups are not static, and they’re not huge. No disembodied D-cups are floating around the world. Take a look at the Bra Band Project if you have too much sticker shock! 
  • Try various styles of bras. Don’t keep yourself in a beige T-shirt bra box! Everyone’s breasts are different, and not everyone fits well into molded cups. Try on balconette styles, unlined styles, plunge styles, full cups. You may be surprised what fits best. 
  • It’s easiest to use the UK sizing for bras because it is the only standardized method. US sizing differs by brand, so it’s easy to make a mistake when choosing your size. UK cup progression goes A, B, C, D, DD, E, F, FF, G, GG, H, HH, etc. 

Summary - Measuring for a Bra

Measuring is only half the solution to finding your size. The other half is checking for comfort and fit. Take your measurements carefully then try on a few bra styles in your size range. See what works. 

Remember that straps offer support, but bands do the actual heavy lifting. Keep an eye on the straps. If they are cutting into your shoulders, it means that your band size is too big.

Check you cup fit. If your coverage is adequate, you are more likely to avoid “nipple peaks” and “popping out” faux pas.

Types of Bras

types of bra

We've covered how important it is to find bras that fit. Now you need to ensure your fit is flattering, sexy, and gives you confidence. Building an arsenal of trustworthy and reliable bras is the secret weapon to a bright, trendy, and stylish wardrobe.

To help we've provided a high-level guide to different bra styles and the dresses they go with. And everything else you need to know to build an impressive and all-terrain bra collection.   

Everyday Bras

Let’s start with the bras we use most often – basic everyday bras. These are the bras you reach for when you get dressed for work, meet friends at the mall for calorie fest, or pick your son up from school. 

Consider buying at least 2-3 well-fitting basic bras so you can alternate them. Why? When you wear a bra for the whole day, your body heat relaxes and loosens the fabric. Your bra needs some time to return to its original shape, get aired out or washed. 

Pick bras that fit you well. Choose between seamless or seamed bras and bras that have padding and underwire. Keep a few lightweight cotton bras with no padding for those hot summer months. 

Push-up Bras

Perfect for wearing with low-cut dresses or tops, push-up bras help create the illusion of bigger breast sizes. Hooray!

The cups have removable or fixed pads that push or lift your breasts up as if on a mini breast-size pedestal. Push-up bras are also known to create better cleavage.

These are good bras for women who have smaller breast sizes but want the appearance of mounds for strapless or low neckline styles. 

Women who have breastfed, experience rapid changes in weight, or notice sagging will benefit from these bras because they create natural breast mounds, without the need for cosmetic surgery. 

Racerback and Sports Bras

Racerback and sports bras are also known as T-back bras. The x-shaped back allows maximum movement of the arms and back without the straps slipping. They are an excellent choice for sports or vigorous action because they “strap in” the girls.

The broader straps, soft, flexible fabric, colors, and styles make sports bras comfy options for both the gym and casual wear.  However, beware, this style bra can “squish ”, and you may experience the “one boob” effect. 

Adhesive Bras

Perfect for backless dresses, adhesive bras have cups covered with re-usable surgical-quality adhesive on the insides. This bra works for those who want breast coverage and to display their backs.

Adhesive bras do not provide proper support. However, they do shape well and will hide erect nipples under sheer clothing. Some adhesive bras have enough silicone padding to move your breasts up a size too (just thought we’d mention that fabulous tip)! 

red backless dress

Adhesive bras work well for backless dresses

Convertible Bras

A convertible bra rules over all other bras. The straps are easily removed, or crisscrossed to accommodate halter and one shoulder necklines. They also work well with asymmetrical necklines, racerback dresses, and strapless dresses.

If you are traveling light, take a convertible bra with you.

A high-quality convertible bra has a silicone lining around the cups for strapless wear. The silicone ensures the band stays in place and prevents slipping (remember the band is the part of the bra that does the heavy lifting). 

beige one shoulder dress

Convertibles are the solution for one shoulder dresses

Corsets and Bustiers

These are strapless bras with a full band that is pulled together with lace or hooks. Most corsets and bustier bras have half or demi cups that create mounding and cleavage. Corsets will shape your waist, unlike an ordinary strapless bra. 

For women with larger breasts, a corset or bustier will work better than a standard strapless bra. They are form-fitting and structured with boning so not the most comfortable and often become irritating after a few hours of wear. 

Plunge Bras

As the name suggests, plunge bras have a low center panel. Panels like this make them the perfect piece to wear under tops and dresses with plunging necklines.

A plunge bra ensures that you get adequate breast coverage, support, and cleavage without padding. Plunge bras work best for women who have C cups or larger because larger breasts do not need padding to create cleavage. 

model in deep plunge dress

Low cut dresses need a plunge bra

Demi-cup Bras

Demi-cups or demi bras have a shorter underwire and wide-set straps. These bras offer less upper-breast coverage as compared to full cup bras. 

A balconette design is perfect for dresses with wider necklines. However, if you have sloping shoulders or poor posture, you will struggle with straps that keep slipping out of place. 

Shelf Bras

Shelf bras are for women who want a braless natural look but with support to prevent sagging.

These bras have a underwire for partial support and a lower cup too small to cover the nipple area. Think of these as “half bras”. 

Multi-part Cup Bras

Women who have cup sizes of D or bigger can struggle to find a beautiful look and the support they need. A multi-part bra provides the solution. 

Multi-part bras have pieces of fabric sewn together to make up the cup design. This construction makes the most supportive bra style on the market today. 

However, that's not all. Multi-part bras look attractive and flatter your figure by shaping your breasts. A perfect bra to wear under a no-nonsense full coverage dress to show off your silhouette.

types of bra infographic


Bras Sizes and Styles Summed Up

A comfortable bra is more important than a perfect fit. Have a few basic bras that you rotate through the week. Also, some specialist bras to wear on special occasions, at the gym, or for dresses that need them. Try on different styles for comfort and fit.   

Check your size every three months and renew your collection as necessary. Building a bra collection that works with your wardrobe is the first step in gaining more confidence in your clothes and body.

Discard your bras when they have stretched too much, lost their shape, have padding that has gone lumpy or with other structural issues. These will destroy your feminine profile leaving you uncomfortable. 

Maintain your bras for the long haul by hand or machine washing them. Avoid putting them in the dryer. Instead, line them up to dry or lay them flat on a drying rack.  

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The Kewl Shop is a specialist retailer of bandage and bodycon dresses and an active Fashion, Lifestyle and Beauty publisher on The Kewl Blog.

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About the Author

Sasithon Bella is the kewl in The Kewl Shop. Co-founder, chief buyer, bandage dress guru and a lot more. If you like what you see at The Kewl Shop it is because of Sasithon Bella. You might know her better as Sasi.

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