Ladies, if you’ve ever struggled with what goes on before you put on your clothes, it’s time to fix that. If you spend the day tugging up bra straps or end the day dying to be released from bra bondage, then, reader, this post is for you. We’re doing a first on my blog: going deep into the confusing world of bra-fitting (and, yes, this will have a historical connection and repercussions for at least one of my patterns!).
When I was around 18 years old, my mother took me to a department store for my first professional bra fitting. I felt completely embarrassed and would rather have been anywhere else on the planet that day. The middle-aged lady in charge of fitting had a measuring tape around her neck, reading glasses on top of her head, and a squint that made me feel like she might just have x-ray vision. It felt like I was back in elementary school, having nightmares of showing up for class in my underwear. I don’t actually remember much about the fitting itself (I suppose I blocked out that memory!), but I do know that the bras my mother bought me after that visit were the first and last (for a very long time) that fitted perfectly and were comfortable to wear.
Over the next 26 years, I would get married, carry 11 babies to term, breastfeed those babies, gain weight, lose weight, buy nursing bras in all manner of shapes and sizes, and finally settle on a 38B bra as “my” size. I never bothered with another professional fitting (I’ve been a little bit busy, you understand). But that was a big mistake.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve measured and cut and sewn for yourself and others for more than twenty years; you can still become blind to a fitting issue on your own body and just keep mentally pushing it to the back burner. I’ve spent the last ten years (at least) pulling up bra straps that fall down constantly, attempting to adjust underwires that dig into the wrong places, and basically ignoring what was staring me right in the face: I’ve been wearing the wrong size bra for absolutely donkey’s years. And once that reality hit me squarely between the eyes, the repercussions for my Regency Short Stays pattern began to unfold in my brain, and several emails about fitting issues from customers came sharply into focus. More on that later….
Last month, I received a note about my pattern resizing tutorial that started me thinking about this whole issue after years of neglect:
I have spent the last 10yrs personally measuring each customer in every category: age, shape, curves, barrel, apple shape, large/small breasts, etc…. I show all my ladies to help them understand what is fact [and] what is myth in the lingerie world. “Oh, you need this bra because you are short”; “You need this bra because you are long bodied”; “You need this bra design because you are big-breasted, small-breasted.” Even “wrong-shaped breasts” is another one, as many women have pigeon chest, pectus excavatum, Poland syndrome, etc. It’s all false. It’s the excuses to just sell someone a bra dress coat, blaming them that their shape isn’t quite right, rather than addressing some issue they didn’t know they had—like we all have one side bigger than the other, and some have sightly more of a difference. They are not alone; that it is not unique. I have seen many, with the correct advice and support, getting the correct bra they are happy and with in design, colour, and fit….
Women look down at their breasts all day instead of seeing what they really look like (shape, posture, etc.), as many hate looking into mirrors no matter what their size or age…. [T]hey pick out the bits they hate in their body image instead of ignoring these and looking at the positive bits they are happy with. They think a diet, exercise, or surgeon can solve their body issues when, in fact, it’s the bra that has caused all [these issues], because they are mostly in too big a band and too small a cup. No [clothes] will ever really look good in the wrong bra size and style. Women need the breasts lifted and supported in the correct position where nature started them….
Thank you again for helping me understand sizes. [I] really appreciate all your hard work and effort to make it so simple to understand this procedure.
I was intrigued, because I totally agree that underpinnings are key to perfectly fitted garments. You are not going to pull off the 1780s in a push-up bra, after all! But, having made myself a few sets of stays over the years, I’d kind of shoved thoughts about modern bras out of my head (even though I wear them on a daily basis–go figure). I offer patterns from the 1940s and 1950s, right smack in the middle of a decade where bras started to resemble what we wear today—with a few interesting exceptions (bullet bras, anyone?). So I started doing some research on bras and bra fitting.
Now, I’ve apparently lived in a cave for about a decade, because I missed all the brouhaha over the bra-fitting saga that has apparently been the subject of thousands of blog posts. There are boatloads of articles on the agonies of selecting and buying bras. Wow. I was in good company, because the majority of women seem unable to find a perfect-fitting bra, and most of us really don’t get how cup size is determined. I definitely didn’t, and this is where the plot thickened. I ran across this humorous but incredibly helpful article on bras that laid everything out in such a way that lightbulbs turned on all over the lingerie marquee in the deep recesses of my brain. The most important “ah-ha” moment came in the revealing (no pun intended) comment about band-to-bust ratio — or the difference between the bra band size and cup size. This handy graphic illustrates something that confuses most of us (definitely me) when it comes to choosing a bra size:
I could now clearly see that the reason I’d been tugging up bra straps all these years was that I was wearing a band size far too large (and hooking it on the innermost set of hooks to tighten it up enough). A larger band size means shoulder straps that sit farther out on the shoulders…which meant mine slipped off my narrow shoulders constantly, even with tightening. And, while the cup size was comfortable, it actually left me with more room than necessary and gaping at the front—something I attributed to going up and down in size while breastfeeding and just tried to ignore. But, nope, I actually had the wrong cup size as well. Having figured this out, it was time for a change, and I made a beeline for my measuring tape and calculator.
It’s funny, because I measure my full bust all the time when making a new historical gown, but I hadn’t measured below the bust in ages, even though I make empire-waist gowns quite a lot. Silly! I followed the measuring instructions at this link. After computing (twice, due to disbelief!), the result was that I should be wearing a 34DD, which is a size I have never even imagined trying. I made a beeline for the bra section in our local department store on my next trip to town and also had a fitting at a proper bra shop called “Storm in a G Cup” closer to Cape Town. Yes, ladies, the bra fitters know what they are doing and can eyeball very accurately. The gal who measures and helps with selecting bras confirmed that I had assessed myself correctly and reaffirmed that I’m a 34DD or 34E in American sizes but would probably need a 38C (“sister size”) bra if I purchase from a UK outlet, because they do something completely different with the bra band measurement (more on this below).
Still a wee bit skeptical, I grabbed several 34DDs but also a 36C, 34C&D and my usual 38B and tried them all on. I could not believe the differences I saw in the mirror immediately! The 38B straps sit way too far out on my shoulder, even if I hook on the tightest hooks and eyes. The 34C didn’t have enough room in the cups. The 36C was too loose in the bra band and still had not enough room in the cups. The 34D was too snug, but the 34DD fit like a dream. I can’t tell you how much more comfortable I am now that I’m not tugging straps up all day and now that all the flesh is staying where it’s supposed to!
I promptly wrote Helen to thank her:
I just had to drop you a line, because your original comment got me thinking and has actually totally changed my silhouette! Here’s the story:
The last time I was professionally fitted for a bra (I blush to admit this) was in college, 22+ years ago. Since then, I’ve changed bra sizes many times through pregnancies and breastfeeding, but I’ve just kind of bought whatever bras felt comfortable and ended up in a 38B. Well, your comment got me thinking that I probably needed to revisit bra fitting (!!!), so I did some study online and took new measurements. Imagine my shock to discover I should actually have been wearing a 34DD for years!
I took myself bra shopping here in South Africa last week and tried on bras, just to test this new size. Sure enough, the 34DD is an absolutely perfect fit. Now I don’t have straps constantly sliding down my shoulders, and I’m not having to fasten on the tightest set of hooks and eyes! You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was so surprised.
I would LOVE to do a new blog post about bra fitting and also relate it to fitting historical stays, because the principles are the same…. Thank you for delivering me from poorly fitted bras at last!
I asked Helen if she’d be willing to answer questions about choosing a properly fitting bra. Being the professional that she is, Helen promptly wrote back with lots of helpful information. Here is our Q&A, which I hope you will find as enlightening as I have!
Q. First off, how do I need to look at myself when I’m ready to choose a bra?
A. I tell my ladies to stand tall and straight, hands at their side, and look at their bodies with a white tight tee-shirt on to show the outline better. The middle of the upper arm matches the fullest part of the breast. The joint of the elbow is their waistline. The middle of the lower arm is their hipline. No matter what size of breast, the alignment of the torso is the same from neck to tail—same number of bones as everyone else.
Q. So, then how do I try on and choose the right bra?
A. It’s not the price that should be your concern, but the fit, shape comfort, and design you want of a special or everyday outfit. [Do you want] a cup style that is lower at the front (a plunge), or is it one that comes up over both your breasts? Scoop the breast tissue from the side of the breast way around the side just gently scooping the hand gently to the middle of the breast directly under the nipple then lift it as high as you can and let it drop into the cup. [This is] to allow the breast to fall naturally [while] standing up straight—upright; not bending forward…. [Editor’s Note: This is exactly what I’ve told ladies about putting on short stays. You cannot just put them on and pull the laces tight! You have to scoop everything up and settle the “girls” into their gussets. There is a super article about this on the Oregon Regency Society’s blog, in fact. More on stays at the end!]
Q. Okay, I’ve put the bra on and “scooped” everything in place. Now what am I supposed to look for?
A. It may look okay looking down on it, but look straight ahead in the mirror, as the wire at the side should be level or underneath the join of the arm to the underarm. The fuller the breast, the further under the arm the wire should be. The banding should come high enough also to hold in the curves rather than short, which adds bulges you never had in the first place. I’ve nagged enough about this, but the most important part of the fitting process is “scooping” the breasts into the cups. You never realise how much breast tissue is around the side of your body. It isn’t fat; it is where the lymph nodes of the breast are situated, and they should always be in front of the wire inside the bra and not underneath. Look again, and the fullest part in the middle of the upper arm aligns with the breast where the dart at the side of a blouse or dress hits. This should be directly in line with the nipple; if not, the bra is still too big and dropping the breast tissue. Even one band size bigger than needed can drop a breast two inches.
Q. What if I’m lopsided?
A. If one breast is bigger than the other, you have to always fit the larger one firstly, because it determines what cup size you will wear, hence where the straps come in, as they can be lifted at two heights. The smaller breast can take up more strap to even out creases in the cup and bring it closer to the breasts. It may look funny to some looking in the mirror, but if you put a white snug-fit tee-shirt on, you will see right away they are level and that there are no bulges at the top of the breast, and there should be none now at the side of the arm hole of the top.
Q. There are a lot of bra manufacturers out there. How do I know where to shop?
A. I would always still pick a good company that has good quality designs, material, and styles, rather than big companies that now do their own ranges. Try Parfait—an American company. Anita does some great bras sizes as well. The Casey bra comes in many colours and shapes—molded, semi-plunge, and soft cup, too, which is well cut to give anyone up to a G cup a great shape and style for any woman of any age.
Q. If I decide to buy bras in the UK or Europe, I have a whole new set of problems, don’t I? Why do American bra bands differ from UK bra bands (I learned that my UK size is 38C, which is the “sister size” to the 34DD)?
A. Things made in Europe are roughly four inches smaller than the tag states, which leads to all sorts of misunderstanding for women to get it right on their own. For instance, if you look on the label and it says 28 inches/71 centimeters, it actually measures 23 3/4 inches. You lose nearly four inches. It messes around with the cup size you buy, too. [So, if you’d like to shop for European bras, you’ll need to find your “sister size” and shop accordingly!] I am such a perfectionist with all my ladies I only want what is best for you all so everyone can look amazing every day and feel amazing too no matter what you wear too.
There you go! Bra fitting advice from an expert — and someone who literally changed my silhouette and my comfort level after years of ignoring bra issues. If you still aren’t comfortable going for a personal fitting, you can try the free “Third Love” app, which uses carefully posed selfies from your smart phone to tell your bra size. I tried it just to test what I’d already found, and it said I needed to wear a 34DD (or E). Amazing! It gets a lot of good reviews online, but many people still say it can’t replace a personal fitting. 😉
Can we get back to historical sewing now?
Okay, okay! So how does this relate to fitting Regency short stays? It all goes back to the band-to-cup ratio. Having learned all this about fitting myself, the lightbulb went on, and I realized the “band” on my short stays is definitely too big for most ladies. I already mention on the pattern sheet that ladies with an “A” cup have to cut out a size smaller than called for, but this is actually true for almost all cup sizes. I am working on resizing the pattern pieces now and adding at least one new size. However, until that is finished, all you need to do is cut out your toile one size smaller than you measure for, then cut your gussets a cup size above what you usually wear. For example, if you measure for a size 14 and wear a B cup, cut a 12 and use the C gussets. This will result in stays that fit more firmly around the ribcage below the bust and a better “shelf” for the bust in the gussets. Don’t skip the toile fitting step, as you’ll still need to make personal adjustments for your own unique shape. When you make the final set of stays, run a drawstring through the top binding as well as the bottom, because that will give you even more support in the gussets. I think these changes are going to yield in better fits for all and less frustration! It has certainly worked that way for me, and I’m really glad to find you can still teach an old dog new tricks.
Thanks for going with me through this interesting journey into “unmentionables!” I hope you enjoy finding your perfect size and feel greater comfort and support as a result, whether you are dressing for the late 18th century, the 1950s, or the 2000s!